A march organized by sympathizers of a Europe-based anti-Islam, anti-immigration group called PEGIDA was cancelled on Saturday after hundreds of people showed up to protest against PEGIDA itself.
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The self-described leader of the relatively new PEGIDA Québec chapter, Jean-François Asgard, told Radio-Canada that "Islam needs to reform itself or leave the West."
Jaggi Singh of the No One Is Illegal activist group helped organize Saturday's counter-protest.
Hundreds of people toting signs denouncing racism and Islamophobia arrived 30 minutes prior to the scheduled start time of the PEGIDA march, set to take place in a largely Muslim community in Montreal called Little Maghreb.
Just over 100 people had RSVP'd to PEGIDA Québec's march, while nearly 900 members of Antifa (anti-fascism) and other anti-racist groups said they would attend the counter-demonstration.
"There's no way that their demonstration will be able to go where they want to go. They won't be able to pass. The police have given them permission to march, but that doesn't mean people in the neighbourhood or anti-racist groups are giving them permission to march," he said.
The anti-Islam group had submitted its march itinerary to Montreal police. A number of officers were on the scene to keep an eye on any violence.
What is PEGIDA?
The organization is popular with neo-Nazis and other nationalists and is often spoken about favourably on white supremacist online forums such as Stormfront and National Front.
PEGIDA, which in German stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, first popped up in October 2014. The relatively new group began in Dresden, Germany and uses Facebook as a main organizing tool.
PEGIDA Québec first began posting on Facebook in January, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Saturday afternoon's demonstration is referred to online as the local chapter's first action.
PEGIDA Québec leader Asgard told Radio-Canada that the itinerary planned for Saturday would have intentionally passed in front of several Muslim community centres and mosques.
Singh said it's very worrisome that people who normally only espouse racist and xenophobic opinions online are moving into the physical world.
"Neo-Nazis, Islamophobes, internet trolls — they all sort of congregate around this thing called PEGIDA," Singh said.
"Now we know there's racists out there, we know there's Islamophobes out there, we know there's fascists out there, but what's different today is that they're trying to march publicly in a working class, immigrant area that is predominantly North African," he said.
Denis Coderre says extremists unwelcome
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said during the week that extremist groups like PEGIDA were not welcome in the city.
He reiterated that statement Saturday on Twitter:
Le groupe Pegida n'est pas le bienvenue à Montréal. Des groupes de ce genre n'ont pas leur place ici. Tout extrémisme est inacceptable— @DenisCoderre
Singh said earlier in the day that Coderre is smart to denounce PEGIDA, but that recent events in Montreal seem to show the city is not that friendly toward Muslims.
In recent months, zoning bylaws have been changed to prohibit religious organizations from certain parts of boroughs, and a new radicalization tip line was put in place after seven Montreal-area residents reportedly travelled to Syria to join jihadists.
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"Islamophobia is being instrumentalized and is being used by various parts of the political class," Singh said.
"We have just a handful of folks who may or may not have gone to Syria and suddenly we need a special hotline on extremism, when this is a very marginal phenomenon," Singh continued. "This is being used to create a social crisis."