“The endgame for civilisation is an integrated, pluralistic and tolerant civil society.”
– Sam Harris
In many ways, the world seems to have been turned on its head. The things so many of us have taken for granted feel as though they are slipping through our fingers no matter how tight our grip.
There is a palpable sense of anxiety in the air, driven in large measure by the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency. His first week in office has been marked by controversy, confusion and political upheaval. When America, the freest nation in history, begins to retreat from liberal democratic norms and values, it begins to feel as though the entire enterprise of democracy is sliding into recession.
Canadians fretted and wrung their hands with each executive order Trump signed recently, wondering and worrying what it might mean for us. Would the great southern elephant we sleep beside, to use the late Pierre Trudeau’s famous metaphor, finally roll over and crush us.
But even as we struggled to understand what this new American reality means for us, Canada was struck by a tragedy we have seen play out south of the 49th many more times than we have ever seen it happen within our borders.
A lone gunman. Unsuspecting innocents. Death.
Six men were killed in a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque Sunday night.
Mamadou Tanou Barry.
The young man arrested in connection with the shooting, Alexandre Bissonnette, faces six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder using a restricted firearm. He is known in Quebec City as a right-wing internet troll who expressed anti-foreigner and misogynist views and is a fan of Trump and France’s right-wing leader Marine Le Pen.
The incident seems a grisly avatar for our zeitgeist, fueled by the politics of division and hatred.
And yet there is a silver lining of hope. Tonight, all across the nation, Canadians stood in vigil beside their Muslim brothers and sisters, sharing their grief and rage together as a diverse, multicultural nation.
Here in St. Catharines, Ontario, some 500 people gathered at city hall for a vigil before marching in unison to the Masjid An-Noor mosque.
The importance of this show of strength and community cannot be underestimated. If every act in this world is, by definition, a political one then vigils like this are not just important demonstrations of solidarity with a grieving Canadian community, but essential to keep our democracy vibrant.
— Laura Barton (@LBartonTribune) January 31, 2017
So often our political discourse is reduced to 140-character Twitter storms of adolescence rage. Sides are drawn, insults are flung, and intelligence cast aside in favour of insipid identity politics.
It is in this ugly morass that extremists – from religious fundamentalists to political demagogues – find their flock. They need people to stay angry, stay fearful and, above all, stay divided, for their influence to reach its zenith.
Although white-nationalists (in more honest times they would simply have been called neo-fascists) and the two prongs of Islamic extremism, Islamists and jihadists, would be at each other throats in an instant, they are remarkably similar in many respects.
Both strive to recreate a fictional “pure” society that existed in an imaginary past, where the only people that mattered looked like them, sounded like them and believe as they do.
The white-nationalist and the Islamist will both use governmental institutions to turn democracy against itself. If that fails, the most extreme in their ranks will resort to murder. But above all, they need a narrative of division, of imagined victimisation at the hands of an enemy, to exist. Discord, fear and political apathy is the very oxygen they breathe.
That these narratives are very attractive to those who feel forgotten, marginalised and frustrated is something we should never lose sight of. They provide an explanation for all that is wrong with the world and offer simplistic, definitive solutions. They are the stories that can radicalize otherwise normal people.
The kind of scene we saw play out in St. Catharines and around the country, of Muslims and Jews and atheists and Christians, of men and women and children of every creed and colour, walking in solidarity offers a powerful alternative story. Rather than a message that pits one community against another, it says “We are one nation of different communities. We all belong.”
— Safia Ahmed (@fiakayyyy) February 1, 2017
The genius of liberal democracies is they offer the space for a kaleidoscope of communities to stand together and be free. But this is not for the faint of heart. Democracy is historically rare, is forever fragile and requires hard work and sacrifice to maintain it.
Standing with our fellow Canadians, regardless of their religion, is not just an emotional balm in the face of tragedy. It is the story we need to tell each other, every day, precisely because that is what makes us what we are.