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Our obsession with the Ottawa shooter's religion reveals more about us than about him

Police officers responding to the shooting on Ottawa's Parliament Hill
Police officers responding to the shooting on Ottawa's Parliament Hill
Mike Carroccetto/Getty Images

Yesterday, the media reported that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the man allegedly responsible for a horrifying shooting spree in and around the Canadian parliament, was a convert to Islam. News reports on the shooting then spent much of the day fixated on that unconfirmed fact — even though there is as yet no evidence that his religion was a motivation for his actions. More sensational coverage discussed dubious social-media connections to ISIS.

These reports imply that because Zehaf-Bibeau was Muslim, jihad is the likely motivation for his attack. But at this stage, without any actual evidence, it makes no more sense to come to that conclusion than it would to assume that he was motivated by Quebecois separatism, just because he was from Quebec. At this point, our focus on the Ottawa shooter's religion says more about our own fears than it does about anything to do with Islamist terrorism.

On some level, of course, this feels like an obvious connection to make. ISIS dominates the news right now and we hear story after story of people from Western countries joining its jihadist campaign. Surely, it seems, Zehaf-Bibeau's religion must be relevant to the terrible crimes he committed yesterday?

But those assumptions start to break down upon a little closer examination. Is the theory that the only reason a Muslim would kill is in the name of Jihad? Muslims are just like anyone else, for better or worse, which means that just as an act of generosity by a person who is Muslim does not mean that act was motivated by Islam, a murder committed by a Muslim was not necessarily driven by Islamist extremism.

Still, with examples of Islamist terrorism sitting prominently in our minds, it's an easy jump to the conclusion that Zehaf-Bibeau's religion must be at the heart of all this. But that does not make that conclusion correct. The only way to find out what happened is to wait for evidence — no matter how desperate we are for answers in the meantime. Yes, it's possible that evidence will end up pointing to Islamist radicalism, but in the meantime all we are doing is speculating, based on nothing but the shooter's (unconfirmed) religion.

That speculation, in itself, reveals more about our own biases than it does about what happened yesterday on Parliament Hill. Consider, for instance, a previous Canadian shooting that bears a chilling resemblance to yesterday's events. Thirty years ago, Denis Lortie stormed Quebec's National Assembly with two C-1 submachine guns and a pistol. He murdered three people and injured 13 others before he, like Zehaf-Bibeau, was stopped by the parliamentary sergeant-at-arms. It was later discovered that Lortie was politically motivated: he had left a message with a local radio station that said "the government now in power is going to be destroyed" — apparently a reference to the separatist Parti Quebecois, which Lortie opposed.

If all we're looking for is a shared characteristic, then Zehaf-Bibeau has as much connection to Lortie's attack as he does to Islamist terrorism. He, like Lortie, was from Quebec.  If we applied the same logic to people from Quebec that we apply to Muslims, then today we would see media reports suggesting that their shared Quebecois heritage likely explains this attack. Or perhaps we would imply, with no evidence, that Quebec's active Francophone-nationalist separatist movement, radical elements of which have also been responsible for terrorist acts in the past, had inspired or possibly even ordered Zehaf-Bibeau's attack. And we would point, as a smoking gun, to the fact that he had apparently changed his name from the Anglophone "Michael Joseph Hall" to the much more French-sounding "Michael Zehaf-Bibeau."

But we don't do any of those things, and if someone did they would be rightly derided as ridiculous — perhaps even bigoted. Yet we apply this thinking freely and openly with regards to Muslims.

It is of course possible that we will discover evidence that our fears are true, and that Zehaf-Bibeau is linked to Islamist terrorism. But that hasn't happened yet. In the meantime, we can do nothing but wait, mourn his victim, and be grateful that he was stopped before he claimed more lives.

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