Canadian Muslims relive fear and despair of Québec shooting post New Zealand mosque attacks

29th Mar 2019
Canadian Muslims relive fear and despair of Québec shooting post New Zealand mosque attacks

Memorial for victims of the Québec mosque shooting on January 29, 2017
(Photo: Renaud Philippe/AA)

Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto

“No one should be this afraid,” reflected Amira Elghawaby, a Canadian journalist and leading commentator on the Muslim community after waking up to the news on the attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, where 50 worshippers were killed in two mosques, and 50 more were left injured.

“Would families attend Friday prayers today? Even if I had planned to go [to Friday prayers] I would now be too afraid,” she wrote in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. “I worried for those who would attend, refusing to let such violent hatred stop them from practising their faith.”

Elghawaby’s renewed sense of fear to attend her local mosque echoes those of many other Muslims. For Canadians, they had a terrible resonance. Only two years ago, six worshippers were killed and 19 others were injured when white supremacist Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Québec City just after evening prayers. More so, the guns and equipment used by the killer in Christchurch were decorated with the names of several violent white supremacists, including Bissonnette.

The inscriptions also contained the UN’s’ compact on migration, of which Ottawa is an honorary signature – and which has been hotly opposed to in Canada by right-wing political groups and white supremacists alike on the grounds that being a signatory would mean that ‘foreign entities’ would be able to dictate Canadian immigration policies.

Experts on anti-Muslim discrimination have noted the ideological link between the two killers.
“What is terrorism? What makes something fall under terrorism? It’s when you are following a wider ideology that other people are part of,” Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a researcher at McMaster University, told CP24. “And he [the Christchurch killer] was part of one. To pose a 75-page manifesto before the attack and to use social media to spread his message of hate? That is a wide network.”

“We should start viewing it as terrorism – and start looking at Alexander Bissonnette as terrorism as well,” she added. The use of the word ‘terrorism’ by authorities in New Zealand to formally describe charges laid against defendants like Brenton Tarrant, the accused killer in Christchurch, touches a raw nerve among some Canadian academics and lawyers who criticised prosecutors for not charging Bissonnette under the terrorism provision of the Criminal Code of Canada. Bissonnette pleaded guilty last year to charges of murder and attempted murder and was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole for 40 years.

Online hate

Canada has long seen a trend of a developing extreme right-wing movement. In the hours after the attacks in Christchurch, the Royal Canadian Mountain Police revealed that online threats had been made against an Alberta mosque, with some Facebook users calling for the Markaz Ul Islam mosque to be blown up. Another member of the Yellow Vests Canada group on Facebook called for the mosque to “have a pig roast on opening day.”

More recently, police in the Ontario city of Hamilton said they were investigating a former mayoral candidate Paul Fromm for a possible hate crime after the manifesto written by the Christchurch killer was posted to a Fromm-affiliated website.

Fromm is the Director of the Canadian Association for Free Expression and the Canada First Immigration Reform Committee, as well as a supporter of his local Yellow Vest group.
Emerging late last year, the Yellow Vest movement in Canada is considerably smaller compared to France. The group is largely mobilised through social media, and their protest slogans range from opposition to the carbon tax and delays in pipeline construction, to Canada’s signing of the UNs’ compact on migration.

Its members are often given airtime on Rebel Media, a far-right Canadian political and social commentary site that once employed Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the white-nationalist English Defence League.

But to many Canadians, including right-wing voters, Rebel Media and the affiliated groups and individuals it has long given a platform to (to speak about “the genocide of whites” among other things) have long been an outlier.

Incidents like the Québec City shooting, the rise of hate crimes against Muslims and the presence of Yellow Vest and other protest movements, however, have reflected its growing prominence and traction in mass media.

 

Political scrutiny

It’s a worrying trend for Canadian Muslims, particularly in an election year. Andrew Scheer, the country’s Conservative Opposition leader, has faced heavy criticism by journalists for being interviewed by Rebel Media, appearing to participate in yellow vest protests and more recently, delivering a statement after the Christchurch attacks that condemned its killer – but failed to mention Muslims were the victims of terror.

“Freedom has come under attack in New Zealand as peaceful worshippers are targeted in a despicable act of evil. All people must be able to practice their faith freely and without fear,” he tweeted the day after the shooting.

“There are no words strong enough to condemn this kind of vile hatred. I am praying for peace for the families of those lost and recovery for those injured.” Hours later, Scheer issued a new statement that said his Conservative Party was “grieving” with the Muslim community, the National Observer reported. In contrast, Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, spoke of the “small, toxic segments” of society that spew the notion that diversity is a weakness.

“We see it here in Canada – in online harassment, anonymous letters, defaced places of worship, acts of violence and even murder. When we fail to denounce hatred with total conviction, we empower those people and legitimize their violence,” he said. “Hate has no place anywhere. We must all confront Islamophobia and work to create a world in which all people — no matter their faith, where they live, or where they were born — can feel safe and secure.”

 

‘Left with nothing’

But some Muslims received Trudeau’s response to the attacks in New Zealand with scepticism too. Imam Ibrahim Hindy, who serves at a mosque in Mississauga, Ontario, and has a large following on social media, cautioned Canadians between drawing too many parallels between the leadership of New Zealand, Jacinda Adern, in the face of the terrorist attacks with that of Trudeau.

“After the Québec mosque shootings, Justin Trudeau also said all the right things,” said Hindy. “But there’s been a large difference between Jacinda and Justin. But after the tears dried, and the media moved on to other stories, we — as a community — were left with nothing.”

“Of course, we had the large M-103 debates in the aftermath of the shootings,” he added, in reference to a non-binding Parliamentary motion two years ago that called for Ottawa to condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.

“The Muslim community faced assault after assault from the far-right over M-103,” Hindy said. “Some of us got death threats. More received hate mail. And what did we get for all that abuse? M-103 passed, but when it came to committee, most Liberal MPs were terrified of being associated with M103, so they backed away from being too engaged with the committee process. Meanwhile, the conservatives filled the room with highly problematic voices, and the final report was incredibly weak and flawed.”

With federal elections looming in October, it’s clear Ottawa’s political leaders will be facing intense scrutiny by Muslim and non-Muslim Canadians alike.US President, Donald Trump, “has been speaking this way for a long time,” notes Ghaffar-Siddiqui. “But right here at home, we’ve got a leader in our political universe who is aligned with right-wing ideology. Yet somehow, we’re not talking about that.”

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