Muslim leaders say Islamophobia is worse than ever in Quebec

A year after six men were gunned down in a Quebec City mosque, the city's talk radio hosts are being blamed for fueling anti-Muslim sentiment
Canadian Press

Kenza Elazzouzi has lived in Quebec City for 35 years. For the first time ever, she’s thinking about leaving.

On the night of the shooting at a Quebec City mosque a year ago today, Elazzouzi was driving to a friend’s place and heard sirens as she approached an intersection near the mosque. When she stopped, police officers blocked her way — one pointed a gun at her, telling her to stay back, she told VICE News in an interview. They were still looking for a possible second shooter.

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Around 7:45 p.m. that night, 27-year-old Laval University student Alexandre Bisonnette stormed into the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec (CCIQ) and began firing indiscriminately at the 60 or so people who were mingling after evening prayers.

Later that night, Elazzouzi held her close friend Azzedine Soufianne’s son in her arms, as he cried and wondered if his father had made it out alive. Soufiane — a father of three and a well-liked grocery store owner who loved Quebec City — was killed that night, as were Karim Hassane, Khaled Belkacemi, Ibrahima Barry, Aboubaker Thabti, and Mamadou Tanou Barry.

Nineteen other men were injured.

Bissonnette — who faces six counts each of first degree murder and attempted murder, but no terror charges — will appear in court at the end of March. While his motivations are still unclear, he was known as an internet troll who supported US President Donald Trump and was inspired by France's extreme right wing nationalists.

'IT HAS CHANGED'

“It was like a movie,” said Elazzouzi, recalling the three-bedroom apartment where 40 to 50 relatives and community members had gathered, waiting to hear whether their loved ones had made it out alive.

“If you asked me a few years ago, I’d say no way, this is Quebec City, this is a quiet city and nothing’s going on here,” she said. “Today, unfortunately, I have to say yes, it has changed. I’m sad to say it because I’m really attached to this city.”

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In 2009, Soufiane had told the Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil the same thing — that he’d never experienced any issues in over 20 years of calling Quebec his home. “We live in society, we live in peace, and we hope that it will continue like this,” he said at the time.

The victims’ shoes sit in the same spots they were left before the men started prayers for the last time, but the climate at CCIQ, the province's oldest mosque, is noticeably different now. While the community has become more resilient and closer, they’re also much more vigilant, said CCIQ board member Zeeyed Khalil.

'KILL THEM ALL'

The initial outpouring of public sympathy and solidarity has faded, say locals. Since the attack, the CCIQ has received hateful voicemails, letters, and social media messages addressed to the mosque’s administration, said Khalil. The comment sections of Quebec City’s notorious talk radio hosts’ social media pages are also breeding grounds for Islamophobia, he added.

‘One message said, ‘I wish I had a truck, and I could go kill them all,’ Khalil told VICE News.

The mosque’s doors are now locked, and worshippers need electronic keys to enter. It’s the same institution where, just months before the attack, a pig’s head was left at the front door, along with a note reading “bonne [sic] appetit.”

In July, a plan to establish the first Muslim-owned cemetery in the town of Saint-Apollinaire just outside of Quebec City, was shut down by residents. In August, two men were arrested after mosque president Mohamed Labidi’s car was torched while parked on his own driveway, just over a day after Quebec City’s Mayor Regis Labeaume brokered a deal for city land to allow that same cemetery to be built.

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Hate crimes against Muslims in Quebec City doubled in 2017, according to police, while far right groups like La Meute, whose stated mission is to combat radical Islam, became more active, organizing protests and mobilizing to shut down efforts like the cemetery, for example.

In October, Quebec’s National Assembly made it illegal for anyone providing or receiving public services to have their faces covered. The legislation has been widely criticized as specifically targeting Muslim women who wear the niqab, of whom there are likely less than 100 in the entire province.

'DISAPPOINTED'

A proposal to deem January 29 a National Day of Remembrance and Action was shut down by Quebec’s opposition parties and eventually Premier Philippe Couillard.

