What the sacrifices of the Quebec Mosque shooting victims taught me

What the sacrifices of the Quebec Mosque shooting victims taught me

By Taha Ghayyur

As I prayed the Isha (night) prayer tonight at my local mosque, I experienced a stream of raw emotions as I recalled the stories of so many heroes five years ago who went to the mosque in the Quebec City. It's hard holding back tears during the Imam's recitation.

It was an ordinary Sunday night for most Canadians. But for a community of Muslim worshippers at the Quebec Cultural Islamic Centre, Jan. 29th, 2017 was a beginning of a life long nightmare that altered their lives and families in unspeakable ways.

6 men martyred: Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane and Aboubaker Thabti.

19 men injured.

1 survivor paralyzed with major life-altering disabilities.

1 young girl who witnessed her own father being shot.

6 grieving widows left behind.

17 children orphaned.

An entire community of Muslims terrorized and traumatized till this day.

All this terror caused by a white supremist hatemonger at a place that is supposed to be the  most sacred, safe, and vulnerable for Muslims: a Mosque or a Masjid.

Islamophobia hurts. Islamophobia paralyzes. Islamophobia kills.

Five years later, as we mark the first National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action against Islamophobia (thanks to the advocacy work of NCCM and many other advocates in the community), Canadian Muslims continue to be reminded of the pain and trauma of ongoing incidents of Islamophobia in Canada and beyond.

The moment I watched a raw footage on social media of a community member standing outside the Quebec Cultural Islamic Centre, sharing his shock at what was supposedly happening inside the centre, as he was repeatedly reciting “Hasbuna Allah wa nimal Wakeel” (Sufficient is Allah for us and He is the best disposer of affairs), I immediately knew this is not ordinary incident.

For me, the night of Jan. 29th, 2017 was a long night of anxiety, pain, and crisis management, as we got on emergency response calls and meetings with the DawaNet leadership.

It was the beginning of an unforgettable journey of communal healing, grieving, learning, sharing, and building resilience with the  Quebec City Muslim community, thanks to the visionary and responsive people like Arif Zia, Tariq Syed, Shk. Daood Butt, and Saleha Faruque from the DawaNet management who sprung into action and worked closely with Quebec Cultural Islamic Centre leadership for weeks, months, and years to come.

From launching emergency fundraising campaigns for the victims of the Quebec mosque shooting, to attending the funerals in two different cities, to visiting and supporting the victims’  families and the community multiple times, to organizing educational and counselling events for the Quebec City Muslim community, to dealing with media, to producing first of its kind documentary telling the story of Quebec mosque terror attack through the eyes and words of the survivors and victims’ families; to honouring the victims’ families and survivors at MuslimFest, this humble team did it all despite meagre resources and language barriers, while relying on the cooperation and resiliency of the beautiful Quebec City Muslim community.

There were several other incredible humanitarians, advocates, and leaders in the Muslim community who were part of this journey of healing and rebuilding the Quebec City Muslim community in their own amazing ways, including but not limited to: Mohammed Hashim, Amira Elghawaby (NCCM), Ihsaan Gardee (NCCM), Mahmood Qasim (Islamic Relief Canada), Zaid Al-Rawni (Islamic Relief Canada), Samer Majzoub (Canadian Muslim Forum), Mohamad Fakih (Paramount Fine Foods), and some others.

Anecdotes of Resilience

In this journey of pain, solidarity, and growth, there were two anecdotes that stood out the most for me.

First, when we arrived in Quebec City for the second time to disburse funds raised for the fallen victims’ families and the survivors, we went straight to the Quebec Cultural Islamic Centre. As we entered the Masjid, we were met with a melodious recitation of the Quran over the loudspeaker from the Imam leading Maghrib prayer.

After the prayer, as I went up to the Imam to convey my Salam, I was told that he is the very Imam, Imam Nazar, who was shot on the dreadful night of January 29th, 2017. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. What kind of courage does it take for a leader of a congregation to be back in the same spot where the blood of so many innocent men was spilled barely six weeks prior, and lead the congregation.

As Imam Nazar and our team were chatting, I saw a pretty little girl in a blue hijab and black dress come over and hug him at his side. Assuming that she was his daughter, I asked Imam’s permission to take a photo of both of them as she reminded me of my own daughter.

To my utter shock, I was told that she was the very same girl who witnessed the terrorist shooting her father and injuring and killing numerous others that night. Not only that, the heartless shooter even aimed his gun at this beautiful girl, who was immediately shielded by another hero that night, Hakim.  To everyone’s relief, the terrorist ran out of ammunition by this time and both Hakim and the Imam’s daughter were spared. Alhamdulillah.

As I was processing all these stories of suffering, courage, and heroism, I couldn’t help but notice how packed the Masjid was again barely weeks after the worst ever terrorist attack at a place of worship on this soil. That’s resilience. Subhan Allah.

The second anecdote involves our visit to the family of Abdelkrim Hassane, one the six brave men murdered on the night of the Quebec mass shooting. We met three young beautiful daughters (one of whom was a baby) he left behind and their grieving mother.

Abdelkrim’s wife told us about the last family time they had together on the day of his departure from this world. He gathered his daughters and watched an inspirational video about a boy in France who struggled throughout his life, kept on persevering, and defied many odds to become a successful person later in life. Abdelkrim taught his girls a lesson in willpower and resilience as his parting advice.

There are many incredible stories of heroism, sacrifice, and resilience from these beautiful souls.

Here are five lessons I am reminded of on the fifth anniversary of the #QuebecMosqueShooting:

  1. Islamophobia and hate has no boundaries. It is alive and kicking locally and globally. As with most mass Islamophobic terrorist attacks (Quebec City, Christchurch and Norway) as well as persecution of Muslim minorities around the world (Uighur and Rohingya genocides), hatemongers have found inspiration in other successful bigots. Hence the urgency to counter the scourge of Islamophobia in Canada and global anti-Muslim colonial projects.
  2. Never take your safety and freedoms for granted. Cherish and defend the blessings of peace and security that many of us enjoy in Canada, as there are many in the racialized and Indigenous communities in our country and millions of oppressed minorities who don’t have this luxury. Education and advocacy to counter Islamophobia and defense of human rights is a lifelong commitment we all need to  commit to.
  3. Sacrifices of the fallen and injured brothers and sisters should never be forgotten. The tragic loss of the Quebec City Muslim community spurred a national movement to fight systemic and violent forms of Islamophobia and hate of all forms. Today, the successes of advocacy leaders and organizations in countering the narratives of hate across Canada rest on the shoulders of the courageous souls of the victims and survivors of the Quebec Mosque shooting.
  4. Resilience comes only with trials and tribulations. God chooses those who can shine through these calamities and bounce back with greater willpower. Never underestimate the power of tribulation in teaching us a lesson that we would never be able to learn otherwise: “He (Allah) is the One Who created death and life in order to test which of you is best in deeds. And He is the Almighty, All-Forgiving” (Quran 67:2).
  5. Any moment may be our last, so let’s make every moment count. The last action of the six martyrs of the Quebec Mosque shooting was prayer in the most sacred place for Muslims. What will our last conversation with the loved ones be like? Are we ready to meet Allah no matter where we are? Are we comfortable with the level of God-consciousness in our lifestyle? How much do we prefer others over our pleasures? Are we ready to stand up for justice and human rights for anyone? These questions matter because these will determine what actions would be our last and how we will be remembered by our loved ones, by our communities, and most importantly by the company of angels.