Friday Prayers in Papineau

Muslims in Trudeau's turf left to fend for themselves as the Liberal leader remains silent on Bill 21.

ROVERS!

I have no other way to introduce this except to say that it’s one of the best pieces of writing I’ve come across in a long time. And I read almost every day. The author, Joe Bongiorno, is fresh out of Concordia University and his writing is razor sharp. Recently he spent some time in Justin Trudeau’s riding, talking to Muslims who feel let down by the Liberal leader.

This piece also includes original artwork by Manal S. Irfan, a Toronto-based illustrator whose work really brought Joe’s story to life. I hope you enjoy this reading this as much as I did.

Your Friend,

Chris

By Joe Bongiorno

It’s Friday prayers in the Papineau riding—Trudeau’s turf—the first Friday prayers since the suddenly beardless Prime Minister called the election. 

From campaign posters across the street an immaculately coiffed and smooth-faced Justin Trudeau gazes at worshippers filing into through the doors of Assuna Annabawiyah Mosque.

Two months ago, in June, the site was a vigil for the Afzaals, the London, Ont. family of four who had been mauled down by a white nationalist in his truck. Quebec’s minister in charge of fighting racism, Benoit Charette, began his speech with “as-salaam-alaikum,” but his words were drowned out by a chorus of boos and jeers of “hypocrite,” “racist,” and the constant refrain of “Bill 21!” Many in the crowd turned their backs. The minister never finished his speech.

“I won’t believe a word you say until you denounce Bill 21!” a woman in the crowd screamed when the federal Liberals took the stage.

None of the suits uttered a word about the religious symbols law — which makes it illegal for Muslim women to wear a hijab while teaching at public school. Elements of Bill 21 were invalidated by a Superior Court ruling in April but its most controversial elements remain in place.

Trudeau has stayed clear of the issue since the last election and deferred to the courts. In 2019, his suggestion that the feds might get involved was enough to draw Legault’s ire. The Liberals lost five Quebec seats and the Bloc, who championed the bill with beating chests, picked up 22.

This election cycle Trudeau has chummed up to the Quebec Premier, pledging dollars and making joint announcements.

Fast-forward to the present and Mustapha, who declines to give his last name, stands in front of the mosque, texting. A rolled-up prayer mat is tucked neatly under his other arm, and unlike most of the politicians in his province, he makes his position clear.

“Abolish [Bill 21] as soon as possible,” Mustapha says, glancing up from his cell phone. “My wife wears the veil,” he says. “We’re stuck in Montreal.”

Mustapha’s wife has been a primary school teacher for the past 15 years. Although she can’t get canned for her headscarf, neither can she take a new position or move without removing her hijab.

People shuffle inside. Prayers are about to begin, but Soumaya Zian shares her thoughts. Soumaya is an educator, directly in the law’s crosshairs. She doesn’t wear her hijab to work, but she asked her boss what would happen if she did.

“He said, ‘I wouldn’t accept you here.”

Take off the veil if you want to show you are an integrated and modern Muslim woman, he told her.

I nod as she speaks, imagining my former boss telling me what to wear. Before getting into the journalism business, I was a public-school teacher. But nobody ever demanded I prove my allegiance.

To Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal and the mosque’s imam, the feds are playing—or trying not to lose—a political game.

Trudeau knows the community more than the others, has carried the flag in the fight for minorities, and has kept some promises, but now we are in a “red danger zone,” Salam tells me over the phone.

“Mr. Legault was clever, let me put it in a nice way, to bring about some of these issues in a time of [political] vacuum,” he says. “He got away with it. There was a clear responsibility from the federal government to […] support […] court challenges, [to] support the minorities, to protect [their] rights.”

The constitution applies equally to every province, he says. “Who else do we have to go to protect minority rights and the constitution if not the federal government?”.

Fighting for seats in Quebec, the candidates have compromised and evaded taking a stance against the bill, diluting protections and ceding space to extremists whose hatred extends beyond Muslim community, he says. 

“They handed it over.”

So, where do the other party leaders stand exactly?

Self-styled defenders of Quebec, the Bloc staunchly defend the law. Rewind to 2015, a Bloc ad linked voting for Thomas Mulcair to pipelines spewing unwanted niqabs after he defended a woman’s right to sport a niqab at a citizenship ceremony.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives, capitalizing on the backlash against Mulcair, vowed to set up a hotline against “barbaric cultural practices.” Today, O’Toole’s party platform states that it will not intervene on the matter of Bill 21.

