Days after the killing of six people at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec (CCIQ), staff member Ahmed El Refai invited the Canadian media into the Islamic center to document the untouched crime scene.
“This is very emotional for me,” stated El Refai. “I cannot describe that, because these were my friends, my brothers who were killed here.”
In a video posted by the Montreal Gazette, reporters highlight pools of dried blood covering the floor and bullet holes breaking through the walls of the mosque. El Refai gave reporters a play-by-play of how the shooter made his way through the scene.
“The gunman start[ed] by shooting two people outside the mosque…. He came from that entrance here, and the people were sitting here after the prayer. So he start[ed] shooting people—one, two, three, four…” El Refai described to Montreal Gazette reporters.
“He went to the middle of the area, and he started shooting people who were hiding in that corner over there.”
On January 29, Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old university student, opened fire at the end of the mosque’s evening prayers. Of the nearly 50 worshipers attending a service that night, six were killed, five were critically wounded, and thirty-nine managed to escape.
Bissonnette, who is known in Quebec for his anti-feminism and anti-refugee political opinions, was described as a “xenophobe” and “enthralled by a borderline racist national movement,” by his friend Vincent Boissoneault. His attachment to growing far-right political movements, especially that of France’s National Front leader and far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, appear to have motivated him as well.
In the wake of the attack, however, there is a strong sense of resilience coming from the CCIQ. As CCIQ members and supporters walked through the wreckage only three days later, they were torn between grief and a sense of duty to conquer racism.
“We’re showing these images so that people who try to sow hate and increase Islamophobia stop,” the center’s vice-president Mohamed Labidi told the Canadian Broadcast Corporation.
That day, the CCIQ posted a series of videos depicting aftermath on their Facebook page. One video, which is a silent walkthrough of the crime scene, has been viewed over 77,000 times. Its description is simple: “Découverte de la scène de crime pour la première fois par l’équipe média du CCIQ,” roughly, “Uncover the crime scene for the first time with the CCIQ media team.”
“As I said, it’s our responsibility as administration to show people, to show our community first, our Muslim community, and the Canadian community and the Québécois community, what has happened in this crime scene,” El Refai said to the National Post.
After the attack, “radio poubelle,” or “trash radio,” was put under the spotlight as a potential source of Quebec’s growing racist movement. Louis-Philippe Lampron, human rights law teacher at Laval University, explained to the Washington Post that trash radio is dangerous because it “play[s] with the line between news, opinion, and demagoguery.” With only a handful of show hosts, they monopolize the market of right-wing populist listeners.
Although there is no direct link between Bissonnette and trash radio, the pervasiveness of the xenophobic messages they spread does explain the anti-immigrant rhetoric surrounding Quebec. In fact, following the attack, a radio show host on conservative station FM93 reported that the attacker had shouted “Allahu Akbar!” during his rampage. In 2015, Dominique Payette, the director of Laval communications, wrote that trash radio stations regularly targeted Muslims, and she warned against the danger of spreading hateful rhetoric.
The mosque’s president Mohamed Yangui, who was not present at the attack, told Al Jazeera, “The neighborhood is very peaceful. We have good relationship with the government, the mayor of Quebec. We have no problem whatsoever.”
However, this is not the first Islamophobic attack the mosque has faced. Last June, during Ramadan, someone left a pig’s head on the mosque’s doorstep with a note reading “bon appetit.” Mohammed El Hafid, one of the survivors of the attack, complained that FM93 “trivialized” the incident and pleaded to trash radio stations to “stop messages of hatred and intolerance.”
According to the Washington Post, unlike other Canadian cities such as Toronto and Montreal, Quebec City is disproportionately white and Catholic. Despite a recent growth in its Muslim population due to government encouragement of francophone African immigration, the city still struggles with “reasonable accommodation” of immigrants and religious minorities. Furthermore, a 2016 survey by Forum Research uncovered that 48 percent of those surveyed saw Muslims in a negative light, and Muslims were the most racially targeted minorities in Quebec.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the attack on Twitter and in a statement to the House of Commons declared, “This was a group of innocents targeted for practicing their faith. Make no mistake. This was a terrorist attack.”
Tonight, Canadians grieve for those killed in a cowardly attack on a mosque in Quebec City. My thoughts are with victims & their families.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 30, 2017
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard tweeted, “The #Quebec rejects categorically this barbaric violence. All our solidarity to the families of the victims, the injured and their families.” He also urged citizens to unite against violence and to stand with Muslims.
Couillard further warned that “freedom of speech has consequences, good ones and bad ones…. When I say words matter, it means words can hurt, words can be knives, slashing at people’s conscience.”
Le #Québec rejette catégoriquement cette violence barbare. Toute notre solidarité aux proches des victimes, des blessés et à leur famille.
— Philippe Couillard (@phcouillard) January 30, 2017
However, despite the anti-Muslim rhetoric circulating around Quebec City, the CCIQ used freedom of speech to fight back by spreading awareness and welcoming the community into their center with the help of journalists and social media.
“We are all Canadians,” said El Refai. “We live in Quebec so we are Québécois, and we’re going to stay here, and this is our message to people.”