"I'm disappointed," Imam Hassan Guillet told Montreal newspaper Le Devoir about the proposal put forward by the National Council of Canadian Muslims. "But if it is adopted [amid] discord, quibbling and bitterness, I prefer that it not be adopted."

Elazzouzi has noticed the rising climate of distrust in her day-to-day interactions, too. She’s overheard conversations about Arabs and Muslims in public, only to be told “Oh no, not you! You’re not like that” when she’s chosen to speak up. Recently, a woman approached her group of friends outside of a coffee shop where they were smoking and asked to borrow a lighter. “You look like an Arab,” the woman said to Elazzouzi’s friend, an Algerian man, who handed it to her, before launching into a tirade about Muslim men being violent and mistreating women.

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Elazzouzi is co-hosting a vigil for the victims of the shooting happening tonight where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Couillard are expected to speak, marking the end of four days of commemorative events. She’s still hasn’t reconciled how Bissonnette could’ve opened fire on a group of innocent worshippers in the same town she loves and grew up in.

'STUPID JOKE'

Many have blamed the city’s radio poubelle, the French term for ‘trash radio’ for amplifying concerns about Muslim immigration and the threat of Islamic terrorism.

When the pig’s head was left at Quebec City mosque in 2016, FM 93's Éric Duhaime ridiculed those who called it a hate crime.

"Calm yourselves down," he said. "Where in the criminal code is it written that you don't have the right to give a pig's head … Maybe it was just a stupid joke."

Days after the shooting, host André Arthur criticized an obituary of Soufiane, because it didn’t mention his business’s health-code violations. He also suggested Labidi may have set his own car on fire to gain more public sympathy.

There’s already a growing movement in the city to fix the inflammatory programming, including CRTC complaints, and a ‘declaration for clean airwaves’ in 2015 signed by 80 unions and community groups in 2015. The website Sortons les radio-poubelles run by a coalition of community groups archives segments it deems problematic and then urges advertisers to pull their support from the stations.

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But observers say the rhetoric on the shows has gotten progressively more aggressive towards Muslims.

“A few weeks [after the shooting,] we started hearing very strange messages on talk radio, targeting our mosque, saying that our community is trying to play the role of victim and exaggerating,” said Khalil, who immediately noticed an increase in hateful comments on social media after the segments.

“Most of the journalists are good people and are very responsible, but that minority can be very harmful. We live in a democracy and the freedom of speech is respected, but what’s dangerous is that some presenters play on that fine borderline between freedom of expression and hate speech,” said Khalil. “Fragile people who are listening to your show, [there’s no] guarantee that they’ll take what you’re saying as someone just expressing their own personal point of view.”

'BUILD BRIDGES'

While there’s been increasing focus on “trash radio,” the local government’s efforts to integrate new immigrants, which have been criticized as Islamophobic and infantilizing, have gone largely unnoticed outside the province. It’s also something Elazzouzi believes is key to fixing societal divisions in Quebec.

In December, the Quebec City government developed a pamphlet meant for new immigrants to help them integrate. Along with advice on getting a driver’s license and navigating the health care system, for example, it also instructed new immigrants not to urinate in public or beat their children, and included a section on incest, advising people that ‘parent + child = illegal.” The pamphlet was leaked to media, but was never sent out publicly.

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The widows and children of the men killed last January are still figuring out how to put their lives back together and move forward. But in the midst of that, they’re calling for unity.

On the eve of the anniversary of the attack, they addressed the media from the same room where their husbands used to pray, before the mosque opened its doors to members of the public.

The hardest part is the void. The person’s absence,” said Safia Hamoudi, widow of Khaled Belkacemi, with two of her children by her side.

“Survivors of a tragedy like this one can find a way to move forward, they receive help, signs of solidarity,” she said. “But the emptiness left by the person will never be filled. That’s the hardest part. Knowing that the person will never be there to see their children grow up.”

“We must do everything we can to defeat hate and intolerance,” Hamoudi said. “We must do everything we can to build bridges and go toward each other. To look for what we have in common, rather than look for our differences.”