Montreal mosque story shows how dangerous myths can be in era of fake news, far right

A media report stated a Montreal mosque signed a contract with a construction company stipulating no women could be on the site Fridays, the Muslim holy day. It was inaccurate but still spread like wildfire.

Why do we keep forgetting the lessons of the Bouchard-Taylor report?

Charles Taylor, left, and Gérard Bouchard released their landmark report into reasonable accommodation in 2008. Its findings have had a mixed afterlife. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The findings of the Bouchard-Taylor commission, Quebec's 2008 study into its so-called reasonable accommodation crisis, have had a rough-and-tumble afterlife.

Some have become official policy; others are trotted out occasionally by politicians to justify contentious proposals. But most have been forgotten, especially the finding that the crisis itself was largely based on "striking distortions" of fact.

The commission, named after co-chairs Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, reviewed 21 of the most public cases of unreasonable accommodation, such as the pea soup at the sugarshack or the men banned from a prenatal class.

In 15 of the cases there were wild discrepancies between what was reported and what actually happened.

That raised the question, what if accuracy had ruled the day?

"The most likely hypothesis is that an accommodation crisis would not have arisen," the report concluded.

But that was 10 years ago. On Tuesday, a number of Quebec politicians waded into another purported case of an unreasonable accommodation, equipped again with an incomplete version of the facts.

History repeating   

A media report began circulating late in the afternoon claiming a Montreal mosque had signed a contract with a construction company stipulating that no women could be on the site on Fridays, the Muslim holy day. 

Catherine Fournier, the Parti Québécois's critic for the condition of women, was quick to criticize the mosque based on the media report. 

"I was so scandalized by this," she told Radio-Canada. "Religion for me should never be a pretext for violating the equality between men and women."

The Ahl-Ill Bait Mosque in Montreal's Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood. The mosque denies it asked women construction workers not to be present at the site on Fridays. (CBC)

On Thursday, Fournier walked back her comments somewhat, saying they came in reaction to a story from a credible news organization. She condemned the hateful messages sent to the mosque.

Quebec's labour minister, Dominique Vien, considered the allegations to have enough merit that she asked the provincial construction commission (CCQ) to examine the contract.

"Faced with what is, if true, a completely unacceptable gesture, the verification asked of the CCQ will give me the liberty to chose the best avenue to take," Vien said in a statement late Tuesday night. 

On Wednesday, Premier Philippe Couillard, while also holding out the need to double-check facts, nevertheless suggested the incident illustrated the utility of his controversial religious neutrality law.

"Actually, in the bill that was adopted ... the section on accommodation indicates very clearly that no accommodation can go against the principle of equality between men and women."

That section of the law, though, is the subject of a court-ordered stay, the product of a lawsuit launched by civil rights groups challenging its constitutionality. 

As it turns out, that initial media report about the mosque's contract with the construction company was inaccurate. The contract contained no anti-women stipulation, according to both the contractor and the mosque. 

A missing critical instinct?

Ten years ago, Bouchard and Taylor warned Quebecers of the consequences of debating accommodating issues in a haze of misperception: a wholly unnecessary collective anxiety attack. 

But the consequences may be more dire now. Political movements built on intolerance have in recent years come to thrive in ecosystems cultured by fake news and knee-jerk reactions.

In the absence of political leadership in Quebec encouraging pause, encouraging Quebecers to look at the other side of the issue, the bogus elements of the mosque story spread like wildfire on far-right social media pages. 

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard used the controversy to justify his government's controversial religious neutrality law. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Members of the far-right group Storm Alliance have been posting videos on Facebook decrying the non-existent clause in the contract. One of these video has been viewed more than 200,000 times, another more than 100,000 times.

In La Meute's "secret" Facebook group, the incident is being cited as evidence that Shariah law is on the rise in Quebec, which is demonstrably untrue.

The mosque says it has been the target of a steady stream of hateful comments since the report was first broadcast. A lawyer representing the institution said members haven't ruled out filing a lawsuit against the broadcaster.

But just as worrying for members of the mosque is that a basic critical impulse failed to kick in when the story first began to circulate. 

"For people to not even second-guess the article or the allegation is deeply saddening," said Mostafa El-Diwany, who has been praying at the Ahl-Ill Bait Mosque since 1998. 

"People take the article as fact and basically draw conclusions on the values and principles that the people who go to that mosque allegedly hold: intolerance, discrimination between men and women — the usual hate speech against Muslims."

With files from Sarah Leavitt