Montreal Muslim school president was ‘devastated’ by feminist’s criticisms, slander trial hears

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From the National Post of Canada

MONTREAL — Quebec’s long-running debate over secularism and the place of religious minorities moved into the courtroom Monday as a slander trial opened against an outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism.

A crowd of supporters, including two who arrived from France, filled the room to hear the case against Djemila Benhabib, who is being sued by a private Muslim school after she likened its teaching to the instruction received in terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Benhabib told 98.5 FM host Benoît Dutrizac that she was shocked by what she found on the school’s website.

Koranic verses being taught to children were “extremely violent” and “misogynistic,” she told Dutrizac in a recording played in the court. She said the school offers students “an indoctrination worthy of a military camp in Afghanistan or Pakistan.” The school, she said, “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.” 

(She) also denounced as “sexual apartheid” the school’s policy of imposing the Islamic headscarf as part of girls’ uniforms beginning in fifth grade. The school’s model, she said, is 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.”

A second interview three weeks later came after Dutrizac said he had been the victim of a harassment campaign from Muslims complaining about the first interview. Benhabib did not back down, saying the school was “spreading a message of hatred.”

Ahmed Khebir, president of the board of the Muslim School of Montreal, told the court that when he listened to Benhabib’s first interview on the Internet, he couldn’t believe his ears. “I was devastated, appalled, horrified, insulted and worried,” he said in response to questioning from the school’s lawyer, Julius Grey. “How was it possible that someone who had never set foot inside our school could make such damaging and insulting statements?”

In the aftermath of the broadcast, he went to the school and found it in a state of panic, he said. Older students were worried the publicity would affect their chances of being accepted into college, he said, noting that many graduates have removed reference to the Muslim school from their CVs. Security was increased at the school out of fear “some crazy person” would take Benhabib’s comments literally and attack the school, he said. Enrolment fluctuates but there are more than 200 students in the school, from kindergarten through high school. Khebir blamed a recent drop in enrolment in the high school on Benhabib’s comments.

The school is seeking $95,000 in damages, but Benhabib’s supporters said outside the court that the real objective is to silence a critic.

Marc-André Nadon, Benhabib’s lawyer, said the defence will be that nothing she said was incorrect. “Freedom of expression is sufficiently broad and important to allow people to hold opinion and criticisms on subjects such as religion,” he said.

The trial before Quebec Superior Court Justice Carole Hallée is expected to last five days.

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