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The disappearance of seven young Montreal students came as a shock to Quebeckers, but not for the same reasons. As Les Perreaux and Verity Stevenson report, there is a growing fissure that sets small-but-growing Muslim communities who hold fast to faith against a majority population that prefers religion to remain entirely private.

Quebec Muslims interviewed by The Globe and Mail recently, including Rima Demanins, 21, a student at University of Montreal, say they are facing the most hostile atmosphere they have seen since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Quebec’s growing divide

The recruitment of seven CEGEP students to the Islamic State has highlighted a difficult issue across the province: How do Muslim youth find a place when they’re stuck between two cultures that don’t understand one another?

Young Bilel Zouaidia was a laid-back sort, more obsessed with computers than his Muslim religion, really. Or so it seemed to classmates.

Yahia Alaoui Ismaili and Mohamed Rifaat didn’t accomplish much in school. Mr. Rifaat had tons of friends and he was devout, once posting online an artful video of himself singing a call to prayer atop Mount Royal. But neither man advertised interest in jihad. Mr. Ismaili even took the occasional drink, breaking a cardinal rule of Islam.

They were part of a group of seven young Montrealers going about the business of launching adult lives. And then one night they were gone.

On the evening of Jan. 16, some of the seven told family they were off to visit friends. Instead, they all went to Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport in Montreal, where they boarded a flight bound for Istanbul and eventually Syria; authorities say they were to join the ranks of Islamic State fighters there.

A few lingering online clues point to discontent overlooked: Shayma Senouci promoted a petition to stop the Quebec Charter of Values that would have cracked down on religious symbols, like the veil she wore, in the public service. She raged against civilian casualties in the Palestinian territories. Mr. Rifaat posted photos of him protesting Islamophobia with controversial Muslim teacher Adil Charkaoui.

But when news broke of their departure, it floored nearly everyone. Their families, friends, former schoolmates and teachers, and Montreal’s Muslim community, all came under intense scrutiny but were at a loss to explain. Bilel Zouaidia’s mother answered a recent call this way: “We’ve given all we have to give, we cannot speak about this anymore. We need to heal and be with ourselves.”

Collège de Maisonneuve, where many of the Montreal seven studied, was questioned about the teaching in its classes. With police and parents helpless to do anything, the school took one of the few actions by anyone in a position of authority: It suspended a rental agreement with Mr. Charkaoui, a man once accused of being a terrorist-in-waiting who taught Islamic courses and led other weekend activities in school space. Some of the Montreal seven were among his students.

With no evidence Mr. Charkaoui did anything wrong, those classes resume this weekend.

Alienation from mainstream society has long been a key factor luring young people to join foreign wars, from the Spanish Civil War to the ISIS offensive in the Middle East. But misguided former college students lured off to jihad are only part of this story.

Adil Charkaoui, during a panel discussion following a screening of the documentary Secret Trial 5, in Montreal March 12, 2015. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

The disappearance of the Montreal seven has added urgency to a painful discussion taking place in Quebec for more than a decade. A fissure is growing between Muslims and the Quebec society that aggressively courted French-speaking North African immigrants, part of a plan to maintain a francophone bastion in North America. The conflict sets small-but-growing Muslim communities who hold fast to faith against a majority population that prefers religion to remain entirely private, or to appear only as mere historical vestige.

The Quebec experience serves as a cautionary tale to other Canadians who face problems with homegrown terrorists, along with the recent resurgence of the same hardening rhetoric, political opportunism and outbursts of bigotry over Muslims that have plagued Quebec. The province shows it is easy to start questioning how religious practice fits in a secular, democratic society, but in an era of terror it’s not so clear how it ends, or what damage may be done along the way.

“We feel like we are stuck between two chairs,” said Rima Demanins, a 21-year-old who speaks French and English at home with her Lebanese-born parents and prays five times a day but does not wear a veil.

“We’re stuck between Quebec culture and our countries of origin, our religion and our parents, our culture. And every time something happens, the first thing I actually think is, ‘Please don’t let it be a Muslim, please don’t be a Muslim,’ because they’re going to stick it to us and we’re going to look bad.”

Most of three dozen Quebec Muslims interviewed by The Globe and Mail in recent weeks, from liberal students to controversial conservative elders, say they are facing the most hostile atmosphere they have seen since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Recent polls showing a spike in hostility toward visible minorities and immigrants across Canada tends to support them.

