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.
The event also cemented the 41-year-old Charkaoui’s conversion from suspected terrorist to Quebec’s go-to Muslim spokesperson. In the following months, Charkaoui used his newly minted media platform to speak out on a variety of issues facing Quebec’s Muslim community. He called out popular media figures Richard Martineau and Benoît Dutrizac for their frequent anti-Islam ramblings. He said the Quebec values charter would hurt Quebec’s standing among would-be immigrants from Muslim countries. He denounced the uptick of attacks on Muslims in the values charter’s wake. In short, he painted himself as the protector and defender of Quebec’s roughly 250,000 Muslims.
Hints of his alleged former life as a terrorist have crept into Charkaoui’s present-day narrative. Two of Charkaoui’s former students, who attended his Muslim community centre in east-end Montreal, were found to have made a trip overseas to join jihadi groups in their fight against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. More recently, two of 10 individuals arrested before they could leave on a similar mission had frequented Charkaoui’s classes.
Charkaoui, who didn’t respond to interview requests, has vehemently denied that he coaxed his former students into jihad—and none of those students has spoken about Charkaoui at all. He has further denied that he planned a “biochemical attack in [Montreal’s] Metro” in 2002, or that he ever talked of “taking control of an airplane for aggressive purposes,” as the federal government alleged in court filings from 2013.
He has since become a Canadian citizen—proof positive, Charkaoui has said, that the government’s own allegations of terrorism were far-fetched. On the day of his citizenship ceremony, Charkaoui happily quoted from the letter sent to him from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, “welcoming him to the Canadian family.”
While he continues to draw the ire of old foes—the PQ’s Agnès Maltais, now in opposition, recently labelled him “a merchant of hate”—he is also facing criticism from an unlikely source: Muslims themselves. In March, the tabloid Journal de Montréal published an open letter to Charkaoui by Omar Kesraoui, an Algerian-born Montrealer. “In Algeria, I didn’t have a childhood or an adolescence because of Islamists like you . . . The community needs real leaders to speak in the public sphere, not charlatans like you,” reads the letter, in part. Kesraoui goes on to call Charkaoui a “self-proclaimed sheik.”
Kesraoui didn’t respond to requests for further comment, and many others from the community seem to be wary of criticizing Charkaoui in public, for fear of adding to the perceived anti-Muslim bias in Quebec society. “By coming out and saying that Adil Charkaoui is a bad person, you end up joining the ranks of those who criticize Muslims in the public sphere, and perpetuate the idea that there’s something wrong with Islam,” says Stephen Brown, a Muslim activist in Montreal and a Charkaoui critic. “So, guys who proclaim themselves to be spokespeople can say anything and nothing is going to happen to them.”
Others still say Charkaoui, in attacking Islamophobia, provides a crucial service in Quebec, where the debate over religious and cultural rights is arguably louder than anywhere else in the country. They say that, in persecuting Charkaoui in the courts (he has never been found guilty of a terrorist-related crime) and Islam in public, the Canadian and Quebec governments have essentially created in Charkaoui a ready-made martyr—a man who has every right to be angry. Regardless, this much is sure: The enigma known as Adil Charkaoui isn’t going anywhere, as long as he is loved and hated so much, so publicly.
“2015 has been the year of Adil Charkaoui.”
So says Jean-François Dumas, president of media-monitoring firm Influence Communication. Over the last five years, Charkaoui has garnered ever-increasing media attention, 63 per cent of which has come in the first five months of 2015, according to an Influence Communication analysis. In Quebec, he has been the third-most talked-about person of Muslim faith so far this year, after Omar Khadr and controversial Montreal imam Hamza Chaoui. His notoriety peaked earlier this year in an interview with Radio-Canada host Anne-Marie Dussault, in which a combative Charkaoui accused Dussault of being both a Quebec separatist and an Islamophobe. “Why do you ask me to condemn ISIS?” he said (using a common acronym for Islamic State), his face a mask of wide-eyed animus. “Do you ask the same question to the Quebec Women’s Federation? Do you ask it of organizations for the homeless?” Later, as Dussault stumbled for words, Charkaoui bit again. “If there was a director of a Catholic school in front of you, I bet you wouldn’t ask these questions. And that is Islamophobia.”
Part of the reason for his popularity boils down to Charkaoui’s appearance, says Brown, the Muslim activist. “He has a big beard, and he speaks with an accent. The media chases him because he fits the perfect stereotype of the angry Muslim. It’s a vicious circle: The more he talks, the more he is chased.”
Then there is the nature of Quebec’s Muslim community itself. In a way, “community” is a misnomer; rather, Muslims typically identify with their own national or cultural identity first, says Brown, and there are few organizations that represent these diffuse allegiances under one umbrella. In Ontario, for example, there are groups such as the Islamic Society of North America, which advocates for a wide swath of Ontario Muslims and has seven full-time employees. By comparison, the Canadian Muslim Forum (CMF), one of the more prominent Quebec-based organizations, has no permanent staff. According to a CMF estimate, there are more than 100 Muslim organizations in the province.
The lack of cohesion among Quebec Muslims is fertile territory for people like Charkaoui, says Samir Amghar. “He realizes that he is most effective, he can attract the most media attention, by speaking out. In supposedly fighting against Islamophobia, Charkaoui fills a void,” says Amghar, a France-based scholar who has studied Salafism, the austere strain of Islam with which Charkaoui has been associated.
