When I heard about the terrible mosque attack on Sunday night, my first reaction was: This can't be true. This is Canada. This is what you might expect in the United States, now that Donald Trump's in charge.
But no, it happened here. Canadians who aren't Muslims are badly shaken. Many Muslims are in fear, understandably so. Amid the outpourings of solidarity and support, people are searching for answers about why it happened – and what we can do to prevent a next time.
The hard thing we learned this week is that there are dangers from extremism on all sides. If Islamist fanatics can gun down Canadian soldiers in the name of God, then Muslim-haters can massacre Canadian Muslims at prayer.
We don't know what motivated Alexandre Bissonnette, the suspect in the Quebec City shootings, or what turned him into an alleged mass murderer. Nonetheless, politicians went straight to the t-word, describing it as a terrorist attack. Many people are drawing a link to Quebec's undying obsession with cultural protectionism, which sometimes crosses the line into immigrant-bashing. Some leaders and media figures have expressed remorse for their anti-Islamic rhetoric and vowed to tone it down. "Words can hurt. Words can be knives slashing at people's consciousness," said Quebec's Premier Philippe Couillard, who seemed deeply affected. Some critics say he should ditch Bill 62, the latest effort to devise a law around religious accommodation.
I have no idea if Quebec's political climate fed the alleged killer's rage. God knows there's plenty of other fuel for Islamophobes. On the Internet, it takes no time at all to tap into an overflowing sewer of anti-Islamic venom. The dominant theme is that Muslims are taking over Canada, all Muslims are extremists and Islam is a threat to white people. We must keep them out, or at least ban Islam.
That narrative of civilization under siege has been popularized by nationalist political parties across Europe and by right-wing media in the United States. Now, it has been normalized by Mr. Trump, who warned against "the hateful ideology of radical Islam" during his campaign. His chief adviser, Stephen Bannon, warned in 2014 that "there is a major war brewing, a war that's already global." Among the President's first acts in office was to slap a completely arbitrary ban on visitors, immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, which caused a furious backlash and total chaos.
Whether these outrageous provocations will fan the flames of xenophobia is anybody's guess. In New York the other day, a man kicked and berated an airline worker wearing a hijab, saying, "Trump is here now" and "he will get rid of all of you." (He was charged with hate crimes.) Last weekend, someone torched a mosque in Texas. The good news: More than $1-million (U.S.) has already been raised to rebuild it.
One poll of American sentiment, conducted by the Brookings Institution, had an unexpected finding: People's attitudes toward "Muslim people" have become dramatically more favourable since Mr. Trump hit the scene. By October, 2016, 70 per cent of Americans said they felt "favourable/somewhat favourable" about Muslims – up from 53 per cent the year before. "The more one side emphasized the issue … the more the other side took the opposite position," its commentary said.
One wrong way forward would be to shut down or discourage discussions of Muslim accommodation on the grounds that such talk feeds racism. This is what has happened in much of Europe, where a populist backlash now threatens the entire political order. The Muslim situation in Canada is far different. Yet, somewhere, between the false extremes of "Islam is an existential threat to the world" and "Islam is a religion of peace," we need to carve out a place to talk.
In a multicultural society such as Canada, debates over immigration and integration are unavoidable and essential. We need to resist torquing them for cynical political advantage (take note, Kellie Leitch), and we also need to resist the search for easy answers by invoking the feel-good notion of "diversity." The test of our maturity is whether we can handle those debates, calmly and with goodwill on all sides.
In a world that's becoming a darker and more dangerous place, this kind of moderation isn't easy. It often feels the middle ground is disappearing as more people are pushed to the extremes. And the sad truth is that we cannot build a wall between ourselves and the pathologies of the wider world.
But what we can do is mourn together. This horror is not our Canada. And it never will be.