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Jewish organization distances itself from imam behind Quebec Bill 21 protest

Controversial imam and activist Adil Charkaoui holds a copy of Bill 21 during Sunday's protest at Place Émilie-Gamelin. - JOHN KENNEY/MONTREAL GAZETTE

Despite several calls during Sunday’s anti-Bill 21 rally for people “of all faiths” to come together against the bill, a prominent Jewish organization has asked its members to stay away from future protests organized by the anti-Islamaphobia collective behind the march.

David Ouellette, director of research and public affairs for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), says the organization does not want to be linked in any way to Adil Charkaoui, the controversial imam and activist leading the rally on Sunday.

“Being associated with someone like Charkaoui undermines the credibility of those who are advancing reasonable arguments to oppose Bill 21,” Ouellette said on Tuesday. “It would be counterproductive for those who legitimately oppose the bill to be associated with him.”

Ouellette said the decision to advise members not to participate was taken after speaking with different leaders from within the Jewish community.

Held in Montreal on Sunday afternoon, the protest was the largest of its kind in opposition of the bill. Among the thousands in attendance were survivors of the Quebec mosque massacre and numerous women marching with signs that read, “My hijab, my right, my choice, my life.”

But the CIJA was not alone in deciding not to participate. AMAL-Quebec, the Association of Muslims and Arabs for a Secular Quebec, had also asked its members to steer clear of the rally. In a Facebook post published last week, it called Charkaoui “divisive” and said he “cannot ignore that his personality is controversial.”

Reached for comment Tuesday, Charkaoui defended his reputation and that of the group behind the rally, the Collectif Canadien Anti-Islamophobie. He said the Jewish community at large was invited to participate in the march and many members did.

“Every speech (on Sunday) called for unity,” Charkaoui said. “People took the microphone to defend all minorities. We said we’re against all forms of discrimination and need to work together.

“We opened the door to anyone opposing the bill and I asked everyone who was present, repeatedly, to get out and protest and support all efforts to try to have the bill abolished or stop it from passing.”

Charkaoui, who has long spoken out against Islamaphobia in Quebec, spent six years in detention or under house arrest while the Canadian government believed he was a sleeper agent for al-Qaeda. A Federal Court judge ultimately dropped the case in 2009.

More recently, he was accused of radicalizing youths when it turned out teens who left Quebec in 2015, allegedly to join terrorist groups, had been in contact with him through the Centre Communautaire islamique de l’est de Montréal.

He has always denied any links to terrorism.

Asked Tuesday whether he believes his presence at the march and any future demonstrations against Bill 21 hurts the cause, Charkaoui mentioned the large turnout on Sunday and said everyone participating knew he was behind it — it was his name at the bottom of the news release, he said, and he was in the video promoting the event.

“So to say people don’t want to be associated with the collective is false,” he said.

The CIJA took a similar stance in 2013 when Charkaoui organized the first major protest against the Parti Québécois’ proposed Charter of Values. The centre called on members not to participate in a march organized by groups that “include religious radical fundamentalists.”

The centre has denounced Bill 21 all the while calling for a “civil and respectful” debate on the topic.

The bill introduced by Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government would forbid public school teachers, police officers and other civil servants from wearing religious symbols on the job.

“Our stance has always been that we’re in favour of secularism and we feel that state secularism in Quebec has already been achieved. We oppose the notion that you have to erode individual freedoms in order to reinforce secularism,” Ouellette said.

“In a democratic society such as ours, we believe we can have debates about the most delicate of issues while remaining civil and respectful,” he added. “I think it’s all the more important when dealing with sensitive issues such as secularism and freedom of religion and conscience.”

Another large anti-Bill 21 protest has been planned for next Sunday. Called a “Rally for Religious Freedom,” it’s organized by a coalition of politicians and school board representatives.

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