Montreal Mirror : Islamophobia

(June 1st- June 8th, 1995)


In the wake of Oklahoma and the hijab controversy, Montreal's Muslims face a
backlash based on fear and ignorance


Sheikh Said Youssef Fawaz hunches over his chair inside his spacious office
at the Al-Ummah mosque on Clark St. Today, Friday, is the holy day, and for
him, a particularly busy one. He finally has a few minutes to sit and chat
before the evening prayer begins. "You've just witnessed a marriage," Sheikh
Fawaz says in English, casting a subtle smile, knowing that I don't
understand a word of Arabic. A young newly immigrated Muslim couple had
entered the office while I was waiting my turn to speak to the Imam of this
downtown mosque. Sheikh Fawaz administered marriage vows to the couple in
about ten minutes after scrutinizing their legal documents. It's just one of
the many tasks this 45-year-old religious cleric performs. In the course of
the half hour or so leading up to the interview, I watched Sheikh Fawaz act
as a financial advisor, judge, accountant, social worker, legal advisor and
friend to several Muslims who had come in and out of his third-floor office.
Since 1982, after immigrating from Lebanon, this straightforward and
no-nonsense man has acted as the spiritual figurehead to the hundreds of
Islamic Montrealers in this region of the island. Allah's work is never done,
he says, and he hopes, "Insha'allah" (if Allah wills it), to expand the
mosque to accommodate one of the fastest growing religions in Quebec.

There are about 60,000 Muslims living on the island of Montreal. The Quebec
ministry of immigration and cultural communities consistently calls the Arab
and Muslim communities the most educated cultural minorities in the province.
Muslim women hold the highest percentage of post-secondary degrees in Quebec
according to government statistics. In spite of all this, Islam is a religion
that's been widely misunderstood and misrepresented by outside forces, many
Muslims say.

Whether it's because of the Oklahoma bombing, the hype around the hijab or
the Islamic Salvation Front's (FIS) often violent opposition to the secular
Algerian government, many Quebecers paint Islam in a negative light and, as a
result, say activists, Muslims have become targets. The backlash, they argue
almost uniformly, is fueled in part by some media intent on perpetuating the
image of the crazed fundamentalist claiming a jihad (which actually means
"exertion of effort" and not "holy war") on the world, as popularized in
Hollywood blockbusters like Not Without my Daughter and True Lies.
Misrepresentation both in the press and in society at large has been the
topic of conferences across North America in recent years and, most recently,
in Montreal last Saturday at the Holiday Inn on Sherbrooke St. East.

But Sheikh Fawaz doesn't share the same scathing criticisms of the press and
Quebec society other Muslims do. His approach is tempered by trust and
goodwill dictated to him through the Quran, the Muslim holy book. "I
understand why people think Muslims are bad," he says. It's difficult for
non-Muslims to discern between a few individual Muslims' misguided
interpretations of Islam on nightly news programs and an entire religion,
says Sheikh Fawaz. "I tell everybody there is a big difference between
Muslims and the Islamic religion," he says. "We have good Muslims and bad
ones. But only one Islam. I don't blame all Jews for what Israel is doing to
the Palestinians." Allah teaches tolerance, not violence, says Sheikh Fawaz.

But when the April blast went off at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in
Oklahoma City, the media, in spite of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's
claims to the contrary, insisted on pointing the official finger at so-called
"Islamic terrorists." The shock waves from this media blast carried much
further than the Sooner state.

For Muslims in Montreal, it opened the gates to a stream of verbal
harassment, say activists like Jawad Sqalli, the coordinator of the Centre
d'Etudes Arabes pour le Developpement (CEAD). While Sqalli says his office
never received any specific threats, others told him of hateful phone calls
made to their homes. A cab driver of Iranian descent was repeatedly harassed
inside a corner snack bar at de Maisonneuve and Lambert Closse Streets by an
irate restaurant customer who asked him, according to witnesses, "Why didn't
you wait until all the children were out of the building before you blew it
up?" This was the day it was revealed the prime suspects were not "Islamic
terrorists" but a group of white, homegrown, anti-government militants with
ties to white supremacist organizations.

