Moving Us Nowhere: The Politics of Emotion and Civility in the Wake of the Quebec City Massacre

Philip S S Howard. Canadian Ethnic Studies. Volume 51, Issue 1. 2019.


On January 29, 2017, a man aged 28 approached La Grande Mosquée de Québec in Ste. Foy, a suburb of Quebec City, with three firearms. He opened fire on two worshipers exiting the mosque, and then entering the building, continued his shooting rampage inside where other worshippers, including children, were gathered. In less than two minutes he had murdered six Muslim men: Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzedine Soufiane, and Aboubaker Thabti. He had also critically wounded nineteen others, some permanently such as Aymen Derbali, who as a result of the incident now lives with tetraplegia.

On January 30, 2018, a year after the massacre, and a day after the first anniversary public commemorations, the killer’s parents released an emotional letter to the media. It was their first time speaking publicly since the attack. They expressed their profound sorrow about the attack, and offered condolences to the survivors and their families, identifying with their pain as they described the incident’s impact on their own lives. They ended the letter expressing gratitude for support they received from both acquaintances and strangers, notably including Imam Hassan Guillet who had mentioned them compassionately during funerals for the victims.

This article offers a close reading of the letter as well as the ways in which media reports engaged its themes. I am particularly interested in the ways in which emotions are engaged, and to what effect in these documents. My objective is to examine the political work done by the letter’s sentimentality and civility as reverberated in mainstream media reporting. I argue that the letter’s emotionality upholds, where it does not exacerbate, existing racialized social relations in the very moment that it purports to promote social cohesion. In so doing, I speak with other scholarship signaling the contested outcomes of our unexamined good intentions, gestures, and emotions as Canadians in the context of racialized social relations.

Let me hasten to say that this analysis is not intended to indict the parents of the killer. I can only imagine that, as they say, they are living a nightmare given all the implications of becoming, overnight, the parents of a mass murderer. They apparently want us to know that they do not approve of their son’s actions, even if, as parents, they still love him.

Yet the nightmares that this family, and more importantly Muslims in Quebec City, are living are the fruit of a wanton act of violence with roots in a longer pattern of anti-Muslim racism in Canada. It is important to analyze the mechanisms that sustain this and other kinds of racism here. My analysis of this letter and the coverage of it is therefore not a heartless polemic, but rather based on my strong belief that we can resist and alter current conditions when we better understand these pernicious mechanisms. In Part 1 below, I contextualize the discussion by exploring theoretical literature about the roles that civility and emotion play in the construction and maintenance of power-laden social relations, and by offering a brief overview of racialized social relations in Canada and Quebec, particularly as they relate to Muslims. In Part 2, I examine the ways in which these Islamophobic social relations interpellate the parents, the media, and presumably the audiences of the letter to bolster a hegemonic reading of the conditions within which the Quebec City massacre occurred, and thus do nothing toward forestalling such an event in the future.

Part 1: Framings

Affect, Civility and their Effects

In [2], Sara Ahmed, drawing on other scholars, contests the psychologizing view of emotion as a privately experienced phenomenon originating within the individual. Yet Ahmed also questions a simplistic sociological view of emotions as being somehow imposed upon the individual from without. Instead, Ahmed proposes that the sociality of emotion is constituted by the ways in which, through their circulation, they produce the fictions of national and racial boundaries that create insiders and outsiders, the “us” and “not-us.” Ahmed argues that, far from being generated in a moment in response to a particular incident, emotions are the sedimentation of long-standing “social and cultural practices” (2004, 9), of “orientations towards and away from others” (2004, 4). Ahmed signals the political work that emotions do as these sedimented dispositions surface in a particular moment (2004, 4).

[53] raises similar concerns about the politics of emotion in the Canadian context, in an analysis of Canadian representations of the Rwandan genocide and Canadian general Romeo Dallaire’s involvement in it. Drawing on Saidiya Hartman’s (1997) analysis of the ways in which white empathy impedes rather than facilitates an appreciation of Black suffering, Razack examines the ways in which we, as Canadians, feel compassion across difference, appropriating the pain of others as our own. Razack understands this appropriation as a national process implicated in producing Canadianness as deeply humanitarian and compassionate in response to the pain of racial others, while obscuring our complicity in the relations that produce this pain (2007, 376).

Expressions of civility, much like emotions and empathy, appear to operate benignly on an interpersonal level, while they are, in fact, crystallizations of unequal social relations. [18], drawing on Mbembe, reminds us in his treatise on racial neoliberalism, that civility codifies racial violence and makes it invisible, even as racial violence continues to structure civil society. Standards of civil behaviour such as sociability and courtesy work in the stead of more overt forms of violence to manage conflict and to bolster unequal social relations (43). Notably, to point out the workings of racism is considered uncivil (60). Thus, civility facilitates denials of racism and claims of racial innocence. The givenness of civility suppresses how deeply contested our visions of what it might mean to live together equitably actually are, and foreclose on the kinds of resistance required to rupture unequal relations.

