Canada’s immovable Imam

Adil Charkaoui is always pointed to when there’s a problem involving Muslim youth – now he’s fighting back.

Adil Charkaoui [AFP]
Adil Charkaoui [AFP]

Adil Charkaoui says he is the victim of a smear campaign.

“I am really disgusted by the dirty campaign of some mass media,” the Moroccan-born teacher of Arabic and the Quran tells Al Jazeera English via Facebook.

He could be right.

Over the past six months, especially since seven young people left Quebec last winter reportedly to join ISIL, Canadian reporters have been linking his name, his past, and his Centre Communautaire Islamique de l’Est de Montreal to the “radicalisation” of Muslim youth.

Last month, when another 10 boys and girls on their way to Turkey were “pre-emptively” arrested at Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport, Charkaoui was in the headlines again.

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That’s because, so far this year, 11 of 19 young Quebecers who have left or tried to leave – ostensibly for Syria – attended College de Maisonneuve, where Charkaoui leases space for his classes.

Outspoken imam

But, as the outspoken imam has repeatedly emphasised, 14 other teachers teach the Quran and Arabic at the college of 6,000, and yet he’s the one who is always pointed to – and not just by journalists eager to torque a story.

Even the Parti Quebecois’ Opposition House Leader Agnes Maltais rose in the National Assembly to join in the accusations.

“What is going on at that centre? What is Adil Charkaoui telling the children who attend? How is it that children who attend his centre and hear his teaching have a sudden desire to join [ISIL]?” the PQ member charged, calling him the “one point in common” in every departure or attempted departure.

Charkaoui’s response, via social media, was: “With her irresponsible speech, Ms Maltais is acting as an agent of radicalisation, as the PQ has since 2013.”




That was the year that the separatist party, then in power, introduced its so-called Quebec Charter of Values that would, among other measures, amend the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to limit the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols such as hijab.

But it wasn’t Jewish men in yarmulkes or Catholic nuns wearing large crosses that would become targets of ignorance. Instead, young women in niqab would be accosted in the streets while Muslim schools would be vandalised and Charkaoui reported getting death threats.

Lightening rod

And so, under the auspices of his Quebec Collective Against Islamophobia, he organised a protest of thousands and became the go-to media spokesperson for the province’s ethnically diverse, multicultural quarter of a million Muslims.

Charkaoui has been a lightening rod almost since he arrived with his parents and sister at age 21 in 1995.

His travails began shortly after graduating with an MA in French literature from the Universite de Montreal. That’s when the now married father-of-four travelled to central Asia, putting him on the radar of Canada’s spy agency, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

It claimed he had trained at a paramilitary camp called Khalden in Afghanistan. CSIS would also assert that he was linked to other Islamist hardliners, including the “Millennium Bomber” Ahmed Ressam, a Khalden alumnus who was intercepted at the Canada-US border in 1999 with a car full of explosives.

Interestingly, in 2007, Charkaoui would testify before a parliamentary committee that, in 1999, he “was asked to become a CSIS informant and rat on my own community. I refused. CSIS hasn’t left me alone since”.

In 2003, the then-Liberal government signed a security certificate on the suspicion of his being an al-Qaeda “sleeper agent”. But no charges were ever laid, no evidence against him produced. He was imprisoned for 21 months. When he was finally released, the conditions were so draconian – a GPS ankle bracelet, no access to computers, severe travel restrictions – he justifiably called his ordeal “Kafkaesque”.

But he didn’t go quietly. Instead, he took on the government and won, going all the way to the Supreme Court for decisions on the legitimacy of the security certificate and the destruction of evidence that Ottawa claimed it had against him.

Court victory

His most recent court victory came last month when a judge ruled that Ottawa has to hand over documentation related to government leaks to the media alleging that he and Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Sudanese Canadian also once accused of terrorism, had planned to blow up a passenger plane. Documentation that then-Conservative Immigration and Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney, now defence minister, claimed “makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck”.

Charkaoui’s $26.5m lawsuit against the government for his suffering is now in progress. The latest is that Ottawa claims it has evidence that ties him to a plot to launch a gas attack on the Metro.

But his biggest triumph came in 2014 when he finally became a Canadian citizen.

“I think getting my Canadian citizenship was an admission; it means I’m not a danger to society,” he told the Montreal Gazette in a lengthy interview last week. “That’s why I’m suing the government. I want a formal apology from the federal government and compensation for all those years.”

Whether he wins that lawsuit almost doesn’t matter.

It looks like he will always be tried in and by the media.

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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