The recruitment of the Montreal seven comes on the heels of a series of events that have thrust Islamist terror to the top of Quebec consciousness. The attacks in the fall in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu shocked all Canadians, but the January assault on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo hit Quebec particularly hard. Many francophone Quebeckers, especially in the province’s intellectual and media circles, have deep connections to France.

A student prays in a stairway that's been converted to a silent prayer space for students at Collège de Maisonneuve in Montreal (left). Noor Mady, 20 is studying behavioural neuroscience at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Muslims, global experts on jihad and de-radicalization, politicians, police and scholars warn of expanding alienation. Muslims seem at a loss for how to gain trust in their Quebec homeland. In the words of Gérard Bouchard, the eminent sociologist who co-chaired a provincial commission on the place of religion in Quebec society, Muslims are being pushed toward isolation.

“Unless the trend is reversed, we will finish by creating ourselves what we wanted to avoid at all costs – a minority that through stereotype and discrimination gives up little by little on integration and ghettoizes itself,” Mr. Bouchard said in a recent interview. “Do we not recognize here the rich soil that produces radicalization?”

Muslims comprise about 6 per cent of Montreal’s population and 3 per cent of Quebec’s – putting the city behind Toronto’s 7.7 per cent and the province right in line with the national average. But Quebec Muslims have faced outsized scrutiny and harassment with the fear of Islamic radicalism.

Women are accosted on the street for wearing veils, and in one case, even in court by a judge who felt religion had no place in her courtroom. Media investigate community organizations suspected of being radical hotbeds; often they turn out to be ordinary worshippers bewildered by the attention. Any special status, from gender-segregated fitness and health classes to requests for prayer spaces, becomes headline news. Vandals have targeted a dozen Islamic centres since the start of 2014, including one that had windows shot out late last year.

“I call it a witch hunt, a new form of McCarthyism,” said Mr. Charkaoui, the onetime terror suspect turned controversial Montreal Muslim leader. With his gift for snappy rhetoric, he occupies a lot of space in the polarized Quebec secularism debate.

Mr. Charkaoui’s voice booms from the other side of a full shoe rack at the Centre Islamique de l’Est de Montréal. It’s a Saturday night and a stream of men come and go. Mr. Charkaoui was giving an Islamic history lesson in French to a group of about 100 young faithful. Little is known about what motivated the seven Montreal-area jihadis, but at least three attended these kinds of lectures given by Mr. Charkaoui. He disputes a fourth reported connection.

(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Muslim teacher Adil Charkaoui

"Adil Charkaoui is a very good man who has suffered immensely, and he has more right than any of us here to fight for our freedom. I don’t believe he had anything to do with those people leaving at all," says Salam Elmenyawi, a Montreal Muslim cleric.

Mr. Charkaoui was arrested under an immigration security certificate in 2003 on suspicion he was an al-Qaeda sleeper agent. Among the unproven allegations were that he trained in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda in the 1990s. He was released from custody in 2005, and a court dropped electronic monitoring on him in 2009 after Ottawa refused to provide evidence. He has since launched a lawsuit against the federal government while obtaining Canadian citizenship.

In an interview, Mr. Charkaoui was good-humoured as he explained connections to some of the students – a far cry from most of his Quebec media appearances where rage often surfaces. He said Mr. Rifaat came to his protests “like thousands of others. He came with his dad, and participated in a lot of activities. I saw no sign of anything wrong. The fact his name came out like that was a total shock to us.”

Mr. Zouaidia came twice to his classes, before he was pulled out by his father, who had concerns he was being radicalized. “Even though the social climate is heavy, we just did not see it coming,” Mr. Charkaoui said. “We encourage our youth to participate in our activities, in protests, so they see an alternative. They don’t want ‘blah blah blah,’ they want action.”

After students left for jihad and Collège de Maisonneuve briefly suspended Mr. Charkaoui’s rental contract, he threatened to sue the school. The school decided to allow him to return this weekend, on the condition it can monitor his teachings.

Mr. Charkaoui, who runs an anti-Islamophobia activist group in addition to leading Islamic classes at several venues, said “everything we do is public. Everything we do is open because our goal is to make Quebec an open place.”