While emotion and civility might be considered the very things that move us—perhaps from apathy and inhumanity to solidarity and action—their reality as sedimented disposition and codified violence demand that we pay closer attention to the possibility of other outcomes. Ahmed writes: “emotions are not only about movement, they are also about attachments or about what connects us to this or that…. What moves us, what makes us feel, is also that which holds us in place, or gives us a dwelling place”. What interests me in this article is precisely this way in which emotions and civility can produce the sensation of “moving while standing still”—that is, the illusion of progress toward social justice while securing racial injustice. I am interested in the ways that being “nice” to victims of racial violence abets the continuance of unequal social relations. If we are committed to undermining the mechanisms that produce racial violence, it is imperative that we examine artefacts of such civility and emotion that appear to resonate broadly as common decency—particularly as they show up in the context of racial violence. The parents’ generous and well-meaning letter—in its deference to victims and their families, and in its expressions of empathy and harmony—is such an artefact, as are the media articles that take it up. Indeed, in my analysis below, I argue that the emotion and civility expressed through the letter, and which appear to have so resonated in media reports on it, ultimately participate in propagating, while obscuring, the anti-Muslim racism that produced the Quebec City mosque attack in the first place.

Islamophobia in Canada and Quebec: What’s at Stake?

Despite its claims to the contrary, Canada is a nation state birthed and sustained through racial-colonial violence in multiple forms. Canada is made possible by the inter-dependent, settler-colonial imperatives to erase Indigenous people thereby facilitating land appropriation and resource extraction; to dehumanize Black people thereby marking the limits of Western subjectivity; and to mark all racialized people as civilizationally inferior by invoking such tropes as culture and religion, thereby justifying Western imperialism and creating cheap labour. The discourses about racialized persons that accompany these processes further serve the neoliberal nation-state in two overlapping ways. First, they are the foils against which (white) Canadians can know themselves as Canadians, and second, they render that white Canadian citizen the only subject deserving of access to the land and to the social goods the nation has to offer.

These ideas circulate in the national imagination to be mobilized to greater or lesser extents as material conditions vary, and Indigenous, Black, and other racialized persons are never guaranteed the full legal or civil consideration afforded to the white citizen. Particularly as neoliberal capitalism erodes the welfare state, these racializing logics of deserving blame economic hardship on those who are not white, and bolster whiteness’s sense of entitlement to ostensibly dwindling resources.

While anti-Muslim modes of thought have long existed in “the West,” the racialization of Muslims intensified after 9/11 in Canada and other countries of “the West,” when these nations strengthened their self-concepts as part of “Western civilization” with “Western” values to which allegedly Muslims everywhere were opposed. The idea that Muslims are fanatically devoted to religiously- and culturally-dictated, backwards values, can be mobilized to construct them as threats, both external and internal, to the security and identity of the nation state and to its “legitimate” citizens. Thus, in the 2015 federal elections, for example, the Conservative Party of Canada fomented this narrative for political gain by promising to set up a hotline for reporting “barbaric cultural practices”—practices that are all already illegal in Canada, but that with this label are attributed to Muslims of all racial locations as well as to non-Muslim racialized (usually Black) people. While this party lost the election, it is significant that these promises raised the party’s popularity, especially in Quebec. This Islamophobic rhetoric has remained salient despite the change of federal government, showing up again in the intense contestation over a motion proposed by federal Liberal MP Iqra Khalid (that eventually passed) to commit the government to working against Islamophobia in the wake of the Quebec City attack.

Anti-Muslim relations take a particular shape in Quebec, where its struggles to maintain its distinctive cultural heritage as Canada’s only francophone province magnify the xenophobia directed at Muslims. Vaunting secularism and simplistic liberal versions of gender equality (in addition, of course, to the French language) as being among Quebec’s defining characteristics, the notion that Muslims pose an existential threat to the province’s identity has rapidly gained prominence. As such, “secularism operates as a governmentality” alongside the orientalist essentialisms that comprise the civilizational discourses mentioned above.