Charkaoui’s media omnipotence is a concern for Brown. “The problem with him being a spokesperson for his ideals doesn’t bother me. It’s a free country. It just scares me to think that someone who lacks democratic legitimacy, who lacks accountability, can become a spokesperson for 250,000 people,” he says.
The Quebec Muslim population doubled between 2001 and 2011, according to Statistics Canada data. Yet Quebec Muslims have an unemployment rate of 17.4 per cent, more than double the provincial average and, after Prince Edward Island, the highest unemployment among Muslims in the country. Coupled with a perceived anti-Muslim sentiment in Quebec society, exacerbated by the Parti Québécois’s legislative attempts to outlaw the hijab (among other religious garb) from the bodies of its public servants, it is of little surprise that Charkaoui has a certain resonance.
“He comes across as a street fighter who won’t back down, who will give as good as it gets,” says Sheema Khan, a prominent Muslim-affairs columnist. “This approach gets him a lot of support among Muslims in Quebec.”
But if he is indeed a street fighter, some believe Charkaoui can thank the Canadian government for providing him with a harrowing, Rocky-like backstory. Charkaoui was arrested and jailed in 2003 on a security certificate; the federal government believed he was an al-Qaeda sleeper agent. A Federal Court judge allowed for his release in 2005, though he left incarceration wearing a GPS bracelet around his ankle, and still faced the prospect of deportation.
In 2009, about two years after the Supreme Court struck down the government’s process for issuing security certificates, lawyers for the federal government withdrew their evidence in Charkaoui’s case. A judge halted his deportation hearings. A free man, he left the courtroom and snipped off his GPS anklet as the cameras clicked.
Charkaoui has since asked for an apology—he is still waiting—and has sued the federal government for $26.5 million. In its statement of defence, the federal government claimed to have information that linked Charkaoui to, among other things, a plot to launch a gas attack on Montreal’s Metro, and an “armed jihadi” financed by fraudulent credit cards. The government court filings also allege that Charkaoui had ties to “millennium bomber” Ahmed Ressam and 9/11 mastermind Zacarias Moussaoui. Yet none of the allegations has been proven in court, and the suit may drag on: Johanne Doyon, Charkaoui’s longtime lawyer, recently dropped Charkaoui as her client.
“He became the main symbol for overzealous security practices,” says Canadian Muslim Forum spokesperson Sameer Zuberi. “The whole legal community was up in arms about how he was treated, and the media focused on him in a positive light. He was Quebec’s Maher Arar.”
Arar, though, has kept relatively quiet since his arrest, torture and subsequent exoneration. Charkaoui has been anything but during his own travails, and has admitted that some of his own students have joined jihadi groups overseas.
A self-taught imam, Charkaoui was teaching students in a rented classroom space at CEGEP de Maisonneuve, a publicly funded college, until the school administration suspended his contract outright following the arrests and news last February that some of his former students had gone overseas for jihad. (CEGEP de Rosemont, where Charkaoui also rented space, cancelled his contract with the school in April.)
In the Dussault interview, Charkaoui said he was teaching Arabic and the Quran. What exactly this entails is anyone’s guess. “No one knows what the curriculum is, unless you attended or personally know him,” Brown says. (In another Radio-Canada interview, a College de Maisonneuve spokesperson said the school only found out about its students possibly leaving for jihad when a journalist called for comment on the story.)
All told, Charkaoui seems to have had some contact with at least four students who either left or planned to leave for overseas jihadi. “There is one point in common, one individual: Adil Charkaoui,” said the PQ’s Maltais in Quebec’s National Assembly. Charkaoui responded via his Facebook page with typical aplomb. “With her irresponsible speech, Ms. Maltais is acting as an agent of radicalization, as the PQ has since 2013.”
So: is Quebec’s self-appointed Muslim spokesperson a simple teacher? Or a dangerous enabler of radical Islam?
Charkaoui effectively wears two hats, says scholar Amghar, and is skilled at tailoring his message for whomever is listening. “Charkaoui’s discourse in combatting Islamophobia isn’t dangerous. He isn’t calling for attacks in Quebec or Canada, and he knows he can’t invoke or invite terrorism or jihad, because Canada’s political context wouldn’t allow for it,” Amghar says. “But there is a sort of split in his personality. His point of view is that it’s totally normal and legitimate that there are groups like [Islamic State] and al-Nusra Front in Syria, if only to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, and for the creation of an Islamic state.”
This double-edged existence—part conciliation, part outrage—is on display on Charkaoui’s own websites. Following the arrests of the 10 would-be jihadists in Montreal this month, Charkaoui’s east-end Muslim community centre quickly published a concerned news release. “The Islamic Community Centre of East End Montreal would like to remind that it takes the question of radicalization very seriously, and reiterates its commitment to contribute to the harmonious integration of the Muslim community in Quebec and Canada,” it reads.
Just a few hours later, Charkaoui’s Collective Against Islamophobia issued its own release. The tone was markedly different. “Ten arrests! It’s an unexplained phenomenon that leaves us skeptical, just as the government is adopting harsh security laws like [anti-terror legislation] C-51!” it reads, in part. “What is sure, this can only benefit one governing political party: the Conservatives!”
Give him this: Denouncing radicalism and the arrest of alleged radicals on the same day takes chutzpah that only Adil Charkaoui, with all his apparent contradictions, could muster.