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Philippe Couillard’s tone shift on Islam stuns Quebec Muslims

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard speaks at a ceremony marking the Fete Nationale, Thursday, June 22, 2017 in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Quebec Premier's sudden shift linking "Islam in general" to terror and urging Quebec Muslims to do more to combat violent extremism has baffled security and political experts alike.

After years of warning Quebeckers against "creating an amalgam" between acts of Islamist terror and the wider Muslim community – and for a long time even avoiding the use any variation of the word "Islamist" in connection with terror – Philippe Couillard emerged last week with a dramatic break. After a 49-year-old Quebecker allegedly shouting an Islamic phrase was accused of stabbing a police officer in Michigan, Mr. Couillard said, "You cannot disconnect this type of event, terrorism, from Islam in general."

A half-dozen leaders of Quebec's Muslim communities, who long considered the Premier an ally, said they were stunned at the turnaround. "Politicians who speak this way are telling terrorists they're right to claim some religious basis for what they are doing," said Salam Elmenyawi, head of the Muslim Council of Montreal. The city's Muslim leaders invited Mr. Couillard to feast with them Sunday to mark the end of the Ramadan holy month of fasting. He did not attend.

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Related: Canadian man arrested after police officer stabbed in Michigan airport

But Muslim leaders are not the only ones at a loss to understand what Mr. Couillard is trying to accomplish. The communities are already the best tool to counter violent extremism and getting information from them relies on trust, according to Stephanie Carvin, a former federal national security adviser.

"It's clear you need to believe your own leaders can distinguish between those who support violent extremism and those who are just living their lives and being in a community," said Dr. Carvin, an assistant professor at Carleton University.

"They need to trust they won't be scapegoated. If that trust isn't there, the information isn't coming."

Besides, she said, "it's absurd to suggest they're all responsible for this one person."

Little is known about the convictions, motivations and Montreal connections of Amor Ftouhi, the 49-year-old Tunisian-Canadian who is accused of pulling a knife at the Flint, MI, airport and stabbing police Lt. Jeff Neville. The officer is recovering in hospital, while Mr. Ftouhi is in jail awaiting his next court date.

The FBI says the suspect shouted "Allahu Akbar" (meaning "God is greatest" in Arabic) as he launched his attack. When it was over, investigators say, he asked Lt. Neville why the officer didn't kill him.

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Canada has an extremism problem that extends beyond Muslims, according to Yannick Veilleux-Lepage, a researcher at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, located in Scotland. He pointed out hate crimes mainly targeting Jews and Muslims have tripled between 2012 and 2015.

"The last terrorist attack in Canada, the shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City, was committed by an individual with extreme right sympathies, so it is rather surprising and shocking to hear the Premier associate Islam and acts of terror," Mr. Veilleux-Lepage said. "Imams and community leaders have denounced terrorism committed in the name of Islam over and over again."

If Mr. Couillard's statement does nothing to improve security, it's also not clear it helps him that much politically. He faces an election campaign next year and his opponents have often accused him of being soft on Islamist extremism.

But pollster Christian Bourque says he does not see any great political benefit for Mr. Couillard to now stake out tougher ground on Islamist extremism. The issue has been relatively dormant for months and most voters who care deeply about the issue have already picked their party.

The conservative Coalition Avenir Québec takes the hardest line among the main provincial parties, advocating for less immigration and a ban on religious wear in the public service that would mainly target Muslim women. The CAQ has risen steadily in popularity to bring them within striking distance of the Liberals in most polls.

"Lately there's less pressure on the Liberals to talk about these issues and that is better for them," said Mr. Bourque, a vice-president at the Léger Marketing polling firm. "Not too many people who will vote CAQ on these issues are likely to switch to the Liberals because of it."

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Mr. Bourque suggested Mr. Couillard may be quelling dissent within his own party among National Assembly members who come from rural areas and Quebec City and want a tougher line. "But as far as a big political strategy goes, it really doesn't seem warranted," Mr. Bourque said.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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