This anti-Muslim discourse has been expressed in various levels of state policy in Quebec. In 2007, the small Quebec towns of Herouxville, QC and Sainte-Roche, QC, neither having Muslim residents, gratuitously produced codes of conduct prohibiting practices (already clearly prohibited by Canadian Law) presumed, in the Islamophobic imagination, to be practices that Muslims might bring to their town. Also in 2007, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Reasonable Accommodation was launched by the Quebec government in the wake of public complaints that religiously and socially accommodating Muslims as per the Human Rights Charter threatened Quebec identity. With a thinly veiled focus on Muslim women, the Commission ultimately determined in 2008 that it was justifiable to prohibit certain government employees from wearing religious attire. This debate has remained alive ever since. In 2013, Quebec’s governing Parti Québécois introduced Bill 60 proposing a Quebec Charter of Values (also known as the Charte de la laïcité i.e. the Secularism Charter). This Charter would amend the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, thus allowing it to prohibit Quebec state employees from wearing outward symbols of religious affiliation, ostensibly to ensure their religious “neutrality,” and to require that one’s face be uncovered to receive public services. The hijab and niqab that some Muslim women wear were a specific target, as well as the Jewish kippa, while the Christian cross was notably excepted. This bill was never passed, as its progress was interrupted by the 2014 provincial election which replaced the Parti Quebecois with the Quebec Liberal Party that claimed to oppose the Charter. However, the Liberal party ultimately passed a moderated version, Bill 62, in October 2017, denying public services (including health care and education) to anyone whose face is covered (thus targeting the niqab rather than the hijab) and disqualifying them from holding most roles in the public service, citing supposed communication difficulties caused by face coverings. That the government saw fit to pass this bill only nine months after the Quebec City massacre demonstrates the doggedness of this particular form of anti-Muslim racism despite evidence of its deadly consequences.

A motion condemning rising Islamophobia in the province was passed in Quebec’s National Assembly of Quebec in 2015, but not without attempts by most Quebec political parties to erase its specific focus on racism against Muslims. This pattern surfaced again in the wake of the Quebec City massacre, when Quebec politicians similarly objected to calling the attack Islamophobic, preferring to see it as an isolated incident with no roots in the political climate in Quebec. This denial exemplifies the Quebec state’s resistance to calling out, and taking clear action against, racist violence.

The Liberal government was replaced in the elections of October 1, 2018, with the majority government of the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ). The day after being elected, the CAQ premier-elect, François Legault, declared his intention to quickly institute a public ban prohibiting those in authority, including teachers, from wearing religious attire. Those who insist on wearing such attire, will be moved to jobs outside of the public eye. Understanding the clear contravention of the Canadian Human Rights Charter, Legault has made clear his intention to invoke its Section 33, the controversial Notwithstanding clause, which will allow it to override the rights provisions of the Charter.

What is evident, then, is the consistent climate of post 9/11 anti-Muslim racism enacted by the Quebec state by three different governments that ostensibly represent different points on a left-right political continuum. This is not to paint public opinion or state action in Quebec as monolithic. Indeed, these policy moves have been significantly protested by Muslims and their allies. The implementation of the Liberals’ Bill 62 has been twice suspended by Quebec judges since it became law.

Nevertheless, anti-Muslim state action has both provoked and been constituted by widespread Islamophobic attitudes throughout Quebec civil society where Muslims face hostile behaviour and violence. Quebec media outlets have irresponsibly propagated outrageously racist and provocative Islamophobic ideas on their talk shows. Further, though there have long been white supremacist groups throughout Quebec and Canada, in recent years the number of these groups across the nation has significantly increased. In Quebec, far-right groups rally members around white racial nationalism, and frequently organize anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim marches. Among these groups, La Meute, initially a Facebook group that has now grown to upward of 43 000 members, is particularly committed to becoming a lobbying force by carefully managing how it expresses its racism, in order to give its rhetoric broader public appeal. Its rapid growth among everyday Quebecers testifies to the widespread, lurking Islamophobic sentiment across the province.

Overall, then, both state bodies and civil society in Quebec stoke anti-Muslim racism while denying and normalizing it as legitimate public opinion. This is the context within which the Quebec City attack occurred, and these are the longstanding dispositions toward Muslims that I argue are sedimented as emotion in the letter written by the parents of the killer, and that frame the insider/outsider identifications produced by these emotions.

Part 2: Islamophobia Through the Letter and its Media Coverage

Disregard as Bewilderment

L’immense peine et la douleur causées aux innocentes victimes et leurs familles par ce geste inexcusable, reste pour nous, encore à ce jour, totalement inexplicable.

– Parents of the killer (letter)

They still don’t realize [sic] what happened on the 29th of January last year. They say it is still unexplained for them. They don’t know why it happened even one year after. So that’s really hard for them to process.

– Alexandre Duval

The letter from the killer’s parents represents the massacre at La Grande Mosquée de Québec as inexplicable, and is the opening frame that first hints how the rest of the letter might be read. The claim of inexplicability is most employed by those close to the shooter, and actually predates the parents’ statement. An article published three days after the shooting reports that a close friend of the shooter found his friend’s actions “absurd, horrible, inexplicable, catastrophic” (translation, emphasis added). This friend further insists that he could see “no personal problems that could have prompted this act,” and that for him, the only explanation possible is “a whim” or “a revolt against the system” (translation).

In the parents’ letter, the inexplicability narrative appears in the second line where while they refer to the massacre as inexcusable, they also say it is “totally inexplicable.” This claim is quoted in the majority of news articles covering the letter. It is reiterated multiple times in three of these articles, and notably in an interview with Alexandre Duval, the journalist with whom the parents developed a relationship. This frequent re-quoting suggests that the inexplicability frame is one that resonates with the journalists and the public they presume to be speaking to.

