Until 29 January 2017, random motorists on the busy Chemin Sainte-Foy would sometimes pull over to the Quebec City Grand Mosque to withdraw some money.
Converted from a Desjardins Bank, it still looks like one, with its rows of rectangular glass panes and a barricaded drive-through. Its only crescent and minaret are in graphic form on a small plastic sign, blocked from the road by trees.
Its ordinariness must have surprised those who had only heard about the mosque on radio-poubelles, or “trash radio”, Quebec’s uniquely corrosive brand of conservative talk radio. Even after a rightwing radical, 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonette, opened fire on men and children inside – killing six, injuring 19 and traumatizing many of its 500 weekly worshippers – radio hosts continued vilifying the mosque, falsely claiming women were forced to enter it from between dumpsters “like cattle”.
For a place burdened with so much tragedy, the mosque remains remarkably nondescript. Its plainness is further exaggerated by a French colonial cathedral directly across the street. Itself a beleaguered place of worship, several fires since the 18th century have reduced the historic site to an ornate stone facade.
But soon, the cathedral could have a twin. Pending city government approval, the Grand Mosque will undergo a dramatic transformation more befitting of its name. The renovation reimagines the rectangular red building into a contemporary edifice with classical Islamic features: arches, arabesque designs, and a minaret inspired by the cathedral’s partial bell tower.
But not all Quebec City Muslims favour the design.
One group feels that they should do something beautiful to present the mosque as part of Québécois culture, like the old church, as a sign that they don’t have anything to hide, said Zied Kallel, who leads the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec’s strategic committee.
Another section of the community, including Kallel, worries the architecture – especially the minaret – could provoke further attacks and undermine recent security measures.
A third group disagrees with those very safety measures, especially automatically locking doors, preferring the mosque be open 24 hours a day, in the spirit of those in much of the Muslim world.
But unlike those mosques, the Grand Mosque is central to the immigrant Muslim community. The Quebec Islamic Cultural Center runs a Sunday school, Arabic class, nursery and family activities inside. “Running them has been hard because families are afraid of going there,” said Amira Boulmerka, the director of the Islamic School of Quebec. Several families stopped coming to the mosque, while others have left Quebec entirely. “It should be accessible 24 hours,” said Boulmerka, “but in light of the upheavals and major issues of the world, I don’t think mosques should be permanently open – and they can’t be without surveillance.”
Balancing security with openness
Mosques all across North America are struggling to balance security with openness. “Psychologically, when people have to go through too many filters to attend [worship], they start becoming anxious about the facility itself,” said Kassem Allie, executive administrator of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan.
As one of the US’s largest and most iconic mosques, it is a frequent target of threats, harassment and anti-Muslim protests. After a pastor infamous for burning Qur’ans vowed to do the same at the Michigan mosque, in 2011, they started hiring on-site personnel. Depending on the day – or headlines of the day – it’s protected by as many as three patrolmen. “We can put a barbed-wire fence, put up metal detectors, x-ray machines, but the end result is that nobody would want to come,” said Allie.
The Islamic Society of Greater Houston never locked doors at its 20 mosques until a recent rash of arsons and vandalism at Texas mosques. Now they’re locked up after Isha’a, the last of five daily prayers. They also hired a sheriff’s department and security firm to audit and help implement recommendations for each temple. Others around the country report installing emergency exits, elaborate camera systems, bulletproof glass and coded keypads.
Costs run as high as $200,000. In Canada, the federal government covers half the expense. The program has formally existed since 2012, but most past recipients were Jewish groups. After the armed assault on the Grand Mosque, an unprecedented number of organizations applied for the funding. Now as many as two-thirds of recipients are Muslim groups.
The Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec had long invested in security enhancements before Bissonnette’s killing spree. Indeed, multi-camera footage was key evidence during at his trial. “Access was programmed according to the times of the day – 10 minutes before prayer, and 10 minutes after,” explained Aymen Derbali, whose only memory of trying to stop Bissonnette was from the video. Isha’a prayer had already finished when the assailant entered the door and started shooting. Had Bissonnette come a few minutes later, Derbali might be able to walk today.
