The politics of language and extremism

The mosque attack in Canada underlines how language can break apart society

Alexandre Bissonnette, the suspect in the Quebec mosque shooting, is seen in a Facebook posting.  Handout / Reuters
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Details are still emerging about a deadly attack on a mosque in Quebec on Sunday. Alexander Bissonnette, a 27-year-old French-Canadian student, has been charged with six counts of murder after an assault on the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre. Six people lost their lives and many others were injured.

Without going into the possible motivation of the gunman or the question of whether he operated alone, the reaction to the events in Quebec by government officials reveals a fundamental rift in multicultural societies such as Canada. Responding to the attack, prime minister Justin Trudeau informed the Canadian Muslim population that “we are with you”. Perhaps the sentiment was unintended, but the imagery of the statement is hard to miss. The dichotomy between “we” and “you” establishes a false division between ­Canadian-Muslims and the rest of society.

Had the attacker targeted white Canadians attending a church service, would Mr Trudeau inform the Christian community that “we are with you”? Or would he have used more inclusive language that didn’t establish an implicit “us” and “them” construction?

This type of wordplay has not come out of thin air. In the United States and Canada, immigrant communities have had difficulty leaving the label of their native countries behind. Think of the labels you might have heard: Somali-Americans, Japanese-Canadians and, of course, Muslim-Americans. These labels establish an unspoken barrier between immigrants and their host societies, one which flies in the face of the inclusive models of both the United States and Canada.

This is not to place blame on Mr Trudeau but to make a larger point about how language influences politics in subtle but profound ways. Mr Trudeau’s government has made impressive statements about Canada’s desire to welcome immigrants in light of political events happening south of the border. Indeed, Canada’s relatively open immigration policy has resulted in the creation of an admirable multicultural society.

As the authorities get a better handle on what transpired at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, it is crucial for Canadian society to come together as one and reject any false divisions that might exist between them. Above all else, this was an attack on Canada. Unity is the prudent response to attempts at division.