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Quebec media, politicians express regret over Islam rhetoric in wake of mosque attack

Azzedine Najd, right, and his wife Fadwa Achmaoui look at a memorial near the site of a fatal shooting at the Centre culturel islamique de Québec on Tuesday.

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

The massacre at a Quebec City mosque has provoked soul searching and regret in the province's political and media class over their overheated rhetoric and frequent failure to draw a clear line between Islamist extremists and ordinary Muslims.

Those expressions of remorse were generally appreciated, but many Muslims received them with a dollop of skepticism.

Six men were killed and 19 others injured Sunday night in an attack on the Centre culturel islamique de Québec that the province's Public Security Minister described Tuesday as an act of terror. Four men remain in hospital with two of them in critical condition. Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, is charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder.

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Acquaintances say the suspect adhered to extreme anti-immigration and anti-Islam views. Taking care to point out heated debate and even extreme opinions shouldn't be blamed for mass murder, Premier Philippe Couillard pushed Tuesday for greater understanding and careful choice of words in a province frequently inflamed over the place of religion, especially Islam.

"Every society has to deal with demons," Mr. Couillard said in his fifth plea in 48 hours for conciliation. "Our society is not perfect; none is. These demons are named xenophobia, racism, exclusion. They are present here. We need to recognize that and act together to show the direction we want our society to evolve.

"Words can hurt. Words can be knives slashing at people's consciousness."

Many places in North America have a problem with Islamophobia but few have given the dominant place Quebec has to public debate over Islam. Over a decade, a public inquiry was held and reports shelved on religious accommodation. Elections were fought over it. Laws have been drafted, debated and (mostly) died on the order paper. News media regularly fill airwaves and websites with sensational headlines about scandals ranging from controversial Islamic books in university libraries to special public pool times for female religious swimmers to halal or kosher meals at public institutions.

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Each time Muslims are mostly bystanders as their place in society is batted around. They account for just over 3.1 per cent of Quebec's population. About 2,000 of them live in Quebec City, population 805,000.

"We've breached a barrier that we never thought would happen in Quebec. Someone fuelled by hate shot several people," said Hakim Merdassi, a member of Quebec City's Tunisian association. "Will this act lead to some kind of collective looking-out for one another? I wish it would. But my fear is that we'll fall into the same identity politics and divisions we've seen in the past."

Selma Yahiaoui, a daycare operator who emigrated from Algeria in 2005, hopes non-Muslims learn the dangers of generalization from the shooting.

"I will never say 'Quebeckers, they're all like that' because of what happened Sunday. Never," said Ms. Yahiaoui, who was in the mosque with her husband during the attack. "I will never say 'They're all terrorists.' I will never say 'They're all racists.' I will never put them all in the same basket."

Across the province, political operators and media stars offered a range of regrets and conciliatory statements for their failure to take into account the weight carried by their constant analysis of the faith, practices and extremist fringes of Islam dating back more than 10 years.

Journal de Montréal columnist Lise Ravary wrote she has come to realize many citizens fail to catch the nuance between extremism and simple religious devotion in her writing as she has argued for a more secular state.

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Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée admitted he has gone too far sometimes. His party long pushed for legislation that would limit religious accommodation in the province and restrict religious symbols and clothing in interactions with the state. Mr. Lisée once warned the burka – a head-to-toe covering some Muslim women wear – is a security risk because it could conceal firearms for a terrorist attacker.

"It wasn't a good idea to bring that idea into the Quebec debate," Mr. Lisée told reporters Tuesday. "It's not easy to be Muslim in the 21st century. We could turn down our language while still debating our values."

The Bloc Québécois federal party quietly took down an ad from the 2015 election that depicted a niqab – an all-covering black Muslim veil – transforming into a puddle of oil.

As for "radio poubelle" or "trash radio" as critics call it, Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume said the province must "reject … those who enrich themselves with hatred."

One emotional talk radio host in the city admitted Tuesday to an airwave obsession with radical Islam and expressed his shame that his address book was empty when he needed to talk to local Muslim citizens. "I don't think a week passes that I don't talk about their religion, about radical Islam. When I wanted to talk to our own [Muslim] people, I figured out we don't know any. We didn't have a number," said Sylvain Bouchard, morning host on FM93. Mr. Bouchard is far from the meanest host on Quebec City airwaves, and several of his competitors angrily denied going too far.

Muslims in Quebec City and across the province were buoyed by large public rallies of support in recent days but they wonder how much the public debate can change.

"Trash radio constantly wants to talk about Islam and it does us immense harm. We are a small community here and huge numbers of people listen to that radio. They see us, they don't talk to us, they think we're monsters," said Yassin Boulnemour, a friend and co-worker of Abdelkrim Hassane, a 41-year-old father of two who was killed in the attack. "If you want to show us your solidarity, stop listening to the radio."

Majdi Dridi, an organizer with the Quebec arm of the Muslim Association of Canada, said he hopes authorities will take more seriously routine acts of hate and Islamophobia the community encounters. "It's time now to find our points of commonality instead of talking about differences and how to accommodate them."

Not all of the political and media actors are ready to forget about their agenda for limiting the place of Islam in the public sphere. Bernard Drainville, the former PQ member cabinet minister who in 2013 drafted the failed charter of values that would have limited religious dress in the public service among other measures, took to his current TV and radio commenting gigs to say the debate must go on – after a respectful pause.

With reports from Verity Stevenson in Quebec City, Nicolas Van Praet in Montreal and Eric Andrew-Gee in Toronto

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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