Two years ago a gunman entered a mosque in Quebec City, killing six, injuring more, and traumatizing countless others.
Alexandre Bissonnette was recently sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole for 40 years. But even behind bars, he leaves a far-reaching legacy.
Serving as inspiration in the latest Islamophobic massacre, his name was written on a weapon that appears to have belonged to the Christchurch shooter. Fifty people were murdered last Friday when an Australian man, Brenton Tarrant, opened fire on worshippers in two mosques in New Zealand.
Two men, one Canadian and one Australian. Both bent on carnage. Both violators of sacred Muslim space. And both enamoured with white nationalism — a violent movement that authorities have neglected for too long.
Violence to the mind
“I don’t know why they’re targeting our community,” Kais Chaouache, who attends the Quebec City mosque, told CBC after the New Zealand shooting. “We integrate well everywhere in the world. We try to be ambassadors of peace.”
These are extraordinary words. These are the words of a human being who, under continued violence inflicted upon him and his community, feels compelled to justify his existence.
Attacks such as the one in New Zealand cause not just physical violence but also violence to the mind.
One of the authors of this piece was born to a Muslim immigrant father. In this position, it’s hard not to wonder what angry and gruesome act something as small as a last name might trigger, or whether it’s safer to deflect when too-curious strangers in too-white spaces ask, “What’s your background?” It makes it difficult not to imagine what might happen if your loved ones, celebrating a holy day, are too distracted to wonder about the sound of a door opening and boots approaching.
And of course, that is the obvious point of terrorist attacks like these: to burrow so deep into the psyche of the targeted group that home cannot feel safe.
Blaming hate crimes on the hated
In a time of mounting grief, mourning, and sorrow, the burden borne by the marginalized is made all the heavier when they are blamed for hate crimes enacted against them.
An Australian politician caused outrage when he said publicly what many say only in private settings or under cover of anonymity online.
“The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place,” said Senator Fraser Anning in a written statement.
“While Muslims may have been the victims today, usually they are the perpetrators. World-wide, Muslims are killing people in the name of their faith on an industrial scale.”
His comments have been denounced, he’s been cast as a political outlier, and in Australia — where parties create ranked lists of candidates for senate elections — he’s often depicted as a fringe candidate who slipped through with few votes when the number two candidate of One Nation, the party he was running with, was found ineligible due to citizenship issues.
But more than 250,000 people in Queensland, which Anning represents, voted for that party ticket. That’s hundreds of thousands of people in just one region of the country casting their ballots for a far-right party whose leader wants an end to Muslim immigration. “We are in danger of being swamped by Muslims who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own,” said One Nation leader Pauline Hanson in 2016.
This is the environment from which came the Christchurch shooter.
The terrorist threat within
Bissonette and Terrant are flashpoints of a violent movement finding global traction, in Canada, in Australia, in the United States, South Africa, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and more.
It’s a movement guided by hatred and fantasy, where white men imagine threats in the form of brown bodies and see themselves as victims in societies where whiteness and masculinity have long reigned supreme and continue to do so. Uncomplicated by empathy, driven by conspiracy, this movement thrives in online troll culture.
In the hazy view of the white nationalist, migrants threaten white culture, white dominance, and even the existence of whiteness itself. An end to non-white immigration is seen as the urgently needed salve for a fevered paranoia about looming replacement by people of colour. The idea of “white genocide” — the fabulation that the “white race” is dying out — has propagandist appeal but no grounding in reality.
Here in Canada, white nationalists are known to be training, moving towards paramilitary formations, and talking about an upcoming war. These are not individuals on the margins — they brag about being part of our police forces and military.
Dozens of white nationalist groups are active in Canada. Not one of them appears on a list of 55 groups currently considered terrorist by the Canadian state.
Last year “white nationalism” was finally mentioned in Public Safety Canada’s annual report on terrorism, but the term appeared just once, in a section about right-wing extremism. “While racism, bigotry, and misogyny may undermine the fabric of Canadian society, ultimately they do not usually result in criminal behavior or threats to national security,” says the report.
This hardly sounds like a government with a serious interest in quelling a growing white nationalist movement.
What we need now is to collectively realize that the greatest threat of violence comes not from outside, from migrants crossing borders in search of life, but from a web of groups unified by a dangerous doctrine flourishing here at home. Authorities must not only identify and track white nationalist groups but also recognize the terrorist ideology that animates them.