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Canada Religious tension in Quebec resurfaces over mayoral interference

Haroun Bouazzi, head of the Association des musulmans et des arabes pour la laicité, feels the current level of resentment towards Quebec’s Muslims is bordering on unimaginable.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

A fierce debate has been reignited in Quebec over religious accommodation after three mayors blocked Muslim speakers and projects, and opposition lawmakers cranked up pressure on the province's Liberal government to protect traditional values.

Some Muslim leaders say the moves represent a hardening stand not just against Muslim extremism but against Islam in general – one that is forcing a return to a thorny issue many Quebeckers thought had died down after the high-profile fight over the failed Quebec Charter of Values. As in that debate, Muslims say the new actions taken by the mayors are muzzling their ability to practise their religion, while others argue the moves were made for the greater public good.

Debate over religious accommodation and what motivated last fall's attacks in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa were still simmering in Quebec when Islamist terrorists struck the Paris offices of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in early January. The Paris attack resonated strongly in Quebec, also a secularist society with a swelling Muslim population.

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In Montreal, the city blocked the opening of a new community centre to be run by controversial imam Hamza Chaoui. Mayor Denis Coderre, citing discussions he had with police, called the Moroccan-born imam "an agent of radicalization." Mr. Chaoui is a fundamentalist interpreter of Islam reportedly espousing views that include women requiring a male guardian in public. Preaching that Islam is not compatible with democracy, the imam was said to have been banished by moderate Muslims who heard him speak in Montreal's Anjou area.

The city of Shawinigan then rejected a local Muslim cultural group's application for a zoning change so it could open a mosque locally and not have to travel to Trois-Rivières to pray. Mayor Michel Angers said city councillors were flooded with phone calls and other correspondence from people imploring them not to allow the mosque.

And in the latest incident, Montreal's tony Outremont borough cancelled a reservation for a graduation ceremony in Islamic studies by a group called the Académie de la charia nord-américaine, after Quebecor's TVA network reported that two controversial fundamentalist imams, Omar Shahin and Salah Assawy, would be there. Marie Cinq-Mars, the borough mayor, said their presence would be "unacceptable" and could lead to serious problems. Mr. Assawy helped found the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in North America, which provides answers to legal issues confronting Muslims in the West. His books include Between Islam and Secularism: A Confrontation; The Concept of an Islamic Nation; and Be Aware that there is No God (Worthy of Worship) but Allah.

"People are possessed with irrational fears, fed by the tumultuous times," Mr. Angers said at a news conference, adding residents in Shawinigan aren't afraid of the local Muslims, whom they know as their neighbours, but rather "what could come from elsewhere."

Veteran Quebec constitutional lawyer Julius Grey says denying zoning changes on the basis of public fears could be subject to a court challenge, since it could be a sign of bad faith. He added that no municipality can legally deny a mosque from opening on its territory.

"You can't use zoning to freeze out Islam," he said.

The level of resentment at the moment towards Quebec's Muslims is bordering on the previously unimaginable, said Haroun Bouazzi, head of the Association des musulmans et des arabes pour la laicité. The group supports secularization. People are scared that there are Muslims in Quebec, said Mr. Bouazzi, who is a member of a special government working group looking at Islamophobia.

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"Last year, we had an entire debate on the right to have a woman with a [head] scarf working in the public sector," he said. "And this year now it's about mosques. And what we can see is actually the visibility of this minority is being attacked … The fact that we see them in society actually seems to be a problem. We want to make them invisible."

The events have erupted in the legislature, with the opposition Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec parties trying to stake out positions as bulwarks against radicalism, while the majority Liberals scramble to calm the inevitable hyperbole and still appear sensitive to the legitimate anxieties of average voters.

CAQ Leader François Legault tabled a motion Wednesday calling on lawmakers to set up an anti-fundamentalism plan as part of their "duty to protect our values." He said there should be a crackdown on imams who preach things that run counter to Quebec's charter of rights and freedoms. The PQ said Quebeckers of all faiths feel abandoned by a Liberal government that has failed to provide proper guidance on religious accommodation.

Premier Philippe Couillard promised new legislative action, likely in the current spring session, to address the question of radicalization.

"These are extremely important and delicate questions" that won't get resolved with one sweep of a pen, Mr. Couillard said Wednesday. The fundamental issue is one of security, the Premier said, adding the government's priority is to detect, investigate and punish criminals who aren't welcome in Quebec society. "We have to be very careful not to put new limits on our rights and freedoms."

Response to the requests put forth by Muslim groups amount to "a panic" and "an overreaction" by politicians, said Salam Elmenyawi, head of the Muslim Council of Montreal. He said he believes Quebec is sliding down a slippery slope of intolerance as communication breaks down between the Muslim community and wider society.

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"[There was a time] I would never believe Muslims could face violence if they live in Quebec," he said. "But now that assurance is much more in doubt."

With a report from Ingrid Peritz

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