Quebec Premier Couillard, in change of tone, ties Michigan attack to Islam

 MONTREAL — The Globe and Mail

 

Quebec’s Premier has sent “a shock wave” through his province’s Muslim communities after he linked the lone-wolf attacker who stabbed a Michigan police officer to the wider Islamic religion.

Philippe Couillard, long seen as an ally in Quebec’s mainstream Muslim communities, has for years taken pains to avoid linking the broader Islamic faith to terrorist attacks, including those perpetrated by Quebeckers on Canadian soil. The Premier’s political opponents have often accused him of being soft on Islamist terrorism.

On Thursday, one day after a Quebec man was accused of wounding a police officer while shouting the Islamic phase “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) in an airport in Flint, Mich., Mr. Couillard dramatically shifted approach.

A reporter pointed out terrorist attacks have often triggered a spike in assault, vandalism and name-calling against Muslims in Quebec and asked the Premier if he had a message to Quebeckers.

“You cannot disconnect this type of event, terrorism, from Islam in general,” Mr. Couillard said. “I think President [Emmanuel] Macron yesterday was very eloquent about this when addressing the Muslim community in France. He told them it’s also your responsibility to act on the theological front to explain to your people that this is not part of the religion, that it’s contrary to the teachings of the religion.”

Samer Majzoub, president of the Montreal-based Canadian Muslim Forum, said the Premier’s words “have honestly caused a shock wave.”

“Usually, Mr. Couillard is a very understanding person. Putting the responsibility of one man’s actions on an entire community … we didn’t expect that from a person who we truly believe is open-minded and who has backed us up in the past.”

Shaheen Ashraf, a Quebec board member of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, said she “is very disappointed” in the Premier for putting the onus on her community.

“You don’t think we try?” Ms. Ashraf said. “You can tell the community Islam is a religion of peace until the cows come home and there will always be people who don’t want to hear you.”

Little has been revealed about the precise motivations and background of Amor Ftouhi, the 49-year-old truck driver and father of three who is originally from Tunisia and resided in a modest apartment in Montreal’s St. Michel neighbourhood. The RCMP continued searching the apartment Thursday afternoon after more than 24 hours.

Mr. Ftouhi was a part-time caretaker at the building, paid his rent on time and never caused any trouble, according to his landlord, Luciano Piazza.

Investigators say Mr. Ftouhi had a hatred for the United States and swore punishment against the country for waging war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. He appeared in court Thursday on a charge of causing violence against a person with a weapon at an international airport. He is almost certain to face additional charges including terrorism, according to Daniel Lemisch, acting U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Michigan.

FBI Special Agent David Gelios said Mr. Ftouhi appeared to be acting alone, calling him a “lone wolf” who had no apparent ties to any networks or radical preachers. Mr. Ftouhi was co-operating with investigators, Mr. Gelios said.

Mr. Ftouhi attempted to purchase a gun in Michigan but was thwarted and ended up buying an “Amazon Jungle” survival knife with a 20-centimetre blade, according to Mr. Gelios.

Members of Montreal’s Muslim community were at a loss to explain Mr. Couillard’s change in tone, particularly coming just before this weekend’s end to the holy month of fasting known as Ramadan.

Community leaders said the Premier was a model of understanding and empathy after the January shooting at a Quebec City mosque that killed six people. Mr. Couillard, a former brain surgeon, worked in Saudi Arabia for several years and offered words of comfort in Arabic in the wake of the shooting.

But in recent weeks, the conservative Coalition Avenir Québec has risen steadily in polls and is nipping at the heels of Mr. Couillard’s Liberals. The party’s leader, François Legault, has proposed cutting immigration levels, has denied Islamophobia exists in Quebec and has demanded a crackdown on religious symbols in government services. For one example, teachers would be banned from wearing the hijab, a common Muslim women’s scarf.

“When Mr. Couillard was supportive of Muslims it caused an uproar and now he’s trying to appease the public,” Ms. Ashraf said. “He’s pandering.”