Fear of Islamist terrorism seems to be feeding into the fermenting debate over diversity and accommodation in Quebec, especially of its Muslim minority.
Concern about the spread of radicalism was ostensibly behind a spate of decisions by local government related to Muslim activities.
Montreal officials announced last month they would be blocking efforts by controversial cleric Hamza Chaoui to set up an Islamic centre on the east side of the city.
The Moroccan-born Chaoui first preached at Laval University, leading services reportedly attended by Chiheb Esseghaier, one of the accused now on trial for allegedly plotting to bomb a VIA Rail train. Chaoui also preached at the mosque in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu attended by Muslim convert Martin Couture-Rouleau, who ran over and killed a Canadian soldier last October before being shot by police.
According to The Canadian Press, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre described Chaoui, who reportedly has declared democracy incompatible with Islam, as an “agent of radicalization and instigator of social tension.”
Chaoui has claimed he has not attempted to radicalize anyone and there’s no evidence he was connected to either Esseghaier or Couture-Rouleau.
Last week, the Collège Rosemont, a Montreal junior college, cancelled a three-year-old deal to rent surplus space to an Arabic language school after learning its web site included links to radical material.
The Montreal borough of Outremont also cancelled plans to allow an Islamic school to hold a graduation event at a public hall after hearing two fundamentalist teachers would be speaking there.
And the city of Shawinigan has voted down an application to rezone an industrial property for a mosque, citing public concern that it could become a centre for radicalism.
The trend is worrying to Haroun Bouazzi, co-chair of AMAL-Quebec, the Association of Muslims and Arabs for Secularism in Quebec.
“We think we’re seeing dangerous events, one after the other, where actually the rights of citizens are not respected, no matter what we think about the speech,” Bouazzi told Yahoo Canada News.
“Obviously as an association we do not agree with some of the things that have been said in the past by the persons that were coming from outside against women or against homosexuals. But having said that, not respecting the Quebec law and applying unknown laws against these people is really not the right answer to this speech.”
Fundamentalists’ views distasteful but not illegal, says critic
In an interview Monday, Bouazzi agreed the fundamentalists’ views are incompatible with modern secular society but those opinions, while distasteful, are not illegal. The fear of terrorism is being used to discriminate against a minority.
“These are local politics that all added together mean that some of our elected people are not OK with the reality of their own society,” he said. “We have three per cent of Quebecers that have some Muslim faith and everyone has to get used to seeing mosques for three per cent of our citizens.
“In the name of democracy and freedom we don’t think we should stop applying our own laws.”
The decision around the Shawinigan mosque and Chaoui’s planned Montreal Islamic centre don’t seem based on real threats, he said.
“Today the security reports that we have from the RCMP or [Montreal police] tells us clearly it’s not the mosques that actually create the radicalism that pushes to jihad and violence,” said Bouazzi. “It’s actually outside these institutions.”
Authorities need to make strong cases for blocking legitimate events or activities if they don’t want to be open to court challenges on legal or human-rights grounds, said Christian Leuprecht, a political scientist who studies extremism at Queen’s University and Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.
“In Canada and in democracies we’re not generally not in the business of policing thought, we’re in the business of policing action unless that thought can demonstrably be shown either to be hate speech or to be related to counseling violence or terrorism,” he said.
In the Shawinigan case, for instance, it would be up to city staff to come up with detailed reasons for recommending against the mosque backers’ rezoning application.
“A zoning rejection purely on religious grounds likely would not withstand a court challenge.”
Questions around who rented the hall
In the Outremont hall rental for the Islamic school graduation, there were reports the booking application may not have include the name or the organization. It was for Mishkah, a U.S.-based school run by conservative Islamic scholar Dr. Saleh Assawy. He and U.S. imam Omar Shahin, who reportedly espouses the primacy of Sharia law over secular law, were scheduled to speak.
Leuprecht said the borough conceivably could use misrepresentation as a reason to cancel the booking.
“If they feel they can cancel the event then they must feel they have grounds for breach of contract,” he said in an interview.
But Leuprecht said Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is better equipped than local officials to decide whether a foreigner should be allowed into Canada to speak, as they did five years ago with British MP George Garroway, a supporter of Hamas, which Canada has labeled a terrorist organization. Even that decision, though, was considered controversial and politically motivated.
The discussion needs to be viewed in the wider context about the how much diversity and accommodation Quebec or other parts of Canada are willing to accept.
The 2008 Bouchard-Taylor commission report recommended Quebec come to terms with the reality of its multicultural, multi-hued society. But the former Parti Quebecois government’s controversial proposed secular charter showed for some the willingness to adapt was finite.
“Even within tolerant liberal-democratic societies, there appear to be at least some elements within society that have expressed clear limits to how far they are prepared to go,” said Leuprecht.