Apr 8, 2017

In Canada, Where Muslims Are Few, Group Stirs Fear of Islamists

The New York Times

APRIL 5, 2017

STONEHAM-ET-TEWKESBURY, Quebec — Patrick Beaudry, bejeweled, tattooed and bearded, lives on a remote wooded hillside in rural Quebec, worrying about living under Shariah law.

A year and a half ago, he huddled with two friends in a Quebec maple sugar shack, discussing how to stop the spread of what they call “invasive political Islam” in Canada. They formed a group called La Meute, or Wolfpack, created a Facebook page and invited like-minded people to join.

Within a month, they had 15,000 followers. Today, the number has surpassed 50,000, and the group is still attracting people. Now, Mr. Beaudry and his colleagues say they are shaping those followers into dues-paying members who will give the group financial muscle and, they hope, political clout.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly opened Canada’s doors to refugees and presented a face of tolerance and inclusion in a world increasingly hostile to migration. But as Canadian immigration policy has transformed the nation over decades, pockets of intolerance have grown across the country.

Nowhere has it galvanized such large numbers as in Quebec, where many people still refer to themselves as pure laine, or pure wool, direct descendants of the 17th-century settlers of New France. The most emotional response has focused on conservative Muslim immigrants, who perhaps present the greatest contrast to traditional European-based culture and the secularism that Quebec struggled hard to win from the Roman Catholic Church.

The concerns are outsize by any measure. Muslims represent just 3 percent of Canada’s population, and while Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the country, Muslims will still account for less than 6 percent of the population in 2050, according to the Pew Research Center.

Nonetheless, Mr. Beaudry and his peers say they believe there is a real threat that Islamists are bending Canada’s tolerant culture to their will. The group’s main concern is political Islam pushed by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Pan-Arab movement that grew out of Egypt after the fall of the Ottoman Empire following World War I.

“Political Islam is slowly invading our institutions,” Mr. Beaudry declared, claiming that his group had documentary proof, though he was not prepared to show it. “We have to wake up people and shake them up, and then we will be able to bring change.”

The theme is popular among right-wing groups across North America and Europe, where the slow integration of conservative Muslim immigrants into Judeo-Christian cultures has excited fears among some of a global culture war.

A 2004 move to set up Shariah mediation for Muslim family disputes in Ontario, which already allowed Jewish and Catholic faith-based tribunals to operate in the province, incited a national outcry.

Quebec subsequently passed a law banning Shariah tribunals. Ontario eventually banned faith-based tribunals for all religions. Nonetheless, the events left an impression among many people that conservative Muslims were working to instill Shariah law in Canada.

Canadian Muslims say that not only are such fears unfounded, but that propagating them is also dangerous, to Muslims and to society as a whole.

“They are creating a problem where there is no problem,” said Hassan Guillet, a lawyer and imam.

Mr. Guillet said Canadian Muslims were caught between what he called a relentless and often-negative media focus on Islam and right-wing groups like La Meute that spread misinformation.

“If you keep rejecting the young, they will feel frustrated and feel that they don’t belong, and they will look for their own society,” Mr. Guillet warned, adding that such disenfranchisement had led some young European Muslims down the path of radicalization. “We don’t want that. We want our kids to feel that they belong, we want our kids to feel Canadian.”

As for the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Canada, Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum and a frequent target of conspiracy theories, called it simple fearmongering.

He noted that the largest recent terrorist attack in Canada did not come from Muslims, but targeted them. He was referring to the January killing of six worshi
pers at a mosque in Quebec by a gunman; the man accused of the killings espoused far-right views.

Small, violent right-wing groups have appeared in the decades since Canada relaxed its immigration laws to embrace multiculturalism. But revulsion toward violence and hate speech has kept such groups on the margins. La Meute has created a more moderate setting where people can communicate their fears.

“La Meute is very different from what we have seen so far,” said Samuel Tanner, an associate professor at the International Center for Comparative Criminology at the University of Montreal who studies Canada’s far right.

He likened the group’s followers to the blue-collar Democrats in the United States who supported President Trump. “They are a new type of right, blending conservatism with some liberal values,” he said.

Some experts warn that groups like La Meute, however much they eschew violence, create an enabling environment in which hate can grow. “They are embedded in a broader cultural ethos that bestows ‘permission to hate,’” said Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who has written extensively on right-wing extremism in Canada.

The conversation within La Meute’s private Facebook page can border on hateful. In response to one person’s request about what could be done to prevent construction of a mosque in the neighborhood, another follower suggested pouring pig’s blood on the ground and letting Muslims know the land had been desecrated.

While primarily confined to French-speaking Canada, La Meute lies on a continuum of conservative thought that is propelling politicians like Kellie Leitch, a member of Parliament who is vying for leadership of Canada’s Conservative Party. Ms. Leitch once proposed a tip line for people to report “barbaric cultural practices,” and has suggested that immigrants be screened for “Canadian values” so that the country can maintain “a unified Canadian identity.”

Mr. Beaudry, the son of a onetime lumberjack and heavy equipment operator, joined the Canadian Army when he was 17 and spent years in Germany. He retired from the army after a car accident in 2002 and subsequently spent several months working as a private contractor in Afghanistan. He was greatly influenced by the specter of Taliban rule.

He said he and his friends were motivated by the 2014 killing of two soldiers in Canada in separate episodes, both at the hands of Canadian extremists who had converted to Islam. “We realized something was happening,” Mr. Beaudry said, adding that terrorist attacks in France and Belgium followed soon after.

He said that the primary goal in founding La Meute was to educate members and others about the growth of political Islam in Canada.

Mr. Beaudry spoke specifically about the group’s opposition to the niqab and the burqa, Islamic styles of dress that cover women’s faces. Only a tiny sliver of the Canadian population adopts them, but “if people cannot blend with the society,” Mr. Beaudry said, “it becomes a cancer and if you want to save your life, you have to take action.”

He also believes a parliamentary motion passed last month that condemns Islamophobia is a move to silence criticism of political Islam and is the first step toward an Islamic anti-blasphemy law.

On the private Facebook page, La Meute’s leaders quiz followers, screening for the most informed and dedicated who might fill positions in the hierarchy.

Mr. Beaudry said La Meute was assigning followers to 17 geographic “clans,” each with officers and staff, “so people know who to report to and where to go when things happen.” He said five clans were “fully operational,” and he expected all to be formed by the end of the year.

The group has transportation cells that take people to meetings and has medical units to care for the injured. Some members recently started an online radio station. Last month, La Meute fielded about 400 people in four cities to protest the anti-Islamophobia motion.

“We are trying to teach people that they have much more political power, they matter much more than the majority believes,” Mr. Beaudry said. “We want to influence our world, our politics.”

Email Craig S. Smith at craig.smith@nytimes.com or follow him on Twitter

Ian Austen contributed reporting from Ottawa.

A version of this article appears in print on April 6, 2017, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: In Canada, Where Muslims Are Few, Group Stirs Fear of Islamists

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