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Extremism, like terrorism, also threatens global stability

The Québec City shooter may not be charged with terrorism-related crimes but extremist thinking behind such acts is a serious threat that needs to be better understood and combatted, writes André Gagné 

By: /
6 February, 2017
Flowers are pictured beside the grocery store owned by Azzeddine Soufiane, a victim of the fatal shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, in Quebec City, Jan. 31, 2017. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger
André Gagné
By: André Gagné
Associate Professor,  Concordia University

The murder of six Muslims at a mosque in Sainte-Foy on Jan. 29 profoundly shocked Québecers, Canadians and politicians across party lines. People could not believe that such a tragedy could hit so close to home, in quiet Québec City.

The initial reports of the shooting mentioned the arrest of two men, one of Moroccan origin and another Québecer of French descent. With this little information, it was difficult to speculate on the motives for such a crime. After several hours, only one man was held in custody, 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette from Cap-Rouge.

At first, the police treated the crime as a terrorist act, but now those charges might not be applied to Bissonnette. Only when the full investigation has been completed will we know if the Crown will add “terrorism” to his six counts of first degree murder and five counts of attempted murder.

According to Section 83.01 of the Canadian Criminal Code, a terrorist act can be identified as such when it is perpetrated “in whole or in part for a political, religious, or ideological purpose, objective, or case” causing substantial damage such as death, bodily harm, destruction of property, etc.

Most people understand terrorism as acts committed by groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS since their attacks correspond to this description. Under Canadian law, however, there are doubts as to whether or not Bissonnette’s actions can be qualified as such. Even if Bissonnette belonged to a right-wing group or was inspired by some kind of far-right ideology, in Canada these groups are not considered to be terrorist organizations. Another problem is that until now, no manifesto or recording of Bissonnette explaining the religious, political or ideological motivations for his actions has been found.

This being said, there are nevertheless serious consequences of not calling this a terror attack; it can certainly give the impression that there is a double standard when it comes to violent events against Muslims, for it is clearly an act that targeted this specific community. In 2014, the same  Sainte-Foy mosque experienced acts of vandalism and received hate mail. In June of last year, a gift-wrapped pig’s head with the words “Bonne appetit [sic]” was left on its doorstep.

Extremist thought: On the rise?

One must wonder what fuels individuals and groups to commit such despicable acts. On the night of the attack, one user on Gab — the social media platform cherished by many alt-right supporters — said this concerning the shooting: “I hope they remembered to put bacon grease on the bullets!” Just a few days after the incident, provincial police had already received nearly 175 complaints related to hate acts and a few arrests have been made. Certain individuals seem to be emboldened by the extremist rhetoric they read on social media or in the news.

Clearly, today’s political climate can inspire hateful words and actions. Québec and Canada are not impervious to some of the anti-immigration rhetoric we see south of the border, such as that which surrounds Donald Trump’s decree prohibiting entry to nationals of seven Muslim countries and which prompts a review of the entire U.S. refugee program. (By the way, no Syrian refugee has ever been accused of a terror attack in the U.S.) This is why the current anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalist and protectionist discourse of the American administration is a form of extremism itself. It fuels not only alt-right groups but also serves as a way to embolden Salafi-jihadists in their resolve to fight the West.

As a matter of fact, ISIS sympathizers rejoiced when Trump decreed the Muslim ban as they understood this to be what Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki had predicted in 2010 about Muslims in the West: “Today, with the war between Muslims and the West escalating, you cannot count on the message of solidarity you may get from a civic group or a political party, or the word of support you hear from a kind neighbor or a nice co-worker. The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens.” Al-Awlaki was killed by an American drone strike in 2011.

A similar message was given in a speech in 2015 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS: “And if the Crusaders today claim to avoid the Muslim public and to confine themselves to targeting the armed amongst them, then soon you will see them targeting every Muslim everywhere. And if the Crusaders today have begun to bother the Muslims who continue to live in the lands of the cross by monitoring them, arresting them, and questioning them, then soon they will begin to displace them and take them away either dead, imprisoned, or homeless. They will not leave anyone amongst them except one who apostatizes from his religion and follows theirs.”

All of this feeds into the idea jihadists have been selling their fighters and potential recruits: the West is at war with Islam. Trump has also evoked the possibility of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a holy city for both Islam and Judaism, despite the fact that U.S. presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama had refrained from doing so for reasons of national security. A move of the embassy following the provisions of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act would provide ammunition to jihadist groups that claim that the West is against Islam. Such a move would be irresponsible and an example of profound ignorance in the realm of foreign policy, since it risks retribution to the U.S. and its citizens. 

Learning to combat extremism

The type of rhetoric and policies coming out of the Trump administration will not make Americans safer and is more likely to produce more terror attacks on U.S. soil. Extremist thinking is often the result of a lack of understanding. It is unfortunate that some people cannot differentiate between Muslims peacefully worshipping at a mosque in Western society and jihadists engaged in global terrorism.

However, not everyone who embraces extremist views will necessarily turn to violence. The process by which a person becomes an extremist varies. One can progressively adopt extremist ideas in small incremental steps; the process can take months, even years. Others embrace extremist ideas as the result of frustration. People can become frustrated with politics or religion, and sometimes through personal setbacks, failures or disappointments. Extremism thinking is what most likely led Bissonnette to target this specific community.

The hatred and calls to violence one reads online can sometimes be motivated by fear or by frustration with or misunderstanding of current immigration policies established by the governments of Québec and Canada. That being said, while some people in Québec advocate for secularism and are critical of Canadian multiculturalism, nearly all would likely unequivocally condemn the Sainte-Foy mosque shooting.

There is need now more than ever to raise awareness about the dangers of extremism if we wish to live in peace. Counter-terrorism efforts and strategies to prevent radicalization should also be informed by the rise of right-wing extremist movements. Only through dialogue and a will to understand each other can we overcome hate and violence.

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