Aymen Derbali was rapidly losing consciousness as he lay on the floor of the Quebec City mosque, blood gushing from six bullet wounds, when he raised his arm to say a prayer.
“For me, those were the last seconds of my life, so I was trying to make shahada,” a declaration of faith that is central to Islamic doctrine, he explains.
As screams of anguish echoed around him, his vision clouded by gun smoke, he lifted his index finger to declare the oneness of God, as Muslims are encouraged to do when they are anticipating death.
That’s when he felt the seventh shot pierce his raised arm.
But it would not be the last time he prayed in the mosque.
Five years after a gunman walked into the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City and opened fire on worshippers, the pain in Derbali’s arm endures — the bullet struck him in the radial nerve, which provides motor and sensory function to parts of the arm, wrist and hand.
It’s a daily reminder of the event that changed his life forever and etched a painful scar in one of the oldest cities in Canada.
Six people lost their lives in the attack: Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42; Abdelkrim Hassane, 41; Khaled Belkacemi, 60; Aboubaker Thabti, 44; Azzeddine Soufiane, 57; and Ibrahima Barry, 39, while 19 others were injured, including Derbali, who is paralyzed from the waist down — a result of being shot in the spinal cord.
In the past two years, violent acts characterized as Islamophobic have not abated. In 2020, Mohamed-Aslim Zafis, a volunteer caretaker at a mosque in Toronto, was stabbed to death while watching the doors of the building. Reports emerged that the perpetrator frequented neo-Nazi forums but Toronto police said they could not clearly identify the motive of the attack.
Last year, a man rammed a pickup truck into a family of four Muslims in London, Ont. The perpetrator was charged with terrorism offences.
Alberta has seen a spate of violent attacks against women wearing hijabs. Most recently, a man allegedly attacked a woman and her children outside of a mosque, spitting on her car window and uttering violent threats before returning with a shovel and continuing the aggression.
Derbali, a father of three with a background in information technology, is originally from Tunisia and moved to Canada from Bolivia in 2001.
A devout man, he would attend prayers at the mosque multiple times a week or day — the space has always been a source of comfort and camaraderie for him, he says.
On Jan. 29, 2017, Derbali had taken one of his kids to swimming lessons and gone out for dinner with his family when he made a last-minute decision to visit the mosque.
About 10 minutes after arriving, while in the middle of prayer, Derbali started hearing gunfire outside. By the time the shooter entered the building, people were fleeing in every direction.
Derbali actively tried to distract the shooter and has been called a hero for risking his life to save others.
“I decided to stop him and run towards him, even though I knew he was a little bit far from me and he would be able to shoot me before I catch him,” Derbali said.
“Before running towards him, I was staring at him. I was doing some movements to draw his attention to me. And at that moment, he started to fire at my direction.”
One of the bullets hit him in the chest, near his heart, and one struck his spinal cord, which he remembers as the most painful moment.
“I was paralyzed after receiving that bullet. I lost a lot of blood, I was falling unconscious. I was trying to open my eyes, but it was really difficult. I was hearing a lot of screams, a lot of people saying ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great),” he said.
“All the time I remember those screams.”
As he lay on the ground, a pool of blood forming around him, he says, he stared directly into the attacker’s eyes, still hoping to distract him from shooting others.
“I could see hate in his eyes,” Derbali said. “He was very calm and very determined at the same time. He didn’t look frightened.”
For putting himself in the line of fire, Derbali was awarded the Governor General’s Medal of Bravery by Quebec.
Derbali’s injuries mean he cannot lift his arms and he’s been told it’s medically impossible for him to ever walk again. He can wiggle his fingers, but still needs help with most daily functions.
He says he feels blessed to be alive, and with his family.
Derbali woke up two months after the shooting in the hospital with his wife by his side. He learned his heart had stopped four times in hospital, at times for more than 30 seconds.
Doctors told his wife that because of the oxygen deprivation to his brain during those heart attacks, he would likely have no memory and would be unable to breathe on his own. They advised she take him off life support.
“She told them she would never accept that,” Derbali said. “And she was beside me all the time, 10 hours a day and also taking care of my three children.”
Derbali’s life will never be the same. He can no longer play soccer with his son or go for walks with his kids outside.
But he’s grateful he can breathe on his own, his memories are intact, his heart is healthy and he can even move his arms, which doctors said would not be possible.
After his release from hospital, he lived for two years in a rehabilitation centre because his home was not wheelchair accessible. During that time he would have strange nightmares of waking up in the hospital in countries he’s never been to, such as Syria and Russia.
The road to recovery, both physically and mentally, has been long and is ongoing. But spiritually, he’s never felt stronger.
When Derbali, 45, speaks of his relationship with God, the conviction in his voice is palpable. He frequently starts sentences with the Arabic phrase “Alhamdullilah,” or praise God.
“I was lucky to survive. This is my destiny and I’ve accepted it.”
Hassan Guillet learned about the shooting while he was out with his family for dinner. His son first noticed something on social media about a shooting at a mosque in Quebec and alerted his father, a prominent imam in the Montreal area.