The centre now requires worshippers to apply for individual access cards and prohibits children from opening doors to outside. One survivor of the tragedy monitors the camera feeds live from his apartment a block away.
More enhancements are expected with the reconstruction, but safety is only part of the goal. The main purpose was expansion. Though the renderings were only presented to worshippers last year, they were drawn up by a Muslim architect from the mosque and a local firm two years before the tragedy. They never expected to have the funds to execute the million-dollar project so soon, but an outpouring of charitable donations could make it possible this year.
“It’s sad to say, but we are famous because of what happened,” said Kallel. “The problem isn’t with the money, it’s with the planning.”
In the 1990s, fundraising for the mosque’s first iteration took three years to reach its $120,000 goal. The community was a few hundred Muslims then, most of them North African immigrants who had come to study. As they earned middle-class careers and the community outgrew the space, it took another three years to raise the down payment on the former bank in 2008. But the Grand Mosque has struggled to keep up with the city’s growing Muslim population, including many refugees, now estimated at 15,000.
“It just gets so full, it’s so tiny, and I don’t like the fact that women are upstairs following the imam on a TV,” said Kallel’s wife, who asked to go by “Yasmin”, fearing harassment. “I wish we could have a real mosque inside, so when you go to pray you really feel like going to pray.” She has, however, some reservations about the impressive new plans. “I wouldn’t want to hide, but I wouldn’t want to attract attention either.”
The Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec president, Boufeldja Benabdallah, said they hoped to “embellish the image of Islam in Quebec and definitely mark our presence with a real Great Mosque of Quebec that will enter [local] Muslim history”. The minaret, with steel spires fashioned after the neighbouring cathedral tower, was conceived as a harmonious gesture between faiths.
For supporters of the aesthetic redesign, the architecture has become even more important since the tragedy. “Maybe it will be more beautiful and attractive for people who want to learn about Islam,” said Derbali. “The first message we have to give to the population is we are not afraid.”
Maybe so, but Quebec is a particularly hostile environment for Muslims. Anti-Muslim hate crimes in Quebec City doubled in the year since the attack. Two of the 42 reported cases involved excrement being thrown at the mosque and the past president’s car being set on fire. In October 2017, Quebec’s Liberal government passed a bill banning women in niqabs from receiving public services as basic as transit, while a newly elected rightwing party plans to expand those laws to prohibit civil servants from wearing any religious symbol at work.
Given the environment, some worshippers would prefer the mosque to relocate entirely. But for Derbali, praying at the same mosque, albeit now from a wheelchair, has been therapeutic. When he finally returned for Friday prayers, seven months later, he struggled to retain his composure. “I had some tears in my eyes, because I got a flashback of what happened and remembered the murders of all the brothers, and the ones who were injured,” he said. “But in order to pass through this tragedy, I have to face it another time.”
To mitigate post-traumatic triggers, the prayer hall was repainted on the recommendations of trauma scene specialists, who also recommended replacing the carpet. The board, however, opted to replace only the damaged sections.
Now, when Kallel sees the rolled-up patches of green and pink rug sitting in the mosque’s basement, he feels a sense of unease. Not because they have been marked with bullet holes and the blood of his friends, but because he fears they will soon be discarded. He feels the country has already forgotten and moved on. So just as the hollowed cathedral is maintained as a reminder of its Jesuit roots and its role in the Seven Years’ War, Zied wants these tragic artefacts to stand as reminders of the worst mass murder in a Canadian place of worship.
Bullet holes remain in a ceiling above a storage area, where worshippers took refuge, and through a bathroom door, where another narrowly escaped death. And despite their efforts, there are at least two holes left in the carpet. “We cannot just wipe off everything and turn the page,” said Kallel. “You have to have something symbolic. People should remember.”