But openness has limits. A few days after the interview, Mr. Charkaoui attended a screening of The Secret Trial 5, a documentary about the detention of him and five other men under security certificates. He spotted a Globe reporter who had contacted some of his students looking for information about his lectures and the Montreal seven. He accused the reporter of harassing his students and of collaborating with CSIS and the Montreal police. In fact, the reporter’s source was the students’ own Facebook pages.

“A teenager comes to my classes twice – I don't even know him – and a media circus is after me,” Mr. Charkaoui said, surrounded by a small group of supporters who joined in badgering the reporter.

Salam Elmenyawi, another Montreal Muslim cleric, asked for understanding. “Adil Charkaoui is a very good man who has suffered immensely, and he has more right than any of us here to fight for our freedom,” Mr. Elmenyawi said. “I don’t believe he had anything to do with those people leaving at all.”

Mr. Elmenyawi points out that with all the scrutiny Mr. Charkaoui faces, it’s unlikely he’s promoting illegal foreign fighting to his charges. Students who have attended Mr. Charkaoui’s courses say they’ve never heard him speak of jihad or Osama bin Laden or ISIS in a positive light. One described his class as “super normal, like going to the movies” for Muslim kids in Montreal.

When he’s asked for his view on ISIS, Mr. Charkaoui deflects slightly, saying he’s against all forms of violence, before usually switching to a list of offences the West has committed against Muslims. “Why are we forced to answer for ISIS?” he said. “Why are we forced to justify ourselves?”

Ibrahim Abou Arab points to a half-dozen campus awards his group has received for its outreach efforts.
You want to stop radicalization? You don’t do it by crushing a library. You do it by educating people.
Ibrahim Abou Arab

While the students’ departure was a shock to friends and family, a recent convert who was part of their network says the discrepancy between their attitudes online and in real life foreshadowed their brash decision to leave.

Minh Qasim Vo, a 24-year-old criminology student who converted to Islam more than four years ago, met several of the students who left, but was mostly exposed to their social feeds, where they were more vocal about politics than at home or at school. “The way they expressed themselves, it was very arrogant, impulsive,” he said.

Mr. Vo experienced firsthand what it’s like to take the ancient scriptures too literally when he first converted. He watched YouTube videos to learn the religion. “It’s a double-edged sword because they bring you so much, and at the same time, you can interpret them very literally,” he said.

He thinks a feeling of marginalization has made the students open to recruitment. “It’s nature and nurture, but it has to do with character as well,” he said, likening joining Islamic State to joining a street gang.

Many experts agree. Young adults yearn to belong to a cause greater than them and to take action, according to Amy Thornton, a researcher in radicalized youth in Europe and North America from the department of security and crime science at University College London.

Skinhead groups, gangs, cults along with sports teams and the military recruit based on that need, she said. “Young people are looking for a narrative to their lives. They are looking for a transcendental justification, that thing that is bigger than you,” she said. “In this case, it’s the chance to defend their faith and to save women and children from the evils of [Syrian dictator Bashar] al-Assad.”

When Djemila Benhabib heard about the Montreal students heading off to jihad, she immediately recognized the story. She lived next to it.

Ms. Benhabib grew up in Algeria and was in her late teens when she first noticed neighbourhood boys disappearing. They were off to join Islamist fighters in the Algerian civil war. In 1994, she fled the country with her family and became an influential anti-fundamentalist writer.

While Western societies engage in endless self-analysis, Ms. Benhabib is not convinced Quebec’s regular drumbeat of stories about conflicts between religious minorities and the wider community have had a corrosive effect. The problem, she says, is that people like Mr. Charkaoui politicize Islam in a way that turns Western, democratic countries into an enemy, creating a hothouse atmosphere perfect for growing radicalization.

“A lot of mosques are no longer just places of worship,” she said. “They’ve been diverted from their mission toward ideology and politics. They talk non-stop about the Palestinian cause. They talk non-stop about Jews, apostates, even about westernized Muslims who don’t share their view. A youth who is rebelling against his parents, the environment, the media and needs a cause suddenly has it.”

Long before homegrown terror rose to the top of Canadian consciousness, Quebec went through a decade of heightened scrutiny of Muslims, and flirted with a sort of “France-Light” model of secularism. Where Canada embraced the laissez-faire model of multiculturalism, France has spent more than 100 years zealously pushing religion out of public life. Quebec has struggled to carve out a middle ground.