Move on to Jagmeet Singh, a man who dons a turban—a conspicuous religious symbol by the secularism law standards. The NDP platform states that Canada has experienced a 200 per cent increase in active hate groups in the last five years, with increasing violence acts against Muslims and other minorities, but Singh has not publicly vowed he would challenge Bill 21, despite repeated calls to do just that, including by Mulcair.

And so, the question remains unanswered.

Left to fend for themselves, people like Yusuf Faqiri aren’t standing by twiddling their thumbs. Yusuf’s phone is ringing off the hook these days. He’s the Quebec director of public affairs at the National Council of Canadian Muslims. Determined to repeal the law, the NCCM is pushing back against it in the court of appeal.

“One thing is clear, we will continue to fight until this thing is struck down,” says Yusuf, drawing the patient breath of a person who has answered the same questions over and over again. “It’s a racist bill […].”

The last time we spoke Papineau hosted the vigil. His voice was charged with a nervous but resolute energy then.

Singling people out for wearing religious symbols creates others and second-class citizens, and he’s concerned about the rising violence against minorities, he says, citing a 42 per cent rise in attacks against places of worship.

“There are these fundamentally dangerous nexuses between the far-right and the terrorist Islamophobic attacks that have taken place.”

We say our goodbyes, but the Prime Minister’s riding isn’t holding back its sorrows. Blocks away in the same neighbourhood, Muslim women find refuge from abuse. 

More and more women are seeking safety from Islamophobic violence. Veiled women are routinely excluded or abused at other women’s shelters, says Zena Chaudhry, founder and CEO of Sakeenah Homes, a Muslim women’s shelter, which opened its doors at its Park-Extension location this summer.

A Montreal woman recently reached out to her after being attacked at another shelter. Some of the women there had tried to tear off her hijab, and the management, rather than intervene, sent her packing.

Since Bill 21, many women employed in public sector jobs have been showing up, impoverished by their choice not to abandon their veils, Zena says.

Though quick to attend events and offers messages of support, Zena thinks the Liberals have taken Muslim votes for granted.

“The two parties that you would feel would speak out against it would be the NDP and the Liberals. Unfortunately, they haven’t done so […] because they’re pandering to votes they wouldn’t normally get […] so they could get a majority government.”

But Zena worries about the next batch of secularism laws.

“What’s reared its ugly head is Bill 21, [but] we have yet to see what’s going to come after that.”

What comes next? It’s a question voters will ask themselves as they flock to the polls. Ève Torres, the coordinator of the Park-Extension Round Table, says she’s a little jaded about the whole affair. But despite her disappointment with party leaders, Torres believes the next government will have no choice but to intervene, especially as the possibility of a second CAQ mandate looms closer in 2022.

“We can’t have second-class citizens,” she says. “Bill 21 has absolutely nothing to do with Quebec secularism. Quebec has been secular since the quiet revolution (in the 1960s).”

But for now, she isn’t expecting a peep out of the current crop of candidates.

“Can you imagine making a campaign issue out of [Bill 21] with the problems going on in Afghanistan with all the refugees that we will take in? It will bolster the identitarian right.”

She might be right, I tell myself. And I don’t know what to say.

Days pass. It’s Friday once more, and the first week of the campaign is nearly through. Cicadas blare and the sun, a Martian globe of retina-sizzling fury, is rapidly descending.

East of Papineau, worshippers trickle into Assahaba mosque for evening prayers; the one a masked assailant shot up in April with an air pistol. The lights inside the mosque turn on, a dim light as though keeping a low-profile. Staying out of sight perhaps to stay clear of trouble, perhaps why a representative from the mosque declined to comment for this story.

Trudeau’s face is absent here while the NDP candidate looks on from across the street. But up the block from the mosque the graffiti scrawled across a garbage bin might say more about the identity-tinged anxieties clouding the question of who is and isn’t a Quebecker in 2021.

“No country, no territory, no language, no money, no pride, no people, just shit, Quebecker?”

About the author…

Joe Bongiorno is a freelance journalist, fiction author, and former high school teacher. His journalism work has appeared in CBC, the National Observer, and the Montreal Gazette.

About the illustrator…

Manal S. Irfan is a Toronto-based graphic artist who graduated from the University of Toronto in 2016. Her work can be found at manalsali.com.