Un-Amicable Differences of Opinion
"[Qur'anic verses taught to children at a private Toronto Muslim school were] extremely violent, misogynistic." [The school teaches its students] an indoctrination worthy of a military camp in Afghanistan or Pakistan." [The school is creating fundamentalist activists who in a few years will be demanding accommodations and all sorts of bizarre things ... We are an extremely long way from citizenship, from the values that belong to our society."
"[The school's model is that of another society] where women walk behind men with their heads down, where children are obliged to recite Qur'anic verses and where men are probably going to commit honour crimes against their sisters. [The school was] spreading a message of hatred."
Djemila Benhabib, critic, Islamic fundamentalism, Montreal
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
"I was devastated, appalled, horrified, insulted and worried. How was it possible that someone who had never set foot inside our school could make such damaging and insulting statements?"
Ahmed Khebir, president of the board, Muslim School of Montreal
"We are here because the words of Djemila Benhabib are very important for the women and young girls of the entire world."
"If we disallow criticism on such a fundamental question to be expressed, is there really freedom of expression?"
Michaele Vianes, president, Regards de femmes, Lyon, France
"A feminist activist for secularism is being brought before the courts. It's as if they were trying to make it an offence to have an opinion."
Louise Mailloux, secularism activist, defence fundraiser
|The Muslim School of Montreal -- Google Street View|
In a Quebec courtroom, the case against Djemila Benhabib is being supported by many who believe she has a right to voice her opinion on the curriculum and religious culture of a private Muslim school, which she claims is manipulating the minds of vulnerable children to reflect an intolerant and sexist religious culture which has no place in a secular culture like Canada's.
Ms. Benhabib had no hesitation in stating in an interview on a Montreal radio show that it was her opinion the school's instructions to its students reflected a similar type of indoctrination that would-be terrorists received in training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These accusations served to convince the school to bring a suit for slander against the woman.
Born in Ukraine, with a childhood spent in Algeria, she had posted a blog about the Muslim School of Montreal. That blog posting had attracted the attention of the radio show host in 2012, who invited her to explain her reactions to what she took to be the curriculum followed by the school. She was shocked, she informed the show's host, by her discovery of what the school's website held. Websites setting out values and positions meant to lure the parents of prospective students often do outline just what takes place in such schools.
Ms. Benhabib wrote a book about her experience as a secular feminist struggling against Islamic fundamentalism, in 2009. The school's imposition of the Islamic head scarf as a mandated part of girls' uniforms beginning in the fifth grade, struck her as "sexual apartheid", Several weeks after this initial interview, because the show's host had been harassed by Muslims, he invited Ms. Benhabib to return to the show and once again she repeated what she had formerly said.
According to the school board's president, the school follows the provincial curriculum adding three hours a week of instruction in Arabic and Islam. None of the school's students had ever joined jihad in Syria or committed an honour crime, he stated; most on graduation continue on to university. With five daughters of his own who graduated or yet remain in attendance at the school, one only has decided to wear the head scarf, he said.
The school enrolment fluctuates with roughly 200 students from kindergarten through high school, but a recent drop in the high school enrolment is being attributed to the statements made by Ms. Benhabib. The school feels entitled to respond to what they claim to be slander by suing for $95,000 in damages. Her lawyer's position is that nothing his client said was incorrect.
"Freedom of expression is sufficiently broad and important to allow people to hold opinion and criticisms on subjects such as religion", stated Marc-Andre Nadon, Ms. Benhabib's lawyer, preparing to defend his client before Quebec Superior Court Justice Carole Hallee.