Mary Fitzgerald: 'Clash of civilisations' ethos pushing far-right and Muslims further apart
Night had fallen when worshippers streamed into a small mosque in the Canadian city of Quebec for prayers last Sunday. Men, women and children greeted each other as they assembled for one of the five Muslim daily prayers. What unfolded in the next minutes was one of the worst acts of terror Canada has ever experienced.
A gunman burst into the mosque and opened fire. Six men - all fathers - were shot in the back and killed as they prayed. Another 19 worshippers were injured. Those who perished included a university professor and a civil servant.
The following day Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old university student, was charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five charges of attempted murder. Those who knew Bissonnette painted a picture of a young man in thrall to the far-right, someone who admired US President Donald Trump and France's far-right presidential contender Marine Le Pen, someone who opposed immigration and liked to harass online those who welcomed Syrian refugees to Quebec.
The mosque Bissonnette attacked had been targeted before: swastikas had been scrawled on its walls and a pig's head left on its doorsteps during Ramadan, with a note attached reading "bon appétit".
Sunday's killings, in one of the safest cities in a country that likes to present itself as a tolerant and welcoming place for everyone, have prompted no little soul-searching over the consequences of rising anti-Muslim sentiment, much of it actively stirred by elements from Canada's right wing and their fellow travellers online. "This mosque attack is no accident," local MP Michael Chong said on Twitter. "It's a direct result of demagogues and wannabe demagogues playing to fears and prejudices."
The Quebec attack has chilled Muslims beyond Canada, particularly those living in countries where anti-Muslim rhetoric is now no longer the preserve of just the far-right, but is increasingly being adopted by mainstream politicians who feel threatened by the rise of populist movements peddling xenophobia and bigotry. "If it can happen in Canada, it can happen anywhere," one British Muslim told me this week. "That is the fear."
The shootings took place as Donald Trump - whose vow during the Republican primaries to ban all Muslims from the US was cheered by the white supremacists who form part of his support base - imposed a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries.
The fact the upper echelons of Mr Trump's administration include figures with a pronounced antipathy towards Islam and a belief in the idea of a "clash of civilisations" between Muslims and non-Muslims has made many fear what other policies Mr Trump might introduce at home and abroad.
His national security adviser, Mike Flynn, last year tweeted a link to an anti-Muslim video and wrote: "Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL". Mr Flynn has said in an interview that "Islam is not necessarily a religion but a political system that has a religious doctrine behind it". Mr Trump's chief strategist Stephen Bannon, in a presentation at the Vatican in 2014, argued that the "Judeo-Christian West" is at war with Islam. Mr Bannon has also repeatedly warned of Muslim influence in Europe, using messaging that echoes that of the far-right parties and movements now growing more assertive across the continent. It is no coincidence that Mr Bannon has lauded Ms Le Pen's Front National - which has a long history of pushing similar ideas in France. The Trump team has maintained contacts with Ms Le Pen since early last year.
France - rattled by a series of attacks by Isil over the past two years - is heading into a presidential election campaign that promises to be bruisingly polarised, with Ms Le Pen's rivals already showing they are willing to employ messaging critical of Muslims to try to counter her rhetoric.
Key figures in the current Socialist government have publicly talked of banning the headscarf in universities (it is already outlawed in schools).
Others defended the ban - later overturned by the courts - of the all-body swimsuit known as the burkini in several French towns last summer. Beyond political circles, the debate on Islam in France - home to Europe's largest Muslim population - has become increasingly shrill. A recent book which argued France's burgeoning halal - meaning permissible according to Islamic law - foods industry was a danger to democracy received much attention in the French media, including large spreads in some of the country's most distinguished publications.
Some French commentators, including Nicolas Henin, a journalist who was kidnapped and held by Isil for 10 months in northern Syria, have argued that this approach - which some describe as akin to a culture war - serves only to bolster Isil and other extremists who - like Mr Trump's aide Mr Bannon and his ilk - believe in a "clash of civilisations" and use that idea to recruit Muslims who feel disenfranchised.
Dangerous days indeed.