Rima Demanins, 21, studied at Collège de Maisonneuve before enrolling to study journalism at University of Montreal. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
We’re stuck between Quebec culture and our countries of origin, our religion and our parents, our culture
Rima Demanins

In the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church was relieved of managing many of Quebec’s institutions, particularly in health and education. Muslim veils provoke memories of religious repression for many Quebec women who fought the church to control their reproductive lives and get out of the house.

“Quebeckers are very proud of this universal, humanist heritage,” Ms. Benhabib said. “They won’t accept from other religions what they rejected from their own.”

When France banned veils from public schools in 1994 and other ostentatious religious symbols in 2004, some Quebec intellectuals and politicians who had always chafed at Canadian multiculturalism saw a model in French laïcité, although few have proposed going as far as France.

“The worry that exists in Quebec is not unique to Quebec, it has driven all of Europe,” Ms. Benhabib said. “The separation of church and state is fundamental. What we see with Islamists is they do not live their religion in the respect of others. They do not accept the social and democratic pact at the centre of our society. It’s an assault on our values. Quebeckers don’t want it, they don’t accept it. Canada is waking up to it.”

Here is the kind of scrutiny Muslims have faced lately: It’s just before lunch on a Friday when a reporter and cameraman show up unannounced at Concordia’s Muslim Student Association library.

The crew is trying for the “hidden camera” look of a television news sting but the camera isn’t hidden, exactly; Noor Mady can see it under the man’s arm. The reporter is looking for works by controversial authors he’s found through the university club’s online database.

“They just barged in,” said Ms. Mady, a 20-year-old neuroscience major who was in the library at the time. Her friends, gathered around a table, exchanged looks of disbelief.

That night on the news, they saw the TVA exclusive: The “very powerful” Muslim students association, with its office and “private” library, housed books written by Islamist reactionaries who had promoted corporal discipline for women and the death penalty for apostates. The librarian was shown scurrying for cover, face blurred. With 6,000 Muslim students, the report concludes, Concordia is an attractive target for extremists.

“It was totally unfair,” said Ibrahim Abou Arab, a member of the association executive who is among the many urbane-but-devout Muslim students at Concordia.

Mr. Arab points to a half-dozen campus awards his group has received for its outreach efforts and participation in the Concordia community. The report didn’t mention that the group shares office space with Jewish and gay student associations.

“You want to stop radicalization? You don’t do it by crushing a library,” Mr. Arab said. “You do it by educating people.”

There was no need for a semi-hidden camera, he said. Just a moment’s advance warning and basic courtesy would suffice. The Muslim library is itself an open book, he said while showing a reporter around.

Nearly 10 years ago, Mario Dumont was the leader of Quebec’s third party, the Action Démocratique du Québec, and he was looking for a wedge to vault it from third-party status. He found religion.

Around that time, no subject was taboo for examination when it came to how religious practice intersected with the more secular majority, from prayer rooms to turbans to the sale of kosher meat to unsuspecting atheists.

In November, 2006, with his party at 12 per cent in polls, Mr. Dumont waded neck-deep into the debate: “We can’t defend the Québécois identity with mushy words that no one understands. We can’t defend the Québécois identity with one knee on the ground.” Mr. Dumont would stand up for the majority’s right to ignore religion.

He was accused of capitalizing on bigotry. Now he looks at how far the debate has come and laughs. For one thing, he never would have tried to fire people wearing religious symbols like hijabs from the civil service, as the Parti Québécois proposed in 2013.

“I was a relative moderate compared to some of the things being suggested,” Mr. Dumont said.

In the 2007 election, he came within seven seats of defeating Jean Charest and became leader of the Official Opposition. But the strategy of playing on fears of religion proved no sure winner. One year after Mr. Dumont’s breakthrough, his party fell back to rump status and he was out of politics. Despite the popularity of its Charter of Values, the PQ suffered an historic defeat last year and leader Pauline Marois also tendered a humiliating resignation. Other factors contributed to those defeats, but the identity issue couldn’t save them.

A stairway has been converted to a silent prayer space for students at Collège de Maisonneuve in Montreal.