Unfortunately, for a young Iraqi-born couple in Oklahoma City, this bit of
concrete evidence was too little, too late. According to the May 22 issue of
The Nation on April 20, the day after the bombing, the home of Haider and
Saher Al-Saidi was pelted with stones as a mob swarmed their house chanting
anti-Islamic slogans. Mrs. Al-Saidi, seven months pregnant at the time, was
panic-stricken by the enraged mass and suffered premature contractions,
delivering her stillborn son shortly afterwards. The mob had essentially
convicted Salaam-the name the Al-Saidis had decided for the baby-of terrorism
and sentenced him to death. But the Al-Saidis' only crimes were their
religious beliefs. Ironically, the mob's blind fanaticism is the same thing
many North Americans are so quick to condemn in the Middle East. But the
misery from the initial finger-pointing has not gone away-as evidenced as
recently as May 25.

According to Muslim filmmaker Moncef Barbouch, a student at Lucien Page high
school here in Montreal and her mother were physically attacked on Jarry
Street. Both women had their hijab pulled off during the incident. Prior to
the beating, a female student had approached the Muslim student at school and
told her there was a guy who wanted to have sex with her. When the Muslim
student said it was against her religion to copulate outside of marriage, the
non-Muslim student stepped up her harassment. When the mother came to pick
her daughter up from school, they were followed along Jarry Street and
physically attacked by a swarm of teens who had joined in the vilification.
The two Muslim women ran to a local depanneur and police were called to the
scene. Barbouch said the two women contacted the Centre d'Etudes de
Developpement du Maghreb-Canada, requesting help. Barbouch said the centre
received a similar complaint last month after an incident at the de Castelnau
metro in which a Muslim woman was attacked on the platform by a man who
pulled off her hijab.

The Quebec Human Rights Commission reports that from 1992-94 complaints on
the basis of religion went up from five to 14, only a slight increase,
according to a spokesperson. But ask Muslims in Montreal and they'll cite
many unreported cases of harassment.

During the Islam and Muslims in Canada: Fears, the Reality and Horizons
colloquium at the Holiday Inn last Saturday, participants used the recent
spate of attacks to illustrate their point about the dangerous effects of
all-encompassing theories about Islam. In Quebec, it's not just Oklahoma that
has led to incidents like the one last week, some participants noted. The
hijab controversy has added a particular Quebec flavour to the intolerance
debate bringing out both the best and the worst in this province in recent
months-highlighted just last week by two conflicting views presented by the
Quebec government's Council on the Status of Women and the Centrale de
l'Enseignement du Quebec (CEQ).

In the wake of Emilie Ouimet's expulsion from Louis Riel High School for
wearing the hijab last September, the Quebec government's Council on the
Status of Women released a report supporting the right to wear the hijab in
schools. Only days later, however, the largest teachers' union in the
province, the Centrale de l'Enseignement du Quebec, voted against allowing
the hijab even though the CEQ's executive had voted to the contrary.

One of the most vocal supporters of the hijab is 33-year-old Sheema Khan.
Religious clothing, however, is only one part of Khan's discussions around
the intolerance shown by Quebecers towards Muslims in recent months. Khan,
who spoke about Muslim stereotypes at last weekend's colloquium, believes the
disdain towards Muslims in Quebec-whether it's a result of the hijab or the
Oklahoma bombing-is fueled by an almost personal contempt for Islam in some

In an interview with the Mirror, she pointed specifically to La Presse as one
of the main propagators of the religious fanatic image of Muslims. "La Presse
has always taken the line that Muslims are terrorists," said Khan. More
specifically, it's the reference in the sharia, or Muslim law, to the
"cutting off of hands" for theft that La Presse seems obsessed with
"repeating like a mantra over and over again," said Khan. "We've made
complaints and we've tried to meet with the editorial board." She added the
specific reference in the sharia to the cutting off of hands is "rarely
practiced" in Middle Eastern countries but La Presse has run stories saying
Muslim-Quebecers want to replace Quebec's secular laws with the sharia.

