Seven years after six men were killed when a gunman opened fire at the Islamic Cultural Center in the Sainte-Foy district of Quebec, Boufeldja Benabdallah still feels overwhelmed by emotion.
Benabdallah, co-founder of the mosque, calls these men his brothers.
Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti were killed shortly after evening prayers, shortly before 8 p.m. on January 29, 2017. Nineteen others were injured in the attack who left 17 children without a father.
“They were cruelly killed and left their families,” Benabdallah said. “Children who were very young are now teenagers.”
At a press conference in Quebec on Thursday, Benabdallah, alongside members of a citizen committee dedicated to commemorating the victims, said that for the second year in a row, there would be a commemoration and reception in the open mosque to the public Monday evening. from 18h
The ceremony, held on the occasion of the National Day of Commemoration of the Attack on the Quebec Mosque and Action Against Islamophobia, will also be available online in English and French.
Mohamed Labidi, president of the Islamic center, says this will be a new opportunity to work to promote “harmony”.
“It’s very, very difficult to do this every year, but we have a duty to our brothers,” Labidi said.
“Remember this event every year and learn a lesson from it towards (a) a society without discrimination, without racism, without Islamophobia.”
Labidi says he has seen some improvement towards a more tolerant and inclusive society in recent years.
“Since the first commemoration, we have worked very hard to multiply actions to live together,” Labidi said. “So it is with this theme in mind that we are organizing the commemoration to eliminate racism.”
‘Duty’ to ensure this doesn’t happen again (PM)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid tribute to the six fallen men in a statement on Monday, while warning of a rise in hate speech, discrimination and Islamophobia in recent months.
“They were sons, brothers, fathers and friends – proud Muslims, Quebecers and Canadians. But they were targeted simply because they were Muslim,” Trudeau said.
“We pay tribute to the victims we lost to this heinous act of hatred. We also stand in solidarity with our Muslim friends and
neighbors and reaffirm our commitment to fighting Islamophobia.
The Prime Minister of Quebec, François Legault, marked this anniversary in a publication on Facebook.
“Even years later, our nation remains shaken by this tragedy,” Legault wrote. “Beyond our differences, we are all Quebecers. We have a duty to ensure that these hateful acts do not happen again.”
Working towards inclusiveness
Benabdallah affirms that this anniversary is an opportunity to commemorate “the birth of a great movement of intercommunity solidarity” among the city’s inhabitants. He says he still remembers the support the mosque received after the attack.
“We can never forget this generosity,” said Benabdallah, as he paused, holding back tears.
“We must remember that within our community, within our Quebec and Canadian society, there is good… Islamophobia and racism are only (present) in a fraction of the population .”
Mélina Chasles, member of the citizen committee dedicated to commemorating the victims, says that conversations around Islamophobia in Quebec must take place more often.
“The problem with this type of discrimination…it’s part of everyday life,” Chasles said.
“To address it, it’s not just something we have to do once a year by taking a moment of silence. It involves breaking that silence afterward.”
Amira Elghawaby, Canada’s special representative for the fight against Islamophobia, was in Quebec last week and on Monday to speak with representatives before the anniversary.
She says she has seen very dangerous stories spread online, sometimes rooted in anti-immigrant sentiment or “fear of the other.”
“We see this happening in other communities as well,” Elghawaby said. “The particular types of myths about our communities that we saw, particularly after 9/11, and that we see now have resurfaced.”
She says education and conversation between communities are key to moving forward.
“There have been initiatives such as bringing people together regularly to break bread, to learn about each other and to ensure that the seeds of ignorance and fear are removed from the ground and we sow instead seeds of love and understanding and belonging,” Elghawaby said.
“It gives a lot of hope.”
Creating spaces to “bridge the gap”
Raza Shah, a missionary and imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, says the mosque attack is a stark reminder of the consequences of hatred and ignorance. Shah, who is based in Montreal, said he was in Quebec at the time of the attack.
“The day after the attack it was very, very cold. I think it was at least -30C and there were thousands of people at the vigil,” Shah said. “It shows that there are so many people who support each other and… want to live in peace and harmony with each other.”
Earlier this month, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at launched a new campaign, “Coffee and Islam,” to foster conversations between communities. Shah says he hopes this can help “bridge the gap.”
“We believe in being understood, but also at the same time understanding,” Shah said.
“A lot of the intolerance, I think it comes from ignorance, right. It comes from the fact that a lot of people have never spoken to a Muslim. They have never met of Muslim.”
An edition of this national campaign took place recently in Montreal. He says dozens of mosques in cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Windsor and Hamilton will participate. He says they are preparing events in Quebec for February.
“We need to create spaces where we can talk about these things, because that’s the only way to get hatred out of people’s minds,” Shah said. “And we already know the result of hatred.