Slayings in Quebec mosque, words are weapons too

Ottawa demo against Islamophobia on Feb. 4. Photo by Dennis Gruending
Ottawa demo against Islamophobia on Feb. 4. Photo by Dennis Gruending

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.

Toxic sentiment

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, niq?b 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.

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

3 thoughts on “Slayings in Quebec mosque, words are weapons too”

  1. “Words can be knives.”
    I look through history in Canada and we have been guilty of this many times. One just has to look at the different times when there was an emergency somewhere in the world. The Irish immigrants from the Potatoe Famine for instance. The people trying to escape Serfdom and religious hate in the Russian Empire. The people escaping almost the same thing in the Austrain-Hungarian Empire. The people from Asia looking for a better life. The Displaced Persons after WW II. The Hungarians after the failed revolution. The Vietnamese, Chileans, Central Americans….etc.
    Each group faced hatred coming to Canada. From name calling, profiling, head taxes, government backing out of land deals, religious persecution, interment camps,…etc. You’d think we would’ve learned something of our past. The amazing part is to see people, whose ancestors faced this hatred, promoting this hatred. I tell people what their ancestors went through but it’s like they think they’re entitled. That their ancestors were different some how.
    When I see articles written that are just a pack of lies. This is not fake news sites. One the worst articles was in the Toronto Star. Printing false claims about monies available for immigrants and seniors. This article is used over and over by the haters. False reports on how much aid Canada gives the Third World.
    Some how we have to stop these people and their false views. I’ve seen totally pragmatic people turned by this hate campaign.

  2. dennis: this poem was written after the Quebec shootings. I thought I’d share it:
    Joe

    Porous Border

    When the President said
    all borders were closed
    to those who pose a threat,
    hate dressed itself in white –
    gun violence beneath its coat,
    alternate facts tucked in its hat.
    Smiling to distract the guards –
    borders being porous for passports
    of those who look like this –
    hate seeped into the mind
    of a young man
    who stepped into a mosque
    to murder
    people at prayer.

    It was the blast of the gun,
    that startled love
    to wake from its winter sleep,
    placing candles and flowers
    in the snow.
    Frosted air
    rising like prayers.
    Chorus of deep freeze crunch
    under boots on the move
    signalling solidarity.
    Compassion chased away
    the infiltrator in their midst,
    insisting hate never
    cross the border again.

    It was then
    the people looked
    into their own hearts,
    to ask themselves –
    how did it get
    this far in? Suzanne Doerge

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