We are heartsick about the killing of six men and the injury of several others in a Quebec City mosque on Jan 29. Those who were shot and killed as they prayed were Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane and Azzedine Soufiane Aboubaker Thabti. A 27-year-old Laval University student, Andre Bissonnette, has been charged with six counts of murder and others of attempted murder.
In response to this horrific event, a number of things have stood out starkly. One was the graciousness — and even the forgiveness — exhibited by leaders of Quebec’s Muslim community. Another was the expression of solidarity by thousands who attended funeral services for the slain men in Montreal and Quebec City. Those of us in other cities and towns across the country also attended silent vigils and subsequent demonstrations against Islamophobia. Thirdly, compassionate leadership was displayed by numerous political leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and the mayors of Quebec’s two largest cities.
An imam’s compassion
Most impressive with their compassion and lucidity, however, were the remarks of Imam Hassan Guillet, who spoke on behalf of the Quebec’s council of imams. Naming each of the victims, he said that they chose Canada and Quebec as the place where they wanted to live, to raise their families and to contribute to the community. “The society that could not protect them and the society that could not benefit from their generosity still has a chance,” Guillett said. “The hands that didn’t shake [their] hand, that society can shake the hands of their kids. We have 17 orphans. We have six widows. We have five wounded.” Acknowledging Bissonnette, he added: “Alexandre, before being a killer, he was a victim, himself. Before planting his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets in his head.”
Couillard made much the same point, saying that “when I say that words matter, it means that words can hurt; words can be knives slashing at people’s consciousness.” He urged politicians, journalists and members of the public to “think twice” about the words that they use.
Bissonnette is apparently an admirer of Marie Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate in France, and of U.S. President Donald Trump. But he didn’t have to go abroad to ingest a toxic dose of anti-Muslim sentiment. That has regularly been provided by talk show hosts and columnists much closer to home. And in the aftermath of the mosque shootings, only a few politicians and journalists have expressed remorse over what they have previously said and done.
There have been heated controversies for years in Quebec over Muslim immigration and accommodation, so much so that the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in was appointed to look into the matter. The commission’s report Building the Future was released in 2008 after months of testimony at public hearings and it took an accommodating approach.
In 2013 the Parti Québécois introduced a bill called the Quebec Charter of Values that would have forbade people working in public institutions from wearing clothing or accessories of a religious nature, the hijab, niqāb and also turbans. It was widely interpreted as being aimed at Muslims. The party campaigned on that Liberals own the election and the bill died
At the national level, the federal Conservatives, desperate to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the 2015 election, also targeted Muslims, promising to ban the wearing of face coverings at citizenship ceremonies and, in mid-campaign, promising to set up a snitch line on “barbaric cultural practices.” The Conservatives lost the election but similar issues have carried over into the current Conservative leadership race, particularly in the campaigns of Kellie Leitch and Stephen Delany.
Words do matter
We can — and do — have open debates about immigration and accommodation. Still, there’s no justification for any politician, journalist or private citizen to peddle hatred, fear and conspiracy theories about our new neighbours. Guillet and Couillard are correct. Words matter. They can unite and heal us as much as they can harm us. So it’s up to everyone to use them well.