On April 8, two Islamophobic attacks were carried out in Montreal. In the first case, in the early morning hours, an axe was thrown through a window the Centre communautaire islamique Assahaba with the words “Fuck Liberals” and “we will exterminate Muslims” written on it. Then, later that day, someone rode up on their bicycle, took out a baseball bat, and smashed the windows of three cars in front of the Madani mosque as their owners were inside saying their evening prayers.
The April 8 attacks came the day after the right-wing Liberal Party had defeated the equally right-wing incumbent Parti Quebecois in a provincial election. The PQ’s election campaign was built on racism and xenophobia, specifically targeting Muslim women, a bogus “Charter of Quebec Values” having been central to its failed attempt to win a majority government.
In the context of the “Charter debate”, which began in the summer of 2013 and snowballed as autumn turned to winter, countless acts of violence and harassment were directed at “foreign” groups in Quebec, identified by their adherence to specific “foreign” religions. (The proposed legislation actually made this explicit, exempting religious symbols and names that form part of Quebec’s “heritage.”) The primary targets throughout were Muslims, especially Muslim women, who were accosted while taking the metro or walking down the street, insulted, told to “go home”, and physically assaulted, often by people trying to forcibly remove any head covering they might be wearing. (An informal online survey of Muslim women in the province in December found that of 338 respondents, 300 said they had suffered verbal abuse since the charter controversy began.) Muslim women daycare workers in Montreal’s St-Henri neighbourhood received death threats and threats of rape after a photograph of them wearing niqab went viral on facebook; halal butcher shops were vandalized, as were mosques (with spraypaint and pig’s blood). Pro-Charter forces held demonstrations of tens of thousands of people mixing secularist, feminist, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant concerns. For many people in Montreal, our longest winter in years was a season of constant racist aggression and harassment.
Meanwhile, the internet, mass media, and government public hearings all provided a bully pulpit for racist conspiracy theories and hatemongering; i.e. the idea that there is a secret “Kosher tax” imposed by Jews, or that Saudi Arabia and Iran are funding feminist organizations that opposed the Charter, or that religiously-mandated circumcision is somehow the equivalent of rape – and the list just goes on. In one particularly horrendous case, when 47-year old Montrealer Naima Rharouity fell and died in a freak accident in the city’s metro system (her winter clothing got caught in an escalator and she was strangled to death), the Quebecor media machine reported for days that she was in fact killed by her hijab.
For all the pain and suffering that they caused with their racist ploy, the PQ’s gambit failed, and the Liberals won last week’s election.
In some quarters, the election results are viewed as a shift “back” to the right, the Liberals having been the proud architects of austerity measures and repression for years. Others see this as an “anti-racist” vote against the Charter, the Liberals having been the only political party to take a strong position against the racist legislation. (On the “left”, Quebec Solidaire completely failed in the most basic way to show solidarity with the targets of racism in Quebec, opportunistically criticizing the PQ’s charter while reassuring Islamophobic voters that it would pass a charter of its own if elected. Those comrades who are still enthusiastic about this Frankenstein’s monster clearly understand the concept of “anti-racist solidarity” in a very creative way.)
But explanations reading the PQ’s defeat in such clear-cut terms are overly simplistic, and ignore the fact that many different people voted for many very different reasons. More than that, such “all or nothing” analyses ignore several inconvenient facts, for instance that it was the Liberals who from 2006 to 2008 presided over a similar racist crisis with their “Reasonable Accommodations” hearings; that a majority of those polled just before the election (including many who did not vote for the PQ) still supported the idea of legislating discrimination against specific religious minorities; or that there was no effective opposition to neoliberalism during the 18 months that the PQ held power, while austerity measures continued to be introduced without pause.
There is a tendency – understandable and perhaps inevitable in movements where a small number of activists are trying to respond to a large number of pressing issues – to speak out and organize public opposition to oppressive projects when they are on the table and being discussed by the government or other social actors, but when they are seemingly defeated (as is the case now with the Charter) we redirect our meagre energies to other areas. Broadly speaking, this makes sense.
However, as evidenced by the April 8 attacks, it would be dangerous to assume that the explosion of racism that accompanied the Charter “debate” has run its course. This will depend on how various parties – our side, the far right, the PQ, the Liberals, and the targeted communities themselves – all choose to respond to the changes in the political terrain.
Even if the level of racist aggression and propaganda does temporarily subside, we should also remember a certain Prussian general’s military observation that “the most decisive losses on the side of the vanquished only commence with the retreat.” ((Carl von Clausewitz, On War: “Now it is known by experience, that the losses in physical forces in the course of a battle seldom represent a great difference between victor and vanquished respectively, often none at all, sometimes even one bearing an inverse relation to the result, and that the most decisive losses on the side of the vanquished only commence with the retreat, that is, those which the conqueror does not share [page] with him.”)) In a society where racist, patriarchal, and capitalist ideas are hegemonic, in and of itself the “retreat” of the Charter as the result of an election campaign will do nothing to weaken the social and cultural context from which this racist offensive sprang. In order for the Charter’s “retreat” to translate into an antiracist victory, it needs to be capitalized upon by ongoing antiracist organizing, propaganda, and analysis. Those of us who don’t vote should know: like all other struggles the fight against racism will be won or lost in in struggle between people – in our streets, neighbourhoods, communities, schools and workplaces, and even in our families. Now is the time in which we have to inflict those “decisive losses” on the enemy – or in which we fail to do so, and as such play our part in preparing the stage for the next racist upsurge.
It would be nice if someone had issued a public statement of solidarity with the people who attend and work at the Assahaba community centre and Madani mosque. Maybe someone will. i hope so. Now more than ever, i think we have to prioritize being loud about our intention to fight for a world in which all forms of colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal violence and oppression finally come to an end – and about the fact that to be effective, this is a fight that has to be waged without police or politicians, outside of and against their governments and rival capitalist agendas.