There is no question that the mosque attack was tremendously senseless. However, senselessness, which implies absurdity and mindlessness, is not the same as inexplicability, which suggests incomprehensibility and unpredictability. As it turns out, there are a number of facts that trouble the inexplicability narrative. The friend admits that the killer was “hostile to non-whites,” and “did not much like Muslims”, that “ethnicity was too significant to [the killer]” in a way that shocked him and made him uneasy, and that he had had to tell his friend that he was going too far (translation). The killer communicated his white supremacist, nationalist views to his acquaintances, opining that only white immigration should be allowed to Quebec and Canada in order to avoid both the “marginalization of whites,” and, ironically, the threat of violent terrorism ostensibly presented by Muslim migrants. Both the friend and his parents were aware of the killer’s support for US President Donald Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration in the United States and his disagreement with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement of welcome to refugees . Tellingly, the killer, who was staying with his parents at the time of the shooting, owned three registered firearms—two handguns and a long gun—of which his parents were fully aware and which his mother stored for him.

While it is true that none of these characteristics, or even this entire profile, automatically mean that someone will commit an act of terror, it is also true that when they are taken into account, the sense of bewilderment and inexplicability seem unwarranted—particularly in retrospect. We now know that the killer claims to have committed the massacre out of fear for his family’s safety. Certainly, then, the massacre was premeditated, and grounded in anti-Muslim, white nationalist ideology. It was not an inexplicable whim.

Importantly, for Muslims in Quebec City and beyond, the massacre is neither inexplicable, nor was it unpredictable. They are well aware of the close relationship between Islamophobic sentiment and Islamophobic violence. Muslims in Quebec have long been signalling that the Quebec Reasonable Accommodation debate has fuelled Islamophobic sentiment, and that they have consequently been targets of increased violence. Indeed, in a documentary about the massacre, members of the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec (CCIQ) attest to being subject to intimidation in the months just prior to the attack. They feared it was only a matter of time before such an attack would occur. Research into the Canadian far right supports this apprehension that Muslims report feeling. It finds that the broader racist climate in Canada fosters far right groups and legitimizes their racist expression. Further, practitioners involved in deradicalizing white youth have identified the role of Islamophobia and white supremacist, nationalist rhetoric in producing white supremacists and ultimately racist violence. Indeed, in this way racial violence is not inexplicable; rather it is deeply implicated in how one might come to know oneself as white and superior.

Certainly, then, had non-Muslim Quebecers taken seriously what Muslims have long been saying and rejected the anti-Muslim rhetoric spouted with impunity in Quebec public discourse, the mosque attack would not only be quite explicable, but might also well have been prevented. I am suggesting, then, that the narrative of bewilderment is produced precisely by ignoring—both before and after the incident—the perspectives of Muslims in favour of the dominant story of a uniformly welcoming, non-racist Quebec. Thus, while appearing to commiserate with Muslims as to the horror of the attack, embedded within the parents’ letter and the media articles propagating the bewilderment narrative is an actual refusal to hear Muslims. The bewilderment emotion is the sedimentation of a dismissal of Muslims, and the crystallization of a disposition that insists on severing incidents like the massacre from the social contexts that produce them, turning them into anomalies rather than symptomatic of racialized social relations. As with other discourses in the letter that I analyze below, bewilderment implies no need for change. Quebec needn’t be critically self-reflexive about its tolerance for racist rhetoric. It is not surprising, then, that the killer makes his own claim to bewilderment. He claims not to know why he committed the act, and like his parents “even today … still [has] trouble believing it”. On this basis, he is able to go on to declare: “Despite what has been said about me, I am neither a terrorist nor an Islamophobe” (La [27], translation). Thus the letter’s bewilderment, while perhaps first appearing to be an appropriate, empathetic, and civil emotion, is both produced by anti-Muslim racism, and foments the conditions for its unfettered continuance.

We Too!: Emotional Identification and Commonality

Le soir du 29 janvier 2017, nos vies aussi ont basculé … Pour nous aussi, la peine et la peur s’est [sic] installées … Dans un sens, nous avons nous aussi perdu un fils.

– Parents of the killer (letter)

But they also have the feeling that they lost a child. And that’s a really, really, moving part of the letter they gave me, … so we get a feeling that somehow they also are the victims of this shooting in a way.

– Alexandre Duval

In their short letter, the parents thrice repeat the word “aussi”—twice in the expression “nous aussi” (we too)—as they share the ways in which their son’s deeds have impacted their lives. They say that they, like the Muslim community, have also had their lives upended, also live in pain and fear, and have also lost a son. Through a claim to be having similar experiences, they present their adversity as that which they have in common with the survivors and the families of the victims. We learn that the parents intended their letter to “express their solidarity” with the Muslim community, and this is underscored at the end of the letter where they refer to the “courageous and unifying speech” of Imam Hassan Guillet, who during one of the funerals mentioned the parents and acknowledged their grief. Their positioning of the Imam in this way suggests that he, like they, considered their respective feelings of pain to tie them together in solidarity.

