SHAFAQNA – Quebec Muslim groups have raised concerns that members of their community may be unfairly targeted by a proposed centre to combat extremism in Montreal.
Mayor Denis Coderre announced the creation of a centre to prevent radicalization earlier this week.
“The goal in all of this is to prevent violence,” Coderre said.
The program is expected to be operational in a few weeks, the city said, and will involve educators, community groups and public safety officials, including the police.
But Salam Elmenyawi, head of the Muslim Council of Montreal, said he was “dismayed” by the announcement.
“This is another bashing of the Muslim community,” Elmenyawi said, dismissing Coderre’s argument that the program would not focus its work on Muslims specifically.
“(This is) a serious action that directly targets our community, regardless of what the mayor says.”
The centre will include a telephone hotline for people to seek advice if they are worried about a family member or friend espousing radical views.
The hotline will be manned by the police, a fact that Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of the Muslim and Arab Association for Secularism in Quebec, said raises a red flag.
“We have trouble seeing how people thinking that their son is in danger of radicalization will call the police,” said Bouazzi, adding that potential consequences under Canada’s proposed Bill C-51 will deter people from calling even further.
Bouazzi said he received a call from the municipality shortly after the program was announced, asking for his opinion. He said he hoped to meet the mayor to discuss it, but that so far, no meeting has been scheduled.
“We know that Muslim communities and institutions must play a major role. The first person these people call is the imam or the community leader … rather than the police,” he said.
Last month, six young Quebecers reportedly left the province to join the Islamic State group, which controls large areas in Syria and Iraq.
The news came amid heightened tensions, especially in Montreal, where local authorities took several measures related to the Muslim community.
A Montreal borough changed its zoning regulations in early February — banning community centres from hosting religious events — in order to block a controversial imam, Hamza Chaoui, from opening an Islamic centre.
A few weeks later, two Montreal schools revoked the permits for an Arabic and Qu’ran program run by Adil Charkaoui, a Moroccan-born Montrealer who successfully challenged a Canadian security certificate against him in 2009.
One of the youth who left for Syria reportedly briefly took courses at Charkaoui’s school.
In a telephone interview from Montreal, Charkaoui, who leads the Quebec Collective against Islamophobia, criticized the city for trying to deal with a problem that he said has not been proven.
“There is a total absence of proof of the phenomenon, and an absence of a definition of radicalization, which will open the door to all forms of discrimination,” Charkaoui said.
“People (in the Muslim community) are asking, ‘What are they talking about?’ You have to consult the mosques, the schools, local cafes – do they see a radicalization of Muslims?”
Jean-Philippe Warren, a professor in Concordia University’s sociology department and an expert on Quebec society, said while the debate around immigration and how to deal with extremist ideologies is global, it has taken on distinctive features in Quebec.
Unique social issues — including relatively high unemployment rates among Muslims and a history of immigration from French-speaking, Muslim countries — and “nationalistic concerns” influence the discussion, he said.
“(It) becomes one of my little, threatened, besieged community against anyone that is coming in,” Warren said.
He added that the anti-radicalization centre, which many suspect will target Muslims, will likely exacerbate the problem.
“A more open and transparent perspective and approach to these matters . . . is really the way forward.”