Today marks the first anniversary since six men were killed in a shooting at a mosque in Quebec City. Memorials are being held across Canada to remember the men and to resist ongoing expressions of racism and Islamophobia. This is a talk I gave yesterday at a neighbourhood memorial in Montreal.
Assalaamu alaikum – peace be upon you – que la paix soit sur vous
I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on the unceded territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, historically a gathering place among many Indigenous nations. I also recognize the histories of resistance to colonization on this land, as we gather to remember one of many instances of racialized violence.
When I think about last year’s attacks, I sometimes find myself picturing the last moments of normalcy for the men who were killed: Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubaker Thabti, Abdelkrim Hassane, and Azzedine Soufiane. They were doing something that to them was both routine and sacred: gathering to pray in the familiar space of their community mosque.
For the men who were killed, the words I opened with – assalaamu alaikum, peace be upon you – were almost certainly among the last words said by them, and to them, perhaps to each other. They would have said them as a greeting to people they saw, or to return a greeting said by someone else. They would have whispered those words to their right and to their left as they finished the prayer. It is a haunting and jarring image to imagine, knowing what came next.
It makes me wonder what it looks like to embody the peace the was offered to them before their deaths, the peace they offered in greeting to their community.
A teacher I know often prefaces any greeting of “salaam” with a reminder that in Islamic thought, salaam – peace – is not simply an absence of conflict. Rather, peace is a divine quality, alive and active. Not merely the absence of conflict, but more importantly, the presence of safety, of justice.
In the days that followed the horrible news last year, I found myself saying salaam to people with a kind of desperation: please, please, against all odds, may you find some peace right now.
Someone asked me recently whether talking about Islamophobia meant focusing only on the negative, and whether it would be more productive to focus on positive things instead. There were a few things I said in response about why we do need to look at Islamophobia, but I only realized later that I missed perhaps the most obvious response, which is that I don’t think that focusing on the negative is actually the same thing as a pessimistic view. I don’t focus on what has gone wrong as a way of underlining how terrible our society is and stopping there. Rather, it comes out of a firmly-rooted belief that it is only through looking problems like Islamophobia and white supremacy and toxic masculinity directly in the face that we have any hope of changing them – of building a culture where peace is alive. If anything, it feels wildly and sometimes unreasonably optimistic.
This is really hard work, often thankless, not always safe.
The last year has been full of grief and rage, emotions that are likely to be heightened again right now and over the next few days of this anniversary. To those of you here, and those not here but with us in spirit, I hope we can be there for each other, lean on each other when we need help, and go easy on ourselves with whatever comes up this week.
I wish you peace.