July 20th, 2024

Islamic holiday celebration in Montreal park draws ire from secularists

By Joe Bongiorno, The Canadian Press on June 20, 2024.

Quebec's provincial flag flies on a flagpole in Ottawa on June 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

MONTREAL – Earlier this week, members of Montreal’s Muslim community gathered in a park to celebrate the Eid al-Adha holiday, a day when families traditionally wear their finest clothes, share gifts, feast and pray together.

Religious celebrations are not uncommon at Parc des Hirondelles in the Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough: for several years the city has authorized an outdoor Catholic mass held by the Italian community on the grassy field.

Eid was celebrated in the park last year without objections. But this year, when images of Muslims kneeling down to pray on the grass were widely shared on social media – including by prominent Quebec pundits – the borough started to receive complaints.

“It’s rare that we receive 10 or 15 emails exactly on the same subject, exactly at the same moment, so “¦. we know that something is going on the social media or on the media,” said Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough mayor Émilie Thuillier. The complaints, she said, were enough for her to consider banning all religious events in Parc des Hirondelles.

“We have noted that some boroughs in Montreal prohibit religious ceremonies in parks and we will explore this issue “¦. but we haven’t taken a decision,” she said.

The episode is part of a long-standing debate in Quebec on the presence of religious expression in public life – particularly Islamic expression. Quebec’s promotion of state secularism led to the adoption of Bill 21, which bans some public servants, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols on the job. Muslim groups have criticized the law for having a disproportionate affect on their community, as many Muslim women wear a head scarf.

David Rand, a spokesperson for Rassemblement pour la laïcité, a pro-secularism group, says religious celebrations belong in houses of worship and not public spaces. His organization wrote a letter published in Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper that said the city has allowed a public park to transform into “sacred space for worship.”

In an interview, Rand said, “As a religious event, it excludes people of other religions, and this is supposed to be a public park open to the general public. What they’ve done is they turned the part of the park into a temporary mosque.”

Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, says there was nothing controversial about the celebration, adding that while he wasn’t present at Parc des Hirondelles for the festivities, he says the prayer would not have lasted more than a few minutes.

Majzoub says the mayor was “fair” in allowing the community – composed of local residents and taxpayers – to celebrate in the park, adding that some people are blowing the event out of proportion and singling out Quebec’s Muslims.

Frédéric Dejean, a religion professor at Université du Québec à Montréal, says the reaction to the event on social media and from political commentators has been surprising, but it comes amid rising anti-Muslim feeling in Western countries.

Every year, Dejean says, thousands of Christians gather for the March for Jesus on the streets of downtown Montreal to sing and spread the Gospel, while Hare Krishna members regularly chant in subway stations.

But those displays of religious expression seem to go unnoticed, he said. “It’s only when it’s about Muslims that some people say it sounds like a problem.”

Dejean says it is important in a democratic society to allow people to express their religion, even on public space, within limits. Religious events, like secular ones, must respect laws on things such as noise limits and hate speech, he said. What’s important, he added, is for the city or boroughs to make sure the events they permit on their territory don’t violate the law.

Rand says all faiths, including Christianity and Judaism, have fundamentalists in their congregations, but he says Islam has a “definite political goal of occupying as much space as possible.” He rejects accusations of Islamophobia, saying the word itself is a “nonsense term” and a “code for blasphemy” used to censor criticism of the religion.

Majzoub disagrees, saying that Muslims are held to a different standard compared to other faiths in Quebec.

“They went to the city, and they got the approval. This is not imposing,” he said of the Eid celebration. Quebecers only bring up the importance of secularism, he said, “when it comes to Islam.”

Quebec’s Secularism Minister Jean-François Roberge did not respond to a request for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2024.

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