By Barâa Arar

Between the mass mosque shooting and the recent passing of Law 62, Quebec’s Muslim community has had a particularly rough year.

On January 29 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette fired on innocent worshipper

The author at a spoken-word performance. Credit: Rhiana Chinapen
The author at a spoken-word performance.
Credit: Rhiana Chinapen

s at a mosque in Québec City; he killed six men. As a Muslim, I could not help but be glued to the news coverage. I stayed up reading Twitter updates. Members of the Muslim community, and Canada at large, waited eagerly for reactions from our elected officials.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s official statement read: “Make no mistake — this was a terrorist attack.” Social and mainstream media alike fixated on Trudeau’s categorization. The very fact people were surprised and even commended Trudeau on the use of this label is revealing — such a title is usually reserved for non-white attackers. We are so used to the terrorist label with Middle Eastern or South Asian attackers that its application elsewhere is otherwise noteworthy.

Regardless of Trudeau’s choice to brand the event as a terror attack, Bissonnette will not be prosecuted under anti-terrorism legislation — laws passed hastily post-9/11 to comfort Canadians with the promise of law and order. These laws are not only redundant to the existing Criminal Code of Canada but they are controversial because of their disappropriate indictment of Muslim suspects.

When white Canadians like Justin Bourque or Randall Shepherd went on rampages or planned mass shootings, they were framed as mentally disturbed and not charged with terrorism — despite being motivated by supremacist and anti-government ideologies. Meanwhile, despite their psychological problems, Abdulahi Hasan Sharif and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s killings were blamed on their Islamic beliefs — and they were labelled and charged as terrorists.

Fast forward to early autumn. The Québec national assembly passes Bill 62 — legislation that bans reception and delivery of public services with a covered face. This law clearly targets Muslim women who wear the niqab — a full body and face covering worn by some Muslim women.

Bill 62 cannot be abstracted from the province’s repeatedly antagonistic relationship with its Muslim population. I do not mean to suggest there is a direct relationship between the Québec mosque mass shooting and Bill 62. However, they do make for a sinister pairing — the one an extreme example of the rise in Islamophobic behaviours in Québec, the other demonstrating the top-down legitimization of such actions through law.

The sympathies, thoughts and prayers we heard from politicians of all levels of government alike after the Québec attack are revealed as platitudes in the wake of  Bill 62 passing into law. Think of Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard’s notable words to the Muslim community after the tragedy: “We are with you; this is your home, we are all Québecers,” Couillard’s words are meaningless if his party passes such clearly discriminatory policies within the same year.

Bill 62 is barely watered-down vestige of the Québec Charter of Values, first introduced by Pauline Marois’ Parti Québecois in 2014. The legislation this time around might be branded differently. However, the Islamophobic effects are comparable.

I am not trying to suggest governments and legislation create racism; instead, insofar they are authoritative, they amplify Islamophobic sentiments and behaviours on the ground. Québec’s Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée’s inability to clarify the logistics of the law reveals the true intention of the legislation: it continues to place Muslims under the microscope to appease Québec’s history of insecurity with minorities.

I am a Muslim woman who wears the hijab — a headscarf worn by some Muslim women which does not cover the face like the niqab. I do not live in Québec. So I have no reason to be worried, right? Yet although I might not fall under the legal scope of the new legislation, I feel targeted. The state’s rules sanction action on the ground, even if implicitly.

If the government begins to police the choices of women who cover their face, why should certain citizens not feel sanctioned in their own anti-Muslim behaviour? If a government opens a door to some interference, it has cranked the floodgates of interference all the way. That’s simply the nature of state interference with the personal choices of its citizens.

In a clean sound bite, Trudeau told journalists the state should not interfere with women’s choice of dress. His statement sends an important message, but his party has taken no public action against this interference.

Trudeau’s statement is also reductive. The niqab is more than simply clothing — it is tied up with identity, culture and politics. States have historically abused their power to scrutinize women’s bodies for political gain.

The history of the coerced unveiling of Muslim women can be traced to colonial efforts in the Middle East from the nineteenth century. In the sixties, the French colonial regime orchestrated mass unveiling campaigns in Algeria to supposedly emancipate women from their traditional body covering the haik. But these actions were primarily interested in destabilizing Algerian sense of self, not in the enfranchisement of women. It was politics at the cost of women. As a matter of fact, these laws only pushed women further into the private sphere because they limited access to public opportunities and created displacement.  

In the same vein, the new legislation in Québec extends beyond clothing choices — it restricts access to simple services, it stifles mobility, it limits employment opportunities. Bill 62 targets already marginalized communities such as single mothers and those who depend on social welfare support. The law’s elitist edge means women who need to use public transportation or who qualify to be early childhood educators  (public  servants in Québec) now face the challenging question — do they feed their family or to adhere to their faith?

At the vigil on Parliament Hill in January, many allies hugged me, speechless, unable to fully express their sympathies for the mass murder of six Muslim men.

If you too find yourself speechless, confused and hope to take action, I suggest you display your solidarity in these ways. Find books written by Muslim women, follow activist Muslim women on social media, and support known Muslim business. If you see a Muslim woman targeted on the bus, and feel safe to do so, take a seat next to her.

These are small gestures, yet undoubtedly meaningful. Small gestures of support are the grassroot ways we dismantle top down-approaches to anti-Muslim rhetoric — perhaps gradually — but surely.

Immediately after the Québec mosque shooting, Premier Couillard urged politicians to think twice about their rhetoric because “words can be knives.” I urge him and his cabinet to take their own advice and recognize the legitimacy their legislation bestows on racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic rhetoric at the cost of the vulnerable.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 3 (Nov/Dec 2017).