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Symbolic Action Doesn’t Address Canada’s Islamophobia

January 29 marked the fifth anniversary of the 2017 Quebec City Mosque shooting, when an armed white nationalist killed six Muslim men – Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Abdelkrim Hassane, and Azzedine Soufiane – after evening prayers in the Islamic Cultural Centre of Sainte-Foy. While Simon Kennedy, Deputy Registrar General of Canada, proclaimed January 29 as the “National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action Against Islamophobia” in 2021, the Canadian government has yet to take tangible action against Islamophobia. Despite publicly denouncing Islamophobia, federal and provincial governments continue to sustain it, both through overt legislation and in covert refusals to challenge white supremacy.

Islamophobic violence has been intensifying in Canada over the past few decades, with more Muslims being targeted in hate crimes here in the past five years than in any other G7 country. After 9/11, the war on terror and the ensuing military invasion of Afghanistan laid the foundation for both a normative and legal context of Islamophobia in Canadian society. Since then, outright Islamophobic violence has steadily risen: between 2012 and 2015, hate crimes against Muslims in Canada increased by a staggering 253 per cent, and averaged at 140 incidents per year between 2018 and 2020.

While the process by which Muslims are dehumanized in Canadian society was first codified in Canada’s post-9/11 policies and the war on terror, it has persisted purposefully unchecked. Islamophobic violence has always occurred against a backdrop of systemic othering wherein Muslims are consistently located as a threat to Canada’s national character. Canada is host to vast networks of white supremacist groups unified by a staunchly anti-immigrant and Islamophobic ideology. These networks commonly promote conspiracy theories about Muslims challenging “Canadian values” – effectively an implicit way to say that Muslims threaten the presumed whiteness of Canada. This white supremacist rhetoric is overtly visible in both of Canada’s most recent instances of mass Islamophobic violence – the 2017 Quebec Mosque shooting and the 2021 London van attack, where four members of the Pakistani-Canadian Afzaal family were murdered because of their religion. In both cases, the perpetrators were found to frequently hold interest in white nationalist sites and personalities that demonized Muslim immigration and Islam.

It took the federal government four years to declare January 29 the National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action Against Islamophobia, which has been criticized on the grounds that it is a largely symbolic action. When the federal government announced this January that a special representative on combating Islamophobia was to be appointed, these criticisms remained the same: Nusaiba Al-Azem, the vice-chair of the London Muslim Mosque, said that she was “tired of empty promises after tragedy.” The Canadian government is content to provide mere condolences to victims of Islamophobic violence in lieu of taking concrete action that addresses the roots of such violence.

A significant reason for Canada’s unresponsiveness to widespread Islamophobia lies in the hypocrisy of the state itself. While it is important to acknowledge that perpetrators of Islamophobic violence are motivated by white supremacy, Canada continues to frame it as a matter of interpersonal extremism and hate rather than a result of state practices that encourage the devaluation of Muslim life. As Al-Azem said, “Islamophobia doesn’t start with a man shooting at a Mosque – it starts in the classroom, in the workplace, on the streets, at the dinner table and in the legislature.”

Quebec’s Bill 21, which looks to ban public servants from wearing religious symbols, is a glaring example of the legal devaluation of Muslim life. While Legault has repeatedly defended Bill 21, many agree that it explicitly targets Muslim women. This can be seen in the recent removal of Quebec teacher Fatemeh Anvari from the classroom for wearing a hijab – while Bill 21 uses the pretext of “secularism” to justify its ban on religious symbols, it has had a disproportionate impact on Muslim women. Quebec’s excuse of “secularism” can be explicitly connected to the white supremacist and xenophobic rhetoric that positions Muslim existence as an inherent threat to the purported “Canadian value” of secularism. Notably, at the forefront of calls made by the Quebec Muslim community during the week of January 29 was the need to change Bill 21 so as to end its targeting of Muslim women. Leaders like Legault continue to display the worst kind of hypocrisy: while he attends the vigils for victims of Islamophobic violence, he actively enshrines Islamophobia within Quebec’s legal system.

Elected officials continue to offer vague acknowledgments of the existence of Islamophobia in Canada while ignoring their own role in encouraging Islamophobic violence. This year’s National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action Against Islamophobia was largely overshadowed in the public consciousness by the white supremacist “Freedom Convoy.” Due to the convoy’s ties to anti-immigrant and Islamophobic organizations on the far-right, the Ottawa vigil to mark the fifth anniversary of the Quebec Mosque shooting was cancelled. Trudeau’s appointment of a special representative on combating Islamophobia was followed by his refusal to properly respond to the large-scale mobilization of white supremacists across Canada, once again revealing the inadequacy of symbolic gestures of support.

The reality is that Canada is premised on white supremacy – leaders attempt to obscure their role in this through largely symbolic actions while continuing to encourage and even formally legislate Islamophobia. Sign petitions from the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the World Sikh Organization calling on the Quebec government to denounce and amend Bill 21. Another petition invites the House of Commons to recognize that religiously extremist individuals seen as violent and threatening by society are not representative of Islam and its values. Support organizations like the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, McGill Against Bill 21, Justice Femme, and the Fondation Paroles des femmes.