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Scholar accused of ‘Quebec bashing’ dismissed from anti-radicalization centre

Researcher and Islamic studies scholar Hicham Tiflati, 39, was asked to leave Montreal’s new anti-radicalization centre after co-authoring a newspaper opinion piece describing the nature of Islamophobia in Quebec as ‘unique, and quite worrisome.’

Sarah Mongeau-Birkett/The Globe and Mail

A researcher at Montreal's new anti-radicalization centre was dismissed less than a month after its launch for co-authoring an opinion piece in a Toronto newspaper calling out Quebec's "unique" style of Islamophobia.

Hicham Tiflati, a 39-year-old Islamic law and religious studies scholar, was asked to leave last week after the opinion piece he wrote with respected anti-radicalization researcher Amarnath Amarasingam prompted cries of "Quebec bashing" in the province.

Mr. Tiflati said he agreed to leave to quell the controversy and allow the centre to continue on with important work.

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The article under the headline "Quebec needs to confront its Islamophobia problem" described an incident involving a Quebec Muslim girl who was accosted on a bus for wearing a head scarf. The piece linked such incidents to the disenchantment of her friend, a radicalized youth who went to join Islamic State in Syria. The article also cited polling data showing 43 per cent of Quebeckers are uneasy about all religion and about half are uncomfortable around Muslims in veils.

"Young Muslims … struggle to find a place in Quebec. They were born there, go to school there, but as visible Muslims, do not feel included in the fabric of the province, one that is often openly hostile to their religious identity," said the article published in the Toronto Star.

"While Islamophobia and anti-Muslim animus exists throughout Canada, the nature of it in Quebec seems to be unique, and quite worrisome."

The article leaped from a couple of anecdotes to declare Quebec society racked with Islamophobia and did not meet basic research standards, according to Herman Deparice-Okomba, director of the anti-radicalization centre. He denied public or political pressure led him to ask Mr. Tiflati to leave but he did say the piece was authored under the centre's name without the director's knowledge.

"I'm a researcher too, and as a researcher you cannot reach a conclusion on a collectivity based on two or three samples," Mr. Deparice-Okomba said in an interview Sunday. "The article in my view was inappropriate and very exaggerated. A researcher has a duty to take into account the reality of Quebec, and Quebec is not worse than other regions of Canada."

The two authors did not specifically say Quebec has a worse problem with Islamophobia than other Canadian jurisdictions, using words like "unique" and "worrisome" instead, but it was taken that way by many who took to online forums to denounce so-called Quebec bashing.

Mr. Tiflati said he was taken aback by reaction to the article in a province where the place of Islam has been a constant point of debate for a decade or more.

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"Quebec has its own language, history, culture and relationship to religion," he said. "It's unique. We sometimes see Quebeckers deal with Islam by projecting their own experience with Catholicism. That's what we meant by unique. These issues take the shape of their society, whether it's Quebec, the United Kingdom or France."

The province's legislature unanimously passed a resolution in the fall denouncing Islamophobia in Quebec, a move that also triggered outrage among some nationalists and anti-Islamism watchdogs. The resolution was in response to assaults and threats taking place in Quebec, as in other parts of Canada, when a woman's right to wear a niqab during her citizenship ceremony became a divisive issue in the federal election campaign.

Françoise David, the Québec Solidaire member who introduced the motion, said at the time "a certain number of people are mixing up everything, jihad, niqab, Islam, radicalization."

Mr. Amarasingam said Quebec's linguistic nationalism and growing secularism after centuries of Catholic clergy domination formed part of the thinking behind their article, along with dozens of interviews they have conducted with young Muslims across Canada that showed a "sense of exclusion is more deeply highlighted in Quebec."

None of that was directly mentioned in the 665-word piece, however.

"Muslims walk down the street in Quebec with a lot more anxiety than I've heard anywhere else in Canada. I don't know how you quantify it but there's no question the nature of it is just different," said Mr. Amarasingam, who co-directs a study of Western foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo.

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Mr. Tiflati's departure is "in itself quite indicative," Mr. Amarasingam said, adding that few people blink when Islamophobia is decried in other parts of Canada. "We know that Islamophobia exists here. We acknowledge it."

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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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