We know that a Trump-supporting, far-right student was directly responsible for the horrific act of murder committed against six innocent Quebecers as they bowed their heads in prayer last Sunday evening.
Thanks to La Presse, we also know the sorts of details about his youth that North American media only seem to deem worthy of reporting when a perpetrator of mass violence is white: he was badly bullied and faced intense social exclusion.
There is a lot of speculation about who he is and why he committed the massacre. These questions need to be answered, for it is Alexandre Bissonnette and he alone who is directly responsible for this act.
However, if we are serious as a society about stopping this kind of horror, we need to not limit our inquiry to the perpetrator. We need to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves what kind of society would produce a person capable of such an act in the first place.
Demonizing the vulnerable
While the shooter’s precise motives remain unknown, we do know that for at least a decade a large segment of Quebec's political class has engaged in an overt campaign to demonize one of the province’s most vulnerable minority groups, and we the citizens of Quebec have for the most part sat by passively, allowing this vile xenophobia to take up more and more space in our public discourse.
While the steady stream of hatred spewing from Quebec's right-wing talk radio shows, known as radio poubelle (trash radio), is a heavy contributor to the mainstreaming of Islamophobic hatred in Quebec, perhaps no media outlet has done more to promote hatred toward the Muslim community than the Journal de Montreal and its affiliates. Far too often, the Journal has published stories attempting to sensationalize every request for reasonable accommodation of religious minorities as an attack on Quebec values. Muslims are portrayed as a monolithic group of freedom-hating extremists that the good people of Quebec need to watch out for.
The Journal de Montreal has also regularly published articles and opinion pieces that in various ways raise the spectre of the Islamicization of Quebec society. The suggestion is that accommodating Muslims is the first step in transforming the province into some kind of Islamic state with Sharia law.
The notion of Quebec society somehow being taken over by one of its most maligned religious minorities, who represent a mere 1.5 per cent of its population, defies logic, to say the least. But this is not about speaking to people's sense of reason, it’s about speaking to their emotions and specifically their fear.
A few memorable cover page headlines include the Journal de Quebec's hysterical and utterly misleading "NOUS MANGEONS TOUS HALAL" (We are all eating halal) and the Journal de Montreal's ominous front-page warning "DES RÉSEAUX ISLAMISTES S'INSTALLENT EN DOUCE" (Islamist networks are quietly being put in place).
This conspiratorial belief that Muslims are secretly planning to take over Quebec society was picked up as a regular staple of the Parti Québécois during their Charter of Values crusade. But the spectre of the Islamicization of Quebec society was not only raised by the Charter's primary boosters such as Bernard Drainville, it was even bandied about by younger members of the PQ team such as former student movement leader Martine Desjardins.
If Sunday's events didn’t make it painfully clear why it is so dangerous for mainstream media and mainstream political parties to fearmonger with such nonsensical garbage, some historical perspective might be helpful. The notion that Muslims are secretly planning the takeover of Quebec society bares striking resemblance to the conspiracy theories about Jews that propelled the 20th century's anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and indeed the world over. It didn't matter that the so-called sources of these theories, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were proven to be completely fraudulent. This was about speaking to people's fears, not their reason.
Muslim-baiting as an electoral strategy
But the PQ is far from the only political party to attempt to win votes by stoking Islamophobic sentiment. The Action démocratique du Québec under Mario Dumont were the first to translate concerns over the accommodation of religious minorities (that of course focused on Muslims as the primary problem) into electoral success when the party became the official opposition in 2007.
It was this victory that caught the notice of the PQ’s neoliberal leadership. With nothing to offer the people of Quebec except more austerity, the party knew it was in trouble. Rather than abandon its neoliberal position and return to its social democratic roots, the PQ’s leadership instead decided to borrow a page from Mario Dumont’s book and attempt to win an election based on fear of others.
Despite the PQ entering the competition for xenophobic votes, the ADQ's successor, the Coalition Avenir Québec, has not abandoned these politics, joining the Harper Conservatives in promising a ban on the niqab. Although the niqab is worn by only a tiny percentage of Muslim women in Quebec, it is treated as a potential downfall of Western civilization. The real value of this issue for these parties is that it serves as a kind of dog whistle for the same old tired stereotypes of Muslim people identified by academics such as Edward Said long ago.
In the midst of his campaign to lead the PQ, Jean-Francois Lisée blew loudly on this racist dog whistle when he suggested that one reason Quebec may wish to ban the niqab was terrorists could use it to hide bombs. Despite being called out by his opponents for campaigning on fear, the PQ’s membership deemed him a suitable candidate to lead their party.
Liberal government also targets religious symbols
The Quebec Liberals too have gotten on the bandwagon. Last year the Couillard government proposed a bill mandating the religious neutrality of the state, and requiring that an individual's face remain uncovered when dispensing or receiving government services. That bill has yet to pass into law.
While they claim their much publicized efforts to fight radicalization include all forms of it, announcing this initiative as a response to the homegrown jihadist attack in Ottawa made it clear to the public who would be the primary target of anti-radicalization efforts. The fact that little has been done by the Quebec Liberals to deal with the far-right groups that are openly organizing and recruiting in the province only makes it clearer who the intended targets of this initiative were.
And while Quebec Solidaire is to be congratulated for its efforts fighting Islamophobia, as I wrote in Ricochet back in June 2015, the party’s compromise position on the Charter of Values was not much of a compromise. Instead of banning the wearing of religious symbols for all state employees, Quebec Solidaire would ban it only for those in positions of authority such as judges, prosecutors or prison guards. Though less severe than the PQ charter, it is equally an attack on the fundamental freedoms of Quebec citizens who practise a faith that requires wearing what could be considered an overt religious symbol. The message sent here is that little girls wearing hijabs or little boys wearing turbans or kippahs should not dream of becoming judges in Quebec. The message is of second-class citizenship. If Quebec Solidaire wants to be taken seriously as a party of inclusion, this policy needs to change.
The only party in Quebec that has been both outspoken and consistent in its opposition to Islamophobia has been the Quebec Green Party. Sadly, it is not represented in the National Assembly.
When Richard Henry Bain committed his horrific act on the eve of the PQ’s 2012 victory, I thought about the posts I had seen from my fellow anglophones in the weeks prior. Social media was full of images of PQ leader Pauline Marois with a Hitler mustache and all sorts of over-the-top rhetoric whose aim was not to criticize PQ policy, but to demonize its leadership as somehow equivalent to a man who murdered over 10 million people. While none of these people were directly responsible for Bain’s actions, I couldn’t help feeling that the culture of irrational hysteria they participated in certainly contributed to the unhinging of a man who was already clearly unstable.
I have very similar feelings right now. When Quebec’s largest media empire and every party in the National Assembly are to varying degrees sending Quebecers the message that Muslims are to be so feared that we should consider taking away their fundamental rights, should we be at all surprised that an unstable person from Quebec’s political fringe decides to act violently on those fears?
We have all allowed xenophobic attitudes to take up more and more space in Quebec’s public discourse. We are now painfully aware of the fetid fruit this yields. Whether we are sovereignists, federalists or undecided, it’s time for us all to push back against this ignorant nonsense and forcefully stand up for a truly inclusive Quebec society where the fundamental rights of minority groups are never put in question.