SHAFAQNA – ‘They came to see us, they sympathized with us, but there was not any big change,’ said mosque official Boufeldja Benabdallah.
After a gunman killed six worshippers inside a Quebec City mosque in January, the outpouring of support for the Muslim community was immediate. The attack would be “a turning point” in the strained relationship between Quebec and its Muslim minority, Premier Philippe Couillard promised.
“Let us think about Quebecers of the Muslim faith, our fellow citizens,” Couillard said at a vigil the night after the attack. “It must be said again: We are all Quebecers. The whole world is watching us.”
But the ensuing nine months have seriously undercut Couillard’s message of inclusiveness, and Muslim leaders are left wondering when the promised change will come.
On Wednesday, the Liberal majority passed into law Bill 62, which singles out the small number of Muslim women who wear face-covering niqabs or burkas and bans them from receiving government services, right down to a bus ride or a library card.
“Rather than facilitating inclusion, this legislation excludes citizens from the public sphere, it reinforces the marginalization of Canadian Muslims, and it risks emboldening those seeking to sow division and hatred between Canadians,” Eve Torres of the National Council of Canadian Muslims said in reaction.
On the same day, the government significantly diluted a consultation into systemic racism that had been sought by Muslims and other Quebec minorities to examine barriers they face in employment, health care and the justice system. The backtrack came after opposition parties complained the exercise would amount to putting Quebecers “on trial” for racism.
And in Quebec City, the provincial politicians who had such inspiring messages in the aftermath of the Jan. 29 shootings fell silent as the nearby town of St-Apollinaire held a divisive referendum last July on permitting the region’s first Muslim cemetery. The cemetery project was defeated.
In the meantime, the Islamic Cultural Centre where Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti were shot while praying continues to receive hateful messages, as it did before the attack.
In July, a package arrived at the mosque containing a copy of the Qur’an, its cover slashed where the name of Allah was written in Arabic. The package also held a photo of a pig sty with the message that Muslims could bury their dead there. Nerves were further rattled in August when a car belonging to the mosque’s president was set on fire in his driveway. Last month, police arrested two suspects in what they said was a hate crime targeting Muslims.
In an interview this week, the cultural centre’s vice-president and co-founder, Boufeldja Benabdallah, said he is “very, very disappointed” with the nature of the political debate since the shootings. “They came to see us, they sympathized with us, but there was not any big change,” he said.
Instead of analyzing what is preventing Muslim immigrants from getting hired, said Benabdallah, the politicians seem obsessed with the hijab, the niqab and the burkini.
“Stop talking only about the veil, the veil, the veil and move onto questions of substance,” he said.
Haroun Bouazzi’s hope that the bloodshed would provoke a shift among the political class was dashed.
“The politicians are continuing with the old debate that has been going on in Quebec for the last 10 years. The debate is still how many rights should we take away from religious minorities, not how to get equality for them,” said Bouazzi, co-president of the Association of Muslims and Arabs for a Secular Quebec.
At a funeral service for the six victims, imam Hassan Guillet called their accused killer, Alexandre Bissonnette, a victim, postulating that his mind had been infected by the discourse around Muslims. “Day after day, week after week, month after month, certain politicians unfortunately, and certain reporters unfortunately, and certain media were poisoning our atmosphere,” Guillet said.
Guillet said this week that there has been an improvement in how Quebec politicians and media discuss the Muslim community. “The media are more inclined to call,” he said. “Before the 29th of January they were talking about us, but they were not talking to us.” But more needs to be done. “We don’t want another manipulated person to fall victim to hate,” he said.
Muslim leaders are alarmed by the rise of an anti-immigrant far-right fringe in Quebec City that claims to be defending Quebec heritage. Members of one such group, La Meute, were active in the campaign against the Muslim cemetery.
Guillet said the “silent majority” that opposes racism can no longer stand on the sidelines as it did during the cemetery debate. “We have to stop being silent. We have to be more and more vocal,” he said.
Benabdallah, though disappointed by the politicians, is heartened by what he sees in the streets of the city he has called home since immigrating from Algeria 48 years ago. He recounted an incident this week when he was at a gas station with a Muslim friend when a Québécois stranger came over to shake their hands.
“He said, ‘I have not forgotten what happened. Know you have my sympathy,’ ” Benabdallah said. “The ordinary people who live peaceful lives, they were affected (by the killings.) They want their society to be inclusive. I feel that. That is the beautiful side.”