The Gaslighting of Muslims: Four Years Later

Today, January 29th, 2021 marks four years since the Quebec Mosque shooting. Four years ago a white supremacist walked into the Islamic Cultural Centre in Laval, Québec and murdered six Muslims while injuring 19 others. To this day it is one of the deadliest mass shootings in Canadian history and the worst mass murder in a house of worship in this country. Yet, it was unsurprising to many given the rise of Islamophobia in this country in the years prior. The murder victims were: Ibrahima Barry, 39; Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42; Khaled Belkacemi, 60; Aboubaker Thabti, 44; Abdelkrim Hassane, 41; and Azzedine Soufiane; 57. In addition, Aymen Derbali was severely injured in the attack while trying to protect other worshippers. Four years on anti-Muslim racism/Islamophobia remains as serious and as prevalent a problem as it was when Alexandre Bissonnette decided to walk into a mosque and commit mass murder. Yet, the conversation in this country surrounding Islamophobia is completely muted.

What is Islamophobia?

Simply speaking Islamophobia, perhaps more aptly called anti-Muslim racism, is a hatred of Muslims. But in reality, in practice, and in impact it much more sinister than that.

Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl describes Islamophobia as a form of colonization. In a recent video sermon he states:

The problem with the current form of colonialism, the colonialism of Islamophobia is that it is far more lethal, far more dangerous than military colonialism, because most Muslims are not aware that they are, in fact, colonized and that . . .it’s very difficult for a Muslim’s relationship to Islam today to exist without having to go through the filter of Islamophobia. (Abou El Fadl, 2020, 27:19)

He states that global Islamophobia has left Muslims feeling fear about their faith and traditions, and has denied Muslims the ability to view Islam as a form of empowerment and pride. El Fadl also describes Islamophobia as a form of psychological abuse that has left Muslims all around the globe traumatized.

In his article entitled “The multiple faces of Islamophobia” Ramon Grosfoguel outlines four forms of Islamophobia:

  1. World-historical: This understanding of Islamophobia goes back to the year 1492 when the Christian Spanish Monarchy reconquered Spain from Muslims, killing or expelling all Muslims and Jews. This was also the year, coincidentally, that the Spanish Monarchy “discovered” the Americas which resulted in the genocide and land theft of Indigenous peoples. Muslims and Jews were marked as dangerous ‘others’ within Europe while Indigenous peoples were marked a dangerous ‘others’ outside Europe.
  2. Cultural racism: Whereas historically the colonized, including Muslims, were viewed as biologically and “naturally” (i.e., God-made) inferior, modern expressions of white supremacy have moved away from biological or inherent inferiority explanations for BIPOC peoples to cultural inferiority arguments where the cultures of those ‘othered’ are viewed as inferior. Today, the process of racializing Muslims (othering and differentiating us to maintain our status as inferior to white people) renders Islam a form of racism. We (all 1.6 billion of us) are seen as a monolithic culture which we are all programmed to follow.
  3. Orientalism: When you think of Muslims what do you think of? Those images? That’s Orientalism. Angry, uncivilized, barbaric, violent, and hypersexual men; oppressed, docile, veiled, exotic, sexually repressed and deprived women. These imaginations of Muslims date back to colonial times as European artists, scholars, thinkers found ways to dehumanize and exploit us. However, the irony of these imaginations of Muslims are that it was the colonizers who engaged in violent acts against us and imposed their rigid and Victorian understandings of gender and sexuality on us.
  4. Epistemic racism: Epistemology is a philosophical term which means the study of ways of knowing. How do we come to learn and produce knowledge? What do we understand knowledge to be? How do we determine which knowledge is valid? Colonial thinkers have viewed white, Euro-American ways of knowing as superior to all others. In their view non-Euro-American thinkers have nothing of value to offer. This includes Muslim thinkers, our ways of knowing, our spiritualities, our understandings of the world, the universe, and God, etc., is deemed inferior to the thinkers of ‘the West.’

In her report on Islamophobia, Toronto lawyer Azeezah Kanji also provides an intersectional analysis to understanding Islamophobia stating:

Islamophobia intersects with other systems of racism. Black Muslims, Indigenous Muslims, and Black Indigenous Muslims experience the compounding effects of anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, and Islamophobia; for example, they are more likely to suffer the negative effects of information-sharing agreements between police and national security agencies, since Black and Indigenous communities are disproportionately targeted by police information-gathering practices like carding.

The Cultural Gaslighting of Muslims in Canada

Despite the severe outcomes of Islamophobia Canadian non-Muslim society has decided to deny that Islamophobia is a problem. The resistance to recognizing Islamophobia and its severity is such that when a motion to a non-binding motion to condemn and investigate Islamophobia and other forms of racism was proposed by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid in 2017, the federal Conservative party, along with many Canadians, opposed the motion. In addition, Khalid received many threats to her life and safety from “nice” Canadians. All this despite the fact that a similar motion to condemn anti-Semitism had passed without any controversy in 2015.

A 2017 poll, conducted after the shooting, showed that Islam was viewed least favourably with only 33% of Canadians polled having a favourable view of Islam.

In another national Canadian poll, again conducted after the shooting, it was found that “47 per cent would ban Muslim head scarfs in public, compared with just 30 per cent of Americans. As well, 51 per cent of Canadians like the idea of monitoring what happens in mosques, compared with 46 per cent of Americans.”

A radio poll conducted around the time of the shooting found that 23% of Canadians, and 32% of Quebecers supported a ban on Muslim immigration to Canada.

Yet, a recent video made by the Islamophobia is… project provides an informative overview of the level of Islamophobia in this country, including results from a national Canadian poll, taken shortly after the January 29, 2017 mosque shooting which showed that 55% of Canadians polled believed Islamophobia was “overblown” by politicians and the media.

What is happening to Muslims in Canada may be called cultural gaslighting. In reference to the Canadian states’ (mis)treatment of Indigenous peoples Indigenous scholar Elena Ruíz explains cultural gaslighting, saying

Settler colonial culture does, in fact, [gaslight] . . . at face value, the notion of gaslighting can all too easily be used as a diagnostic tool to refer to the effort of one culture to undermine another culture’s confidence and stability by causing the victimized collective to doubt [its] own sense and beliefs.

Coupled with El Fadl’s description above, the concept of cultural gaslighting applied to Muslims in Canada demonstrates not only does Islamophobia itself cause harm through self-doubt, self-hate, and confusion about identity, but the erasure and denial of the reality of Islamophobia that Muslims experience causes psychological and collective damage as well.

Islamophobia/anti-Muslim racism is very much real and it is very much a racial trauma. Its impacts on Muslims, our sense of safety, our mental and psychological health is intense; it is trauma. Today the Canadian federal government announced that January 29th will become National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action Against Islamophobia. However, knowing the level of apathy and/or hostility toward the recognition of Islamophobia as racial violence in this country, I suspect most will be ignorant of this fact, not care, or actively hate it.

For more information on Islamophobia check out this list of resources put together by Islamophobia is project.