Articles in the May 19 and 20 editions of La Presse alleged Saturday's
colloquium was simply a front for Islamic fundamentalists. The May 20
article, headlined "Canada becomes target of Muslims," irked many at the
conference with comments by Fatima Houda-Pepin, Liberal MNA for La Piniere,
who claimed Canadian Muslims were trying to use the Charter of Rights and
Freedoms as a pretext to impose sharia law in Canada. Calling the use of the
charter dangerous, Houda-Pepin also said the government should "faire le
menage" among Islamic religious organizations. The article contained no
Muslim rebuttal.

If it's so dangerous, asked Khan, then why does her alma mater, Harvard
University (where Khan received her PhD in chemical physics), now have a
sharia council in its law department? La Presse's charges have led many
Muslims to question the paper's fairness.

When asked to comment by the Mirror, La Presse's chief editorialist, Alain
Dubuc, was livid. "What you are doing is dumb journalism," he said angrily-a
comment he repeated several times. "Of course, we're fair," he added. "So go
fuck yourself."

The CEAD's Sqalli also singled out La Presse. When Algerian human-rights
lawyer Ali Yahia Abdennour came to Montreal nearly two weeks ago, La Presse
implied Abdennour was a member of and spokesperson for the FIS. "This was
ridiculous," said Sqalli. "Mr. Abdennour defends everybody whether they are
FIS, Communists, government officials. He merely respects the rights of all
people." He said there are Muslims in Quebec who advocate fundamentalism, but
they make up "a very small minority. I have spoken out just as much against
fundamentalism as anyone else."

The situation in Algeria has become a sticky subject for many Quebecers both
Muslim and non-Muslim, mainly because Algerians have increasingly made this
province their home in recent decades and are therefore seen as a threat by
anti-immigrant types. But it's also because many people draw a direct
connection between the FIS's hardline stance, which asserts Muslim women
should be forced to wear the hijab, and the controversy here.

Since the 1992 multi-party elections, the secular Algerian government and
the FIS have waged a dirty war in a struggle for power after the Algerian
government, with the backing of the French government, annulled the elections
when it appeared the FIS would win-a point often glossed over in the media.
The FIS's fundamentalist anti-government rhetoric and aggressive military
campaign, however, reinforces Muslim stereotypes in Quebec, say Muslim

"I personally was harassed by a woman in Quebec City," said Algerian-born
radio journalist Mohamed Nekili who works for CFMB-AM in Montreal. "She said
'I know what you are doing to women in Algeria.'" Like other Muslims, Nekili
was guilty by association. According to his female harasser, Nekili was no
different than the FIS membership.

At the mosque last Friday, Sheikh Fawaz pinpointed part of the problem
with the backlash: Muslims have a serious PR deficit. "We need a better
dialogue between Muslims and other Montrealers," he lamented. Many Muslim
activists agree but also point out that with a constant media barrage in the
wake of Oklahoma, the hijab controversy and Algeria, they often spend more
time fighting on several outside fronts, neglecting bridge-building within
their own communities. That reality forms an obvious rebuttal to arguments
that Muslim-Quebecers are a unified mass intent on waging war on secular
Quebec culture in the name of Allah.

For now, Sheikh Fawaz believes openness is the first step towards
co-existence and he graciously takes me on a tour of the mosque. We leave the
office and go into the hallway leading to the quiet third-floor warehouse,
now a house of prayer. Al-Ummah is one of the biggest mosques in the city,
says Sheikh Fawaz, as his hand motions around the cement walls adorned with
wooden scriptures. Prayer mats cover the floor and he points to a white
curtain in the corner behind which women are required to pray.

Between his office and the mosque, hang several pictures of the hajj, or
pilgrimage, from years gone by. A photo of hundreds of thousands of Muslims
at "the house of Allah" in Mecca faces the entrance to the mosque. Sheikh
Fawaz, who returned only a week before from Mecca, says this year over 2.5
million Muslims converged on "the holiest place" on Earth. "It's much bigger
now," he adds pointing to the photo with a degree of pride. His words are
also a metaphor for the thriving Muslim population in Quebec, and his own
positive outlook on the future of his faith in peaceful coexistence with
Western culture. Insha'allah, as the saying goes.