By Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
On January 29, 2017 six people were killed and others left in critical condition following a shooting at a mosque in Sainte-Foy Québec. What is at stake in classifying this tragedy as a terrorist attack?
Terrorism, however it is defined, remains a key social and political issue worldwide. Given global concerns concerning terrorism and especially so-called Islamic terrorism, it is interesting to note that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Québec Premier Philippe Couillard both quickly described the Sainte-Foy shooting as a terrorist attack.
But despite this official labeling, Canadian and international media have used other descriptors. The National Post, one of Canada’s largest English language daily newspapers, described the event instead as the “Quebec City Mosque Shooting” and the Toronto Star, The BBC, the CBC, the New York Times, and the Guardian all ran similar headlines.
While many media sources reported that Trudeau and Couillard classified the attack as terrorism, most chose instead to describe the shooting as merely an attack. Indeed, in many reports the fact that the Prime Minister and Premier considered the attack to be an instance of terrorism was itself deemed newsworthy.
In reporting on this incident, several media sources including the Montréal Gazette and the Globe and Mail ran headlines with the word ‘terrorist’ placed between quotation marks, indicating perhaps that although the attack had been described in these terms by Trudeau and Couillard, they were unwilling to use this descriptor themselves.
The day after the attack, the terrorist label had become more common and in subsequent headlines, some media sources later dropped the quotation marks.
But whether the violence in Sainte-Foy is considered a terrorist attack or merely a “terrorist attack” matters. Canada and Québec are not immune to growing anti-Muslim sentiments in the wake of the global war on terror and President Trump’s recent executive order banning immigration from Muslim-majority countries. These anti-Muslim sentiments and the violence and prejudice they encourage have tended to focus on a perceived link between Islam and terrorism or, more accurately, between being a Muslim and committing acts of terror.
Framing the Sainte-Foy attack as terrorism is not merely a matter of semantics. This framing shifts the focus away from so-called “Islamic Terrorism” to Muslim Terror: the terror that Muslim Canadians face on a daily basis in the wake of violence and xenophobic attacks and in the face of proposed provincial laws to police religious clothing and federal laws to monitor “barbaric cultural practices.”
Presently, the motives of the only suspect in the case, Alexandre Bissonnette, are unknown. It will be interesting to consider how the label ‘terrorist’ shifts as these motives are revealed and as the media learns more about Bissonnette’s own religious self-identification (or lack thereof). These shifting classifications reveal not only what we are willing to label terrorism but also shed light on the constructed boundaries between terrorist and victim, between us and them.
Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is Baker Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University and is interested in examining the political and social processes that permit certain beliefs and behaviours to earn the designation ‘religion’ and cause others to be categorized instead as magic or superstition.