Sept. 14, 2013, was a good day for Adil Charkaoui. The Moroccan-born teacher and imam, who spent 21 months in jail and several years under virtual house arrest on charges of terrorism, was leading a veritable human chain through the streets of downtown Montreal. The crowd, stretching 11 city blocks, was loud, boisterous and entirely peaceful—there were no arrests—despite the palpable anger in the air.
The Parti Québécois government was on the eve of introducing its so-called charter of Quebec values, which would have outlawed members of Quebec’s public service from the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols. The collage of hijabs, turbans and crucifixes (though few yarmulkes; the event was scheduled on Yom Kippur) was a multi-coloured demonstration against the proposed law.
The protest wound down at Place du Canada, a downtown park. Standing under a statue of John A. Macdonald, Charkaoui addressed the crowd. “I would like to thank the thousands of Quebecers who came out today to say ‘No’ to this discriminatory charter,” he said. Spoken with booming, methodical indignation, his words echoed from a huge speaker perched on a supporter’s head. He further denounced the PQ government, then asked the crowd to return home peacefully. “Our message has been heard,” he said.
It certainly was. Organized by Charkaoui’s Collectif québécois contre l’Islamophobie (Quebec Collective Against Islamophobia), the protest arguably helped to humanize the debate over the place of religion in Quebec’s stubbornly secular society. “We’ve probably never seen so many people of different religions protesting together in the streets of Montreal,” as one television reporter breathlessly put it…