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The Asterisk Next To Our Names: The Reality of Being Muslim in Québec

Angélique Babineau & Defne Aliefendioglu

Managing Editor & News Editor

A colonial poster distributed in French-ruled Algeria (1957-1960), via Middle East Eye.

Standing modestly on Saint-Dominique Street in downtown Montréal is the Al-Omah Al-Islamiah Mosque. To enter its first glass door, a keycard is required, a measure put in place to protect the mosque’s Muslim community following several desecrations throughout the years. However, this did not discourage 32-year-old Cory Anderson from shattering the glass door with a metal pole last April. The man then proceeded to smash the second door’s lock with a concrete brick, before realizing he was outnumbered and running away. The man whose actions have yet to be labeled as a hate crime was released only a few days later, leaving the Muslim community flustered.

After the attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Québec City back in 2017, the Québec government said, “never again.” Yet, five years later, the province’s Muslim community continues to be targeted by assaults and governmental bills, such as Bill-21, fostering a climate of racism and Islamophobia.

Elisabeth Babineau, a 17-year-old Dawson student in the Law, Justice and Society program, revealed that her knowledge of Islam in high school was limited and mostly inaccurate. “We were taught that Muslims don’t eat pork because they believe a part of the pig is sacred and, since they are unsure which part is, they avoid the meat altogether,” said Babineau. In reality, the consumption of pork in Islam is prohibited on the basis that the meat is unclean, a belief now supported by scientific research. Moreover, Babineau reported her surprise upon learning that “Allah” is the Arabic word for “God,” which, contrary to what she had learned in class, means that Muslims pray to and believe in the same Abrahamic God as Christians and Jews. The lack of proper education on the fundamentals of Islam in academic institutions constitutes an important factor in the cultivation of a climate of enmity and ignorance towards Muslims.

By failing to properly educate non-Muslim students on basic aspects of Islam, the message sent to the Muslim community is that their identity is not one that is worthy of respect nor of consideration. Consequently, this disinformation, combined with the existing prejudice towards Muslims, creates a vicious circle that results in othering and exclusion. In other words, the Muslim community is targeted and then labeled as a separate group with whom the rest of Québec population wishes not to associate.

Apart from harming Muslims, this process of dismissal also affects Middle Eastern and North African Quebecers, immigrants, and international students. Wrongfully indeed, the Western world tends to confuse and misattribute Islam as a religion solely belonging to the MENA region. In reality, a minority of Muslims live in the Middle Eastern and North African region, representing, according to the Pew Research Center, only about 20% of worldwide Muslims.

Speaking to the assumptions made towards Middle Easterners and North Africans in Québec, a 20-year-old Muslim international student who wishes to remain anonymous said, “When people hear that I grew up in Qatar, they assume I had a totally different upbringing, like I grew up on Aladdin’s carpet eating camel meat or something.” These presumptions, whether they be innocently made or not, can profoundly damage one’s sense of belonging and identity: “If you are a Muslim or from the MENA region, even if you are a citizen, you will never really be viewed as a true Canadian. There is always going to be that asterisk next to your name,” continued our interviewee. As Middle Easterners and North Africans are often excluded from discussions surrounding systemic racism, such occurrences should not be taken lightly.

Miseducation juxtaposed with the deeply problematic White Savior Complex of the West leads to the belief that imposing ideas and morals on other cultures is not only appropriate, but necessary. Quintessentially, the motive behind the enactment of Bill-21 was to affirm the secular state of Québec. The legislation states that the laicity of the State is based on, amongst other principles, “the religious neutrality of the State.” Since the enactment of the bill in 2019, Bill-21 has been found to, by far, affected hijabi women the most. Although Bill-21 only directly affects civil servants in positions of authority, when the Québec government demands that hijabi women remove their headscarf in order to exercise their profession, asking them to infringe upon their own personal beliefs, they are taking a stance on religion and one that is not neutral. According to a study led by the Association for Canadian Studies (including a sample consisting of individuals from various religious faiths), since 2019, two thirds of Muslim women reported having been a victim of a hate crime and 73% admitted to feeling less safe in public spaces. In truth, the passing of Bill-21 utterly ignores the reality and questions the very existence of Muslim women.

The study’s findings raise questions on another major problem: the West’s preconceived idea that all Muslim women are oppressed and, therefore, must be saved. Some have tried to paint Bill-21 as a “feminist” legislation under the fallacious pretense that it could, somehow, liberate persecuted women. Apart from the fact that this line of thinking is deeply paternalistic, it denies Muslim women basic freedom of choice, which directly contradicts the premise of feminism.

Violence and abuse against women unfortunately exist worldwide. We, as Quebecers, should begin focusing on our own responsibility when it comes to women’s safety within Canada. With the number of femicides in Canada reaching 184 last year, instead of scrutinizing other cultures and making assumptions based on unfounded stereotypes, it is our duty to look within our society and act on the matter.

The stigmatization of hijabi women, Muslims as well as Middle Eastern and North African people is, however, not specific to Québec nor to Canada. Referring to depictions of The Virgin Mary and of Jesus, our anonymous interviewee said, “The Virgin Mary resembles more of a Muslim woman than the modern Christian woman, and Jesus, unlike what the West leads people to believe, was Middle Eastern. However, no one will call Mary oppressed [or associate Jesus with modern stereotypes].” Indeed, when looking into historical facts, Jesus was born in modern-day Palestine, making him Middle Eastern, and evidence points that Mary wore a headscarf. Although prominent figures in Islam as well, Jesus and Mary are predominantly associated with Christianity. The discrepancy in the societal reading of both of these figures when in the context of Christianity and Islam reflects both racism and Islamophobia.

Additionally, the deeply problematic representation of Islam in mainstream media contributes to fueling the existent prejudice against Muslims. Tropes in television and films depicting Islam as a “force of evil” are overly common. European shows like Elite often showcase one-dimensional Muslim characters whose sole arc is to “escape” Islam. This is exactly the case of Nadia’s character in Elite who turns away from religion, chooses to remove her hijab not long after meeting her White Savior Guzmán. The danger lies in the fact that these archetypes have the power to frame their audience’s perception of an entire group, and, as tropes become recurrent, to crystallize these expectations in the mind of the viewers as the only “plausible” form of representation, leaving little room for critical thinking.

Seeing the absurdity of France’s latest legal prohibition, the abaya ban, Islamophobia has proven to still poison the social fabric of our society. Targeting young Muslim women simply for wearing abayas, modest and loosely fitted dresses, and denying them access to education is nothing short of outrageous. Yet, this does not seem to be the consensus as, according to BBC News, “the French themselves gave the measure an overwhelming 81% thumbs-up.”

In the last few years, from the Chinese concentration camps designed to eradicate Islam and the slaughtering of Muslims in India, countless examples of hate and violence towards Muslims have surfaced. We have a duty as human beings to hold each other accountable and to educate ourselves, which also means not letting instances of Islamophobia become so common that we forget their gravity.

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