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Quebec mosque saw itself ‘in harmony’ with Canadian society

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“We love everyone.”

That’s how Mohamed Yangui, the president of the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec, described his organization in June after it was the site of a particularly grotesque act of anti-Muslim vandalism. A man had finished praying at the mosque and as he opened the door to leave, he noticed a package at the doorstep, with the words “Bonne appétit” written in thick, black capital letters. Wrapped inside was a severed pig’s head, still dripping in fluids, an all-too-frequent gesture of contempt for Muslims, most of whom do not consume pork.

Still, Yangui said at the time, “We have no problem with anyone, and we respect people. We hope it’s mutual. And we are always here to give the image of the good Muslim to all Quebecers.”

With anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise in the western world in the wake of high-profile and deadly terrorist attacks, the Islamic Center in Quebec City — alongside many other Canadian mosques — has experienced its share of attacks.

All of them pale in comparison to what happened Sunday night, when at least two gunmen entered the building and opened fire on the 60 to 100 worshipers there, killing six and injuring eight others.

“Why is this happening here?” Yangui asked after the attack. “This is barbaric.”

As of now, police have labeled the shooting an act of terror, but they have not said by whom or for what motive. Authorities did not identify the two suspects they arrested or their ethnicity or religious identity, if any.

But the attack came at a time of great turmoil for Muslims globally and in the U.S., where people were still reacting to the results of President Trump’s executive order prohibiting entry into the United States for migrants from seven mostly Muslim countries and to his broader campaign theme against “radical Islam,” highlighted by his statement that “I think Islam hates us.”

And this particular mosque has found itself repeatedly under attack.

“This masjid has witnessed a lot of issues before — threats and vandalism, and some Islamophobic graffiti,” Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, told The Washington Post, using the Arabic word for mosque. “It’s not the first time.”

After the pig’s head was left on the mosque doorstep, Yangui said incidents like this occur about once a year.

The Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec grew out of the Association of Muslim Students, which was begun in 1972 by four Muslims who worked for or attended the nearby Laval University. By 1985, the association had grown large enough to merit its own building, which included a mosque that attracts a small, young and diverse crowd from the school — the congregation of about 100 includes many attendees of North African descent.

6 killed, 8 injured by gunmen who invaded Quebec City mosque

Though the Center holds regular prayer groups, it also described itself as a place to be both Canadian and Muslim in equal parts, neither superseding the other. As described on its Facebook page, the center offers local Muslims “spiritual and Islamic sociocultural framework, in harmony with the Quebec and Canadian society to which they belong.”

Much of its programming includes local outreach — its members have volunteered at the city’s prison, for Amnesty International and for the Multiethnic Center of Quebec, to name a few. For the past eight years, the center has held an open forum for the non-Muslim members of the public to ask questions about Islam, which was particularly important in 2013, when the forum was held two weeks after the Boston Marathon attacks.

Still, the pig’s head represented one of several anti-Muslim incidents occurring in Canada during Ramadan that left some Muslims feeling hopeless.

“I’m tired, I’m exhausted. I am hurt and I’m disappointed,” Saleha Khan of the National Council of Canadian Muslims told CBC. “Part of me doesn’t want to give up hope, because if I give up hope, I’ll probably curl up and never want to come out in public. You just sort of buckle down and say, okay, I’ve got more work to do now.”

Even as organizations such as the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec attempt to involve themselves within their secular communities, anti-Islamic sentiment seems to be growing, particularly, as The Post reported last year, in Quebec.

Some incidents are smaller — such as in 2014, when three mosques near Quebec City and one near Montreal were vandalized in one weekend. In one instance, someone threw a rock through the windows of a mosque. In the other three, an anti-Islam group calling itself Québec Identitaire pinned to the mosques’ doors posters reading “Islam hors de chez moi” or “Islam out of my country.” The year before, a Saguenay mosque was splattered with pig’s blood. A note pinned to it read “assimilate or go home,” according to CBC.

While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in contrast to Trump, has held out a welcoming hand to Muslim refugees, many Canadians clearly do not share his views. In 2015, Cogeco Nouvelles released a poll showing that 65 percent of Quebecers stated they did not want a mosque in their neighborhood, according to the National Post.

A gunman attacked a mosque in Canada's Quebec City, killing at least six worshipers and injuring eight others as they finished their evening prayers on Jan. 29. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

There have also been frequent debates regarding the religious freedom of Canadian Muslims, including a long-running spat about whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear a niqab, cloth that covers the face, during citizenship ceremonies, with the Federal Court of Canada finding a ban on the practice unlawful in February, 2015.

“When you join the Canadian family in a public citizenship ceremony, it is essential that that is a time when you reveal yourselves to Canadians,” former Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, defending the ban. As The Washington Post noted in 2015, “Another Conservative candidate said … the niqab is ‘not in line with Canadian values.’”

The Post reported:

A poll ordered by Harper’s government showed that a huge majority of Canadians are in agreement with the niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies. It’s a sentiment that is particularly strong in Quebec, a majority French-speaking province that has for years waged its own battles over the role afforded to religion — and especially Islam — in its public life.

Those in power didn’t mince their words, either. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, who opposed the proposition, nonetheless told CBC in 2015, “I don’t much like the niqab and I wish people wouldn’t wear it.”

A similar situation occurred last year when a Muslim woman named Rania El-Alloul visited a Quebec Court to retrieve her car, which had been seized after her son drove it with a suspended license. Judge Eliana Marengo, though, refused to hear her case because she wore a hijab.

“In my opinion, you are not suitably dressed,” Marengo said, according to CBC. “Decorum is important. Hats and sunglasses, for example, are not allowed, and I don’t see why scarves on the head would be. The same rules need to be applied to everyone.”

“When she insisted I should remove my hijab, really I felt like she was talking with me as … not a human being,” El-Alloul told the CBC. “I don’t want this thing to happen to any other lady. This is not the work of a judge. She doesn’t deserve to be a judge.”

Some blame this perceived rise in Canadian Islamophobia on Trump, although it long predates his ascendance.

Masuma Khan, a Muslim undergraduate student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said incidents of racist remarks being shouted at her has increased since the United States presidential election.

“Trump now being president has validated people’s ideas of racism,” Khan told CBC’s Information Morning. “Because they have a man now who thinks all these things and expresses it everywhere.”

Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, shares this view. “There is already a growing and documented climate of Islamophobia in Canada,” Gardee said in a statement. “There are legitimate fears that Trump’s so-called Muslim ban and accompanying rhetoric will lead to more hate, and further acts of violence like this.”

Much of the anti-Muslim sentiment Canada has seen is not too different from what Muslims in the United States have felt since 9/11.

Hate crimes against Muslims hit a record high for the last decade in 2015, up 67 percent from the year before, FBI data released in November showed. Law enforcement reported 257 anti-Muslim incidents in 2015, the most since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that killed thousands.

Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.