Mr. Dumont said Quebeckers are confused. Fundamentalist preaching is mixed up with normal worship. One week Montreal uses blunt zoning bylaws to curtail activities of a radical imam, and weeks later Shawinigan withholds a permit for an ordinary mosque because people are afraid. Even a Quebec court judge refused to hear the case of a woman wearing a hijab – a move Mr. Dumont found appalling.

“You know it’s hard to draw lines for the ordinary citizen when even the judges are confused,” he said.

Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government is adding to an atmosphere of fear through inaction, Mr. Dumont believes. The Liberals have promised policies to combat extremism and guide Quebeckers on how religion should be accommodated in public life. But the timeline is uncertain and ministers responsible squirm when asked about it.

Mr. Couillard insists his government just wants to act in a deliberate manner to reinforce secular values without trampling rights. “It’s understandable people are worried,” he said recently, adding his government will fight radicalism “by reaching out to the peaceful, moderate Muslim majority and building links with authorities.” At the same time, the Premier has already taken aim at the niqab, saying his forthcoming proposal will include a requirement that faces be uncovered in interactions with public services.

The debate spins easily out of control, and not just in Quebec. A rift recently opened among NDP MPs over whether the niqab has a place in the federal civil service or citizenship ceremonies. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was accused of using inflammatory rhetoric when he described the niqab as “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” On Monday, Conservative MP Larry Miller declared on the radio that Muslim women who do not wish to remove their face-covering niqab during a citizenship ceremony should “stay the hell where you came from.” He later apologized.

Coincidentally, that same day, Quebec’s Coalition Avenir Québec party proposed a way to send such women back to their countries of origin. The party led by François Legault would put immigrants on three-year probation, after which they would have to pass a “Quebec values” test or be sent home.

The various proposals set up a host of possibilities for confrontation with the Supreme Court of Canada, which this week spelled out how religious freedom must be balanced with the values of a secular state. “A secular state does not – and cannot – interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests,” the court said in a case involving religious instruction. “A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.”

Collège de Maisonneuve in Montreal was in the spotlight recently after several students may have left the country to join militants fighting in Syria. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Compromise and sensible solutions are not easy to find in an atmosphere this hot. While the United Kingdom, Germany and several Nordic nations have had success with anti-radicalization efforts, Canadian programs are just barely getting off the ground.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre recently announced the creation of centre for de-radicalization. So far, the centre is little more than good intentions and a phone number directly into Montreal police headquarters – hardly an inducement for families to seek preventative help. Civil rights lawyer Julius Grey called it a “snitch line.” Mr. Coderre said much work remains to be done.

In Calgary, Mahdi Qasqas, a Muslim youth and family outreach co-ordinator and anti-terror researcher, said he is preparing a pilot project for preventing extremism to give parents “a place to go to report worrisome behaviour without fear of causing irreparable damage” of police action.

Ms. Thornton, the U.K. de-radicalization researcher, said there are different models for countering extremism, but the wider atmosphere matters. Canada has sent fewer than a couple hundred fighters to jihad and homegrown terrorists remain mercifully rare compared to Europe. Maintaining a calm and welcoming stance is key to Canada remaining a fringe contributor to the ranks of extremists, she said.

“This is about keeping your national identity, and Canada’s national identity is about openness and integration and toleration,” she said. “Don’t let extremists from either side dominate debate. Don’t lurch toward marginalizing people just because something happens. Stay balanced.”

Montreal Imam Abdul Rashid Anwar welcomes a line of visitors to his home as part of a “Meet a Muslim Family” campaign he helped launch. One way to reduce Muslim marginalization, especially among the young, is to rebuild damaged bridges with the wider community, he says.

When he ponders the current landscape in Quebec – the jihadi recruitment, the overheated rhetoric of some Muslims and secularists, the political opportunism – he sees people using the same harmful wedges to different ends. He says a simpler message would do more good.

“All those with sway in society need to use that influence to say to our youth, ‘Your life is important and you shouldn’t waste it for a cause that is not even real. You belong here.’”

He pours black tea with sugar for his guest and replenishes plates full of watermelon, kiwi and strawberries. Cookies are carefully arranged on an ornate dish, along with other sweets – the hospitality a form of outreach. “Eat, please,” he says, a note of urgency in the offer.