News articles covering the letter similarly fronted this narrative of identification through common pain, several using “we too” or “we too lost a son” in the title or byline. Like the letter, these articles make much of remarks spoken by Guillet and by Mohamed Labidi, Vice-President of the CCIQ who transmitted a private letter of condolence from the parents to the victims’ families. For example, Labidi is reported as saying that all Quebecers should sympathize with the killer’s family, while Duval, the journalist to whom the parents primarily spoke, recalls that “Hassan Guillet … said that [the killer] was the seventh victim of the shooting,” and claims that Guillet’s unifying words were “for [the parents] … a really, really important part of the healing process”. Thus, the parents’ letter forges, through their own distress and their interpretation of Imam Guillet’s words, a kind of levelling identification with the Muslim community affected by the attack, and media coverage suggests that the Muslim community received and reciprocated, where they did not initiate, these gestures of equivalence and solidarity. The letter and its coverage demonstrate a broad resonance of the storyline that Quebec families connected to the attack—Muslim and non-Muslim—suffer similarly and suffer together, and that now through gestures of civility toward each other, also heal together. This view is perhaps partly manifested in the large vigils immediately after, and on the one-year anniversary of, the attack. It overcomes any differences in social location and access to power between the Muslim community on one hand, and on the other, the killer’s family who in a sense stand in for all (white/non-Muslim) Quebecers. It belies these groups’ unequal access to citizenship and belonging, as well as the lack of substantive support that Muslims in Quebec City have experienced both before and after the attack. Indeed, the families of those who died in the attack have so far been denied compensation by the province.

What, then, is at stake for the parents, and perhaps for Quebec identity as a whole, in this narrative? Several scholars have signalled the seductiveness of claims to commonality through pain. Ahmed calls it “wound fetishism,” observing that it equalizes all pain regardless of cause, while directing our attention away from “how bodies come to be wounded in the first place” (2004, 32-33). This observation applies very literally, to the equalizing narrative around the Quebec City massacre. Of course, it is futile to attempt to compare subjective experiences of grief, and this is not what I enjoin. The more important task is to understand that where our pain is not historicized, we become unable to understand the very different mechanisms through which we come to have emotional responses (such as grief) which appear qualitatively the same, but which are genealogically disparate. In other words, dominant claims of equivalence and solidarity through pain across lines of racialization obscure the colonial relations that might allow us to make sense of our pain and how we come to experience it. Where we are all the same—identically the victims of that which is painful—coloniality and complicity disappear. Then, as Tuck and Yang observe in the context of Canada’s relations to Indigenous groups, “[b]ecause pain is the token for oppression, claims to pain then equate to claims of being an innocent non-oppressor” (2012, 16).

Thus, the extent to which we can repackage pain as innocence is the exact extent to which we can imagine ourselves free from accountability for racial violence and what it might take to redress it. This is what I suggest is alluring in the “we too” discourse. In the case I am analyzing here, I am not suggesting that the parents might be responsible for their son’s actions. However, for the parents and for the broader Quebec society, “we too” discourse disconnects the killer’s terrorist act from politics. If Quebecers understand themselves to be all equally experiencing the same pain and shock as a result of the Quebec City massacre, they do not have to examine the role of Islamophobic discourse (which affects Quebecers unevenly) or their complicity in producing the massacre to the extent that they participate in that discourse. The reflection that the incident ought to have provoked regarding the tolerance for anti-Muslim rhetoric in Quebec and Canada is successfully averted. Consequently, the far-right group, La Meute, which, like the killer, opposes Muslim immigration and that has led marches against Muslims both before and after the attack, was able to allege support for the vigils, and encourage their members to attend—all the while insisting that they are not Islamophobic. And while twice as many hate crimes against Muslims took place in Quebec City in the year following the attack than in the year before, the Quebec City police department currently has a single reference to hate, and the city’s mayor sees no need for a hate crimes unit.

The widespread allure of the “we too” aspect of the parents’ letter, and the ways in which the media glommed onto it, therefore seem related to the ways in which it facilitates a national, postracialist innocence and lack of accountability (particularly at the level of the province). It shores up extant identities and relations precisely because it forecloses on a critical re-examination of them. If Quebec is innocent, then there is no need to take any kind of preventative action. Along with bewilderment, an easy identification through pain suggests there is no way to see racial violence coming. They work together to ensure that existing racialized social relations remain firmly in place.

It is in this way that “we too,” especially where it can be construed as reciprocated by Muslims, also becomes healing. Demanding no social change, it provides some relief to the killer’s family, and by extension restores stasis to the national body that has been (potentially) injured by the implication that its Islamophobia prompted an anti-Muslim terror attack perpetrated by one of its own. However, Ahmed reminds us that the rush to prematurely “heal … the body of the nation” without getting at the root of that which ails it is a violent process, the demands of which fall asymmetrically on racialized people (2004, 35).

