The Current

Quebec mosque attack symptom of 'populist hatred spreading,' says law prof

Can we connect political words to murderous deeds? We are in a world of political disruption, anger, change, protest and defiance, but how do we process all of this? Law professor Payam Akhavan tells us what we're not seeing.
McGill law professor Payam Akhavan fears normalizing hate and xenophobia overrides liberal values. (Vincenzo D’Alto/McGill University)

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Thousands gathered to mourn in vigils all over Canada for the six dead from the Jan. 29 attack at a Quebec City mosque.

This tragedy happened here in Canada.

McGill law professor Payam Akhavan has no doubt that following U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration ban against several predominantly Muslim countries, there's a connection to this violence.

"When political figures — let alone the president of the United States — makes it acceptable to hate people merely on the grounds of their identity, we should not be surprised that this will encourage elements that otherwise would be at the margins, " Akhavan tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"It would be naive to imagine that the normalization and mainstreaming of anti-Islamic hatred and scapegoatism wouldn't eventually spill over into violence." 

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RelatedQuebec City mosque shooting victims

Akhavan warns it may be tempting to see this as an isolated incident but "it's best to see it as the symptom of a wider disease that is spreading in our midst."

"It's said that the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, it began with words. And we've now had for some time this poison of populist hatred spreading in the political space in Europe and now in North America," he says. 
A woman stands with people as they gather to observe a candlelight vigil for victims of the shooting at a Quebec City mosque. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Akhavan has spent a decade working with the United Nations as a war crimes prosecutor at The Hague in conflict zones around the world and says the experience made him realize, "we can only put so much faith in our democratic institutions to keep the peace."

"Ultimately it's our culture, it's our communities, it's our sense of empathy and engagement that prevents a small minority of extremists from whipping up hysteria."

Akhavan fled his home country of Iran because of religious persecution and says there are "profound similarities between Islamic extremism and now this sort of white supremacist Christian nationalism."

"We have to understand that this sort of hate and its expression through violence is about the needs of the perpetrator to find a scapegoat for his own misery, for his own misfortune."

Akhavan blames liberal elites for failing to "connect with the real woes of ordinary people."

"One out of three children in the United States live under the poverty line. So the ordinary suffering and anger of people is something which if it is left unaddressed by political intellectual and other liberal elites, it's going to be tapped into by populist demagogues."

Beyond political leaders taking responsibility, Akhavan declares a cultural revolution is needed in Canada to fight against the hatred and intolerance — to move beyond simple reactive gestures to tragedy.

"We need ordinary people in their places of work, in their communities, in their families to have those conversations that create a society in which human rights principles have deep roots," Akhavan tells Tremonti.

"Otherwise we're going to have masses who are apathetic, who are indifferent and who will very easily fall prey to populist hatred."

He tells Tremonti the election of President Trump is a wake-up call.

"If one good thing comes out of it, it's that young people will no longer take for granted the values of liberalism and human rights that they've assumed will always be there."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien.