The planned transformation of Quebec’s Grand Mosque is haunted by the deadly attack on the Islamic centre in 2017
Tue 29 Jan 2019
The proposed renovation of Quebec’s Grand Mosque has provoked mixed feelings amongst worshippers. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
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.”