Recalling here Ahmed’s assertion that pain’s political work, like that of all emotion, organizes how we come to know ourselves as insiders or racialized outsiders (2004, 24), it is worth looking more closely at the reactions of the Muslim community in Quebec City, and at the comments of Guillet and Labidi in particular, to understand the racializing boundary work done by claims to commonality as they hasten to restore the national body, and to determine how healing is envisioned by Muslims.

What is Healing?

Very little media coverage explored the varying ways in which the parents’ private and public letters were received by the victims’ families, and/or the complexity of the “unifying” words of Guillet and Labidi. However, the truth is that some Muslim community members did not find the letters comforting, as in the case of Khadidja Thabti, widow of one of the victims, who tore up her copy of the private letter. Other Muslims, such as Labidi and Guillet, expressed cautions about reading the letters in ways that might derail the constructive responses they would prefer to see. Labidi responded to the public letter by empathizing with the parents, while warning that it should not become “an impediment to justice”. And crucially, it turns out that when Guillet suggested that the killer was the seventh victim of the massacre, he was not actually engaging in an equalizing narrative. Rather, he had said that the shooter, “before being a killer, he was a victim himself … Before planting his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets, in his head” ( emphasis added). Thus Guillet was not suggesting that the killer was a victim of his own act of terror, but rather that he had, before the incident, been a victim of the readily available Islamophobic ideas that prompted the murders. Guillet takes pains to clarify this in an interview upon the release of the parents’ letter. He stands behind his compassion for the parents, but also expresses his hope that the parents would talk earnestly with their son to understand the trajectory of anti-Muslim racism in his life that led him to murder. Further, Guillet insists on discerning these effects of anti-Muslim racism “because this is part of the healing too”. He strongly objects to the co-opting of his words to individualize the attack and to deny the need to examine the broader societal issues that produced it. Thus Guillet’s unifying words are really a call to name Quebec’s climate of Islamophobia, and to indict its disastrous effects on impressionable white youth that produce tragic consequences for the youth, and fatal consequences for Muslims.

It appears, then, that the members of the CCIQ had quite a different view of what might constitute healing after the attack. Harmony for them in a diverse Quebec society requires grappling with the contentious issue of anti-Muslim racism in order to struggle for a real sense of community and justice. It is not about shying away from naming Islamophobia to pursue the shallow sense of accord accomplished by “we too” discourse. As [19] note in their treatise on forgiveness and historical trauma, healing from incidents like this that are the result of historical antagonisms “calls for a reevaluation of one’s collective, the offending collective, and the relationship between the two”. The reconciliation envisioned in the parents’ letter crucially sidesteps this process. Instead, as I shall show, it actually exacerbates this inequitable relationship.

The Boundary Work of the Discourse of Commonality

The Limits of Identification

In the letter, the desire for identification and solidarity only goes so far. After a point, it begins to reify the racial boundaries typically drawn between Muslims and white Quebecers. For example, the letter and its timing seem to be the parents’ odd bid to redirect toward themselves some of the public attention that had been going toward the Muslim community. From news coverage we learn that though they delayed speaking to the media out of deference to the victims and their families, they had in fact been seeking an occasion to speak out, and finally felt the time was right after they viewed the documentary La Prière où tout a basculé (The Prayer Where Everything Fell Apart) which examined the impact of the massacre on the Muslim community of the CCIQ. Given the title of this documentary, it is conspicuous that their letter begins, “Le soir du 29 janvier 2017, nos vies aussi ont basculé” meaning: “On the evening of the 29th of January, 2017, our lives also fell apart.” It thus appropriates the terminology that the documentary used to describe the impact of the attack on the Muslim community. From this perspective, then, the parents’ letter might be read as an attempt to say that they too needed to be considered in the wake of the attack, and that our collective emotional energies should not all be spent on the Muslim community.

Thus, within the discourse of commonality in the parents’ letter we also discern commonality’s limits. Hidden within the outward-facing narrative of common pain is an othering dynamic that turns away from too close an identification with Muslims, and turns back toward the self by drawing boundaries that are racial and national. The terrorist attack against Muslims in Quebec City had turned on its head the conception of the insular Muslim immigrant as threat to presumed nationally-held Quebec values of openness and civility, and violent terrorist threat to white Quebecers. Instead, the ways in which Muslims are placed at constant risk of violence in Quebec through the insularity of (white) Quebecers was coming into clearer focus. As such, the very colour line between Muslims, perpetually outsiders, and those Quebecers presumed to “belong” here, one which had been so carefully constructed through the reasonable accommodation debates, was in the balance. How, then, was a white Quebecer to know oneself as a “real” Quebecer over against the intruding Muslim immigrant when the racial discourses normally relied on to do so were failing? reminds us of the urgency to re-constitute dominant identities when a colour line is threatened, writing, “Sameness must be disavowed and no more so than at the moment when it is too threatening a possibility, when, in other words, the racial hierarchy is revealed as a fiction”. This is precisely what appears to have been at stake because of the documentary and the one-year commemorations of the attack, provoking the deliberate timing of the letter, and its newsworthiness at that particular moment. Approaching through a bid to commonality, the letter endeavours to displace Muslims who were garnering some public attention and sympathy, and to reclaim the love and empathy normally directed toward self and nation.

Mobilizing Fear: Re-enter the Spectre of the Dangerous Muslim (Man)

Pour nous aussi, la peine et la peur s’est [sic] installées. Il y a eu des menaces sérieuses proférées à l’endroit d’Alexandre et de notre famille … nous vivons toujours dans la crainte d’une récidive.

– Parents of the killer (letter)

They live in fear with the curtains shut in their house. After the shooting they also had an alarm system installed in their home because, you know, because of the threats they received …

– Alexandre Duval

Another way of re-establishing a troubled colour line between Muslims and white Quebecers in the wake of the massacre would be to rehearse the racial fabrications that construct Muslims as racialized others. As we read on, the parents’ letter draws upon these more familiar Islamophobic narratives, and sets emotion to the work of securing racial boundaries. Here, they speak about the fear that “they too” are experiencing, stating that they and their son, the killer, have been threatened, causing them to fear reprisals. They do not give further detail themselves, but media coverage of the letter does. As the parents’ primary media contact, Duval relates in an interview: “in April … a man from Morocco came to Canada and actually threatened to hurt [the killer] and his family. Ultimately the charges for threatening [the killer’s] family were dropped, but the man was actually … expelled from Canada”. Here, Duval relates the family’s fears directly to these threats. He claims that now, as a result, the parents have installed an alarm system, live with their curtains drawn, and have been receiving psychological support. The relationships among the ostensible threats, the parents’ fear, and the psychological support they received is underscored repeatedly in media coverage of the letter, which largely takes cues from Duval’s reporting.

The threat to which these articles refer concerns Mohamed-Amine Ben-Faras, the nephew of one of the victims, who travelled to Quebec City from Italy three months after the attack. Upon visiting the mosque where the shooting occurred, the nephew, in a fit of anger, verbally threatened the shooter, who was of course, not present. Members of the Muslim community who overheard apparently reported this to police, and Ben-Faras was quickly snatched up by law enforcement the next day. Ben-Faras pled guilty to uttering threats, but asserts that he never intended to carry them out—a very plausible claim since the killer was behind bars, and Ben-Faras would have been unable to get to him to harm him there. Ben-Faras was imprisoned for eleven days, ultimately deported, and banned from Canada for three years unless accompanied by law enforcement.

Keeping in mind how flagging colour lines are reinforced by familiar racial narratives, there are a number of things that stand out about the story woven in the coverage of this incident. First, there appears to have been a single threat. No reports mention any other despite the parents’ and the media’s assertions that there were multiple threats. Second, Ben-Faras seems only to have threatened the killer, not his family; charges for threatening the killer’s family were eventually dropped. Both these details suggest that the threat of retaliation was exaggerated in the letter and its coverage. Third, though the nephew, an Italian citizen, appears to have long lived in Europe, media articles usually identify him as “a man from Morocco,” often without mentioning his current country of residence. News articles also often trace his passage through multiple airports (London, Montreal) on his way to Quebec City. These details serve to rehearse the trope of the violent Middle-Eastern Muslim travelling through lax security points to cause harm in the West. Consistent with this narrative, the prosecution in the Ben-Faras case sensationally referred to him as “the man who travelled from across the Atlantic to seek vengeance,” a line that was taken up in several articles covering the nephew’s story—some using it as their title. The prosecution further suggested that the nephew displayed “a general hatred of Westerners”, a claim to which Ben-Faras strongly objected. Ben-Faras’s blood relationship to one of the victims is never mentioned in articles covering the parents’ letter that mention the “threats” the parents were supposed to have received, thus making it impossible to read Ben-Faras’s travels and his verbal threats as expressions of grief rather than as confirmation of Muslims’ ostensible irascibility.

This story, then, of multiple threats from barbaric Muslims who irrationally hate non-Muslims, who skulk across poorly-defended borders, and who ultimately need to be deported because they threaten the parents (read “us”) and cause them (“us”) to live in perpetual fear serves to re-establish familiar opinions about Muslims in Quebec.

By making the threats multiple while drawing on popular racist stereotypes, the ostensible Muslim threat is generalized and made pervasive, while the actual killer’s attack continues to be individualized. Indeed, the ways that psychological support is constantly tied to the threats the parents claim to have received (Canadian Press 2018) suggests that their need for counselling had less to do with coping with having a murderer in the family, and more to do with an imminent threat of being attacked by Muslims. Of course, this is precisely the sentiment that produced the massacre in the first place. The killer is reported to have committed the massacre out of fear for his family’s safety. When asked why he did it, he is reported to have said: “I wanted to save people from terrorist attacks. Thanks to what I did, maybe a hundred people will be saved—perhaps 200, perhaps 300 also. You never know”.