He would ultimately deliver eulogies at three of the victim’s funerals, and some criticized him for saying the shooter was a victim, too — of ignorance. He said the shooting is “beyond understanding” and he has trouble reconciling it with the Canada he knows and loves.
Guillet came to Canada more than 40 years ago from war-torn Lebanon. In some ways, the mosque shooting shattered his perception of Canada, which he saw as an “oasis of peace.”
“So to have this happen at a mosque in Canada, in Quebec … it’s an attack on me as a human being, as a father, as a Muslim as well. I see it as an attack on all of what Quebec and Canada was,” Guillet said.
He said when he came here, the country was most well known internationally for its association with the blue helmets and berets of United Nations peacekeeping missions.
So it enraged him when he heard the perpetrator of the New Zealand mosque shootings, in which 51 people were killed, was partly inspired by the Quebec City shooter — the gunman in Christchurch had written his name on a rifle.
Guillet said this has been compared to Canada “exporting terrorism.”
“We were known as peace-loving people … And here we are, we have one Canadian who was used as a model for a terrorist on the other side of the planet,” he said.
Stemming the tide of hate has proven difficult, but Canada has not been completely complacent. There was M-103, a non-binding motion in Parliament to condemn Islamophobia passed by the Liberal government. Last year, the government designated Jan. 29 as the National Day of Remembrance and Action Against Islamophobia.
Last summer, the government held a National Summit on Islamophobia, where it committed to a number of actions, including engaging with Muslim communities on their Anti-Racism Action Plan and making white-supremacist groups a greater priority.
However, community members such as Guillet said these actions are largely symbolic and what is truly needed is stronger legislation that explicitly identifies Islamophobia as a hate crime, with greater punishments.
Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said that while he agrees hate-crime legislation needs to be strengthened, there is also a role for Canadians to play.
“When you have a segment of the population that wants to actively harm or hurt Canadian Muslims, we have an attitudinal problem that needs to be challenged through dialogue, education and resourcing … This is not an Ottawa or Legislature of Alberta problem. This is an everyone problem,” Farooq said.
One enduring source of frustration is that the Quebec City shooter was never charged with terrorism offences, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau characterizing it as such.
It’s particularly important for Derbali, who said he was told by the Crown prosecutor in the Quebec City shooter’s trial that after 10,000 hours of work and investigation, they felt they didn’t have enough evidence to pin it on him. Derbali would like to have such attacks labelled as terrorism without giving the shooter more notoriety: “We need to qualify the crime itself and not see the person who did that crime.”
Michael Nesbitt, an associate law professor at the University of Calgary, said in his analysis the Quebec City attack absolutely was an act of terrorism, which needs to be motivated by political, religious or ideological motives, or be tied to an identified terrorist group.
One reason terrorism-related charges have been few and far between in Canada is simply because it’s uncharted territory. Such offences were only introduced in the Criminal Code in 2001 and it wasn’t until the mid-2010s when the Canadian government started taking far-right extremism seriously.
In recent years, prosecutors seem more willing to lay terrorism-related charges. The alleged perpetrator of last year’s pickup truck attack in London was charged with terrorism-related offences; that was called the first time Canadian anti-terrorism laws were used to prosecute an alleged Islamophobic act.
A man accused of striking a woman with a hammer and killing her in Toronto in 2020 was charged with terrorism, as was a man accused of killing two women at a Toronto massage parlour. Public Safety Canada determined the latter attack was “motivated by the incel ideology.”
In 2019, the federal government added two neo-Nazi groups — Blood & Honour and Combat 18 — to its list of terrorist entities for the first time. Nisbett believes this was because those two groups were named in the Christchurch shooter’s call to action.
Nisbett noted that while first-degree murder already comes with the heaviest penalty in the Criminal Code, it’s still important to call acts of terrorism what they are: “Criminal law is about communicating right and wrong to society … That’s why we talk about punishment. That’s why we talk about deterrence,” Nisbett said.
He added that some prosecutors may be hesitant to pursue terrorism-related charges because it makes cases more complex. “It will slow the trial down for sure, it’ll bring all sorts of procedural and technical disputes into play,” Nisbett said, arguing it’s worth it anyhow.
Derbali recognizes that many people would not want to revisit the building where they took seven bullets and almost died. Still, he returned to the mosque as soon as he was able.
“This is my healing process, to go and to be able to face that tragedy … it’s very important to remain close to my (Muslim) brothers,” he said.
He regularly thinks of the worshippers who were killed, hoping they’ve been accepted to the gates of heaven. The Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City has been renovated, with the addition of four emergency exits.
Derbali last attended about a month ago, before pandemic restrictions caused it to close again. He believes he survived for a reason.
“For me this is an opportunity to fight against Islamophobia. I feel I have a duty, a mission, toward my community and all the citizens (of Canada),” he said.
He said he’s eager to return to the mosque when it reopens.
“For me the mosque is God’s house,” Derbali said. “The need to go and pray doesn’t change.”
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