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Quebec legislature pleads for calm after Muslim woman attacked

The motion came Thursday after news this week that teenagers knocked a pregnant woman to the ground by grabbing her hijab.

MATHIEU BELANGER/REUTERS

Quebec's National Assembly made a unanimous call for calm in the midst of the federal election campaign as the province is again roiled by Islamophobia and at least one violent act targeting a Muslim.

The motion came Thursday after news this week that teenagers knocked a pregnant woman to the ground by grabbing her Muslim scarf, known as a hijab, as she walked on a Montreal street. The woman was unhurt but extremely upset, her husband said.

The sponsors of the motion said the Syrian refugee crisis and the federal debate over the place of the niqab in Canadian citizenship ceremonies has once again inflamed passions in the province, turning social media into a cesspool of hateful messages and putting pressure on Muslims.

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"It's not a majority of Quebeckers, but a certain number of people say, 'Niqab, jihad, radicalization, imam, Islam, it's all the same.' It's not all the same," said Françoise David, a member of the left-wing Québec solidaire party who introduced the motion. It passed 100-0 in the 125-seat house.

"The incidents have multiplied in recent weeks. There's a debate to be had on whether the niqab should be worn at federal ceremonies, but to talk about it for 15 days, that political parties – especially the Conservatives – end up making it a key campaign issue and pose as grand defenders of women, I say stop."

The federal Conservatives have vowed to pursue a ban on niqabs at citizenship ceremonies, while the NDP and the Liberals have sided with courts that have ruled it is allowed. The NDP has lost considerable ground in Quebec polls since the issue surfaced, and a French-language leaders' debate Friday night on the TVA network is unlikely to turn down the heat.

The unanimous vote in the National Assembly couldn't paper over divisions in the province's political parties. The Parti Québécois lobbied to have Ms. David remove the word "Islamophobia" from the motion, joining the Coalition Avenir Québec in saying it would prefer a more universal declaration against hate.

Nathalie Roy of the right-wing CAQ told reporters the assembly should condemn radical Islam along with all forms of bigotry.

But Ms. David insisted on keeping the word, saying, "Let's call a cat a cat." Both the PQ and CAQ eventually helped pass the motion.

Quebec has seen a number of angry confrontations, minor violence and other anti-Islam outbursts in recent years in response to terrorist acts and manoeuvring on the province's political scene.

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For nearly a decade, a debate over the place of religion in the province – mostly, although not exclusively, targeting Muslims – has simmered and occasionally boiled over. In recent years, the heat was turned up when the PQ planned to ban certain religious garments, including Muslim veils, from those working in the public service before losing the 2013 election. The Liberals replaced the PQ and now have their own legislation in the works to require uncovered faces in any interactions involving the public service – another measure that largely touches a small number of Muslim women who cover their faces.

"We've seen it since the accommodation debate and it comes back," Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil said. "Events can always ignite those debates."

On Tuesday, Le Journal de Montréal reported that Oumessad Khoufache, 31, was walking to pick up her child at school when two boys on bicycles approached her, grabbed her hijab and knocked her to the ground. She's four months pregnant.

Her husband, Abdelhafid Ben Bellil, said his wife can't stop crying and is afraid to go outside. She did not want to be interviewed. He said that "a media frenzy" is feeding hate against Muslims.

Ms. David, a Quebec feminist leader before entering politics, described the niqab as a prison that she wishes would disappear, but she said the federal debate has exceeded common sense.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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