As this colour line is reinforced, we can also note the ways in which it attempts to discipline Muslim responses to the massacre, producing good Muslims and bad Muslims. The letter and media coverage work to construct Hassan Guillet, as well as those Muslims who ostensibly reported Ben-Faras, as good Muslims. They are “unifying” rather than “divisive,” not uncivilly speaking of anti-Muslim racism. Good Muslims will, without resentment, participate in individualizing the massacre, and understand it as an inexplicable incident that similarly affected “us” all. They appeal to the inherent goodness of the state and its citizens to protect them. This kind of “civility” ostensibly earns them a place in the body politic. Bad Muslims, on the other hand, are those who fall short of any of the above—those who, like Ben-Faras, might process their grief through anger however harmless it might be, but also those who dare to call attention to the danger of Quebec’s Islamophobic rhetoric and insist that measures be taken.

Of course, adopting the good Muslim position is fraught political strategy, looking to the nation state as the solution, and promising only contingent belonging to some, while remaining forever out of reach to others including Black Muslims who are always already illegible to the state and civil society. However, this Manichean divide offers hegemonic ways of understanding complex global relations, and is among the strategies that bolster the notions of un/deservedness that attempt to justify the racial structure of Quebec and Canadian citizenship.


In the foregoing, I have analyzed the letter by the parents of the Quebec City killer and the coverage of it. I argue that despite the ostensible gestures of empathy and solidarity present in the letter and its coverage, there remains throughout a stubborn Islamophobic discourse founded in a refusal to take seriously the critiques of the racial foundations of Quebec and Canada. In attempting to foster solidarity across a colour line, it actually perpetuates the racial nationalist logic that upholds global neoliberalism by constructing racialized people as threats to (white) life, limb, and nation. Its civil shows of emotion function to entrench sedimented racialized social relations and obstruct the conceptual shifts that might prevent such a massacre in the future.

In writing this analysis, I do not wish to rule out the transformative potential of emotion. Indeed, we might look briefly at the ways in which emotion circulates as a form of resistance in the words of the Muslims of the CCIQ. They identify with the grief of the killer’s parents, only inasmuch as their dead and the killer are victims of Islamophobia. They are outspoken about the anti-Muslim racism they faced before, and still face now after the attack. What is inexplicable for them is not the massacre, since they connect it directly to Islamophobia. Rather what they hope is for all of us to understand better the violent roots of Islamophobia. In fact, they push back against suggestions that the killer was not Islamophobic with their own cries of bewilderment at the absurdity of such claims. They call for non-Muslim Quebecers to demonstrate solidarity by rejecting anti-Muslim racism. They speak of their fear to insist that the judicial system protect them from violence, and from the possible release of a killer whose remorse is questionable since he does not admit that anti-Muslim racism informed his actions.

This is not to suggest that the Muslim community in Quebec City, any more than the parents, are deliberately manipulating emotion. Rather, if we accept assertion that emotion is sedimented disposition, then these displays of emotion come out of a disposition of resistance to anti-Muslim racism. The circulation of emotions, for them, helps them to make sense of the tentativeness of their belonging, and undergirds their calls for responsibility and accountability from the state and their fellow citizens. As Louiza Mohamed Said, the spouse of victim Abdelkrim Hassane, stated during sentencing hearings for the killer:

… forgiving he who assassinated, without mercy and with fury, my life companion and the father of my three daughters, is not my major concern at this time and in the time to come … I speak, your honour, of terrorism and Islamophobia because, I believe the killing of Jan. 29, 2017, is the deliberate concretisation of a hate crime aiming, on one hand, to terrify the Muslim community and, on the other, to affirm the categorical rejection of a principle in society: living together.

At this writing, the killer has pleaded guilty, sentencing hearings have concluded, and it appears that he may be given consecutive sentences that will make him ineligible for parole for life. With regard to the treatment of the killer, this is what the survivors and their community consider appropriate in order for them to feel safe, and to assure them that Islamophobic terrorism will not be allowed impunity. Yet it is also important to see that this outcome on its own does not address all their concerns. Indeed, to the extent that the Quebec state focusses its attention solely on penalizing the killer, even as it passes anti-Muslim laws, it further individualizes the attack and deflects attention away from the state’s complicity. And it is quite likely that the sentence will later be held up as “evidence” of Quebec’s collective outrage at Islamophobia, and as a reason not to use state resources on more comprehensive anti-Islamophobia interventions.

My intention in this piece is to enjoin a critical orientation toward our collective emotionality—one that understands the potential of emotionality and civility to sustain colonial relations. Emotions can only move us toward radical change when we resist being moved in accustomed ways, and where we have an anticolonial commitment to being moved differently by resisting innocence and fully facing up to our colonial entanglements.