Religious Violence in Canada: Will It Happen Again?

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The recent shooting in a Quebec City mosque has prompted shocked Canadians to wonder whether we will see more religiously motivated violence.

We will.

“Religiously motivated violence,” however, is too narrow a category to describe what we’ve just witnessed. “Culturally-and-ethnically motivated violence” is really what’s going on.

The fear of the stranger, the newcomer, the Other runs deep in our genes. What is familiar is, by definition, likely safer than what isn’t, since what’s familiar at least hasn’t killed us yet.

We welcome change, yes, but research shows that we strongly prefer change that is only a slight improvement on what we’ve enjoyed before: a slightly tastier pizza, a slightly more versatile phone, a slightly more efficient way to do our job.

Anything too different, anything that threatens our sense of mastery and therefore our sense of security, sets off alarm bells.

A few nice Chinese people downtown running a restaurant? No big deal, and the food is such good value!

A few Koreans running the corner store? No worries! They’re so polite and their shelves have everything you need.

A few Sikhs driving cabs? If they get the job done, no problem.

But once the strangers become numerous enough to affect our lives—numerous enough to change our schools, or our land zoning, or even our local signs—then we start to bristle. Too much change, too fast.

Catholics and Protestants in Canada have a long history of violence—but of course it wasn’t aroused by doctrinal or liturgical difference. It was about communities fearing each other as different enough to pose a threat to a familiar way of life.

Conscription during our major wars, governmental funding of religious schools, incendiary words shouted on religious radio broadcasts—all of these have sparked violence among Canadians already uncomfortable with each other: Catholics, Protestants, French, English, Irish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, even Doukhobors.

So now we have a new Other growing in size and visibility: the Muslims about whom most of us know very little that we haven’t learned from evening newscasts and popular movies, most of which focus on violence.

Angry, aggrieved, and anxious individuals who see the world in simplistic terms gravitate to places in which the battle between good and evil seems stark and upon which they can focus their fear and loathing.

Synagogues have played the role of “convenient target” for a long time in Western history. They still do, alas.

But the even stranger mosques, with their even stranger devotees who are even more conspicuous and much more frequently linked with violence against the West, now fit the bill even better.

How to make peace in such a volatile situation?

Peace-making, at least according to the Bible, isn’t merely dousing conflict and stifling dissent. Conflict, in fact, can be creative. And dissent usually threatens only the powerful.

Biblical shalom-making instead is about seeking the welfare of everyone involved so that all may flourish together.

In this case, peace-making is not conceptually complex. But it is practically hard:

  1. We need to learn about Islam. Learn that not all one billion Muslims think the same way, want the same things, and act in concert. Learn how Muslims range from pro-Western to anti-Western, from pro-modernity to anti-modernity, and from pro-Canada to anti-Canada. Learn what we really do have to fear from Islam continuing to emerge in Canada, and what we don’t.
  1. We need to vet newcomers—from everywhere, not just from Muslim-majority countries—to make as sure as can that they truly endorse our common Canadian values and are not intent on merely replicating here what they enjoyed back home. A new country and a new culture mean significant compromise: Are we making sure each applicant knows and affirms what he or she is getting into?
  1. We need to support refugees and be sure to help them truly settle and prosper here. We have congratulated ourselves on our largesse in welcoming people from desperate places around the world, but if we merely house them briefly and provide inadequate language training, schooling, and employment skills, we doom them to despair again—the despair that haunts the European Union and flares up into violence.
  1. We need to take initiative to meet our fellow Canadians, and especially if they’re significantly different. It’s harder to believe dangerously simplistic charges against most groups if you actually know some people in them. Labeling has to give way to acquaintance and, ideally, to friendship.

Otherwise, those people down the street who look and sound so different?

They remain merely conspicuous targets. And the violence will continue.

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John serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. He is the author of nine books, the editor of four more, and the author of over 600 articles, book chapters, and reviews in academic publications, major newspapers, and magazines. His writings range over history, sociology, philosophy, theology, ethics, and comparative religion. He has spoken throughout North America, in the United Kingdom, and in China, India, Israel, Korea, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand. His commentary on religion and contemporary culture has been featured by major broadcast and print media as diverse as The New York Times, The Atlantic, ABC News, CBC Radio, Time, and Reader’s Digest.

One Comment

  1. If we can not pay our military a little extra for serving in countrys of unrest ,perhaps we should be rethinking the liberals imigration policeys

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