TORONTO -- Anti-Muslim rhetoric targeting Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has been shared by right-wing commenters online throughout the campaign, but long-standing rumours that Trudeau wants to implement Sharia law in Canada are unfounded.

Over the last week, several memes suggesting that one of Trudeau’s “unwritten promises” upon re-election would be to introduce Sharia law have been shared on right-wing social media accounts, garnering hundreds of shares.

In fact, a search for the terms “Justin Trudeau” and “Sharia law” on Twitter returns thousands of results, a large number of which accuse the Liberal leader of being a “closeted Muslim” and placing Sharia law above Canadian law.

“It’s just fear mongering,” David Rayside, professor at the University of Toronto’s department of political science, told by phone this week.

“It has no basis of anything factual. It’s pure hate.”

The claims

Anti-Muslim sentiment targeting Trudeau began circulating on social media long before the election campaign began.

In June, an old story from a “satirical” website wrongly claimed that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has converted from Christianity to Islam.

Later, in July, a video purportedly showing evidence of an imam detailing Trudeau’s plan to implement Sharia law began circulating among anti-Trudeau Facebook groups. The video, which cuts to an image of Trudeau sitting cross-legged amid a group of Muslim men, garnered thousands of shares and interactions.

The man featured in that video, Mufti Aasim Rashid, says his speech was taken out of context to spread fear-mongering.

Trudeau was also publicly confronted about the allegations in January during town hall events in Saskatchewan and Quebec.

The analysis

When asked for comment about the allegations surrounding the leader’s stance on Sharia law, the Liberal Party directed to comments Trudeau made in response to an audience member at a town hall event in Regina who accused him of supporting the Islam-based code of conduct.

“I am pleased to be able to tell you that that also is not something that I ever said,” Trudeau remarked at the time.

Similarly, during a town hall event in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., an audience member asked what Trudeau was going to do to prevent Sharia law from being imposed in Canada.

"For each wave of immigrants who come here looking to find a better world and make a better life for their children, there are people who have fears about these differences," Trudeau said in response.

"But I can tell you sir that the law in Canada, even in Ontario, is not the Sharia law and will not be Sharia law."

Sharia law concerns unfounded—but not new

Disinformation surrounding Sharia law and anti-Muslim sentiment targeted at the government isn’t new. Experts say the noise can be attributed to fears surrounding M-103, the Liberal government’s motion condemning Islamophobia and religious discrimination, and the federal government’s decision to settle a $10.5-million lawsuit with Omar Khadr.

“It’s not clear to me why [the motion condemning Islamophobia] became controversial but it did,” said Rayside. “But there is no other measure that the government has introduced that would particularly favour Muslims.”

Although the number of hate crimes targeting Muslims fell 50 per cent nationwide this year after spiking in 2017, Rayside says Islamophobic sentiment has seen an increase in certain regions of the country, particularly in Quebec thanks to Bill 21 which bars public servants from wearing religious symbols or garments at work.

“It’s always concerning to associate or discredit someone on the basis of being a so-called closeted Muslim,” Mustafa Farooq, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, told by phone from Ottawa.

“Canadian Muslims are tired of being an election policy question during every election… it’s tough to see every single election folks coming under fire in the public sphere simply because of who they are and what they believe.”

Farooq noted that Trudeau isn’t the only political leader who has been accused of being a so-called “closeted Muslim.”

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer faced similar accusations after interactions with the Muslim community, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and his brother Gurratan Singh have been wrongly assumed to be Muslim.

But the prevalence of discussions surrounding Sharia law comes from a lack of understanding of what Sharia law is and how it relates to Islam.

According to fact-checking website Snopes, Sharia is a “faith-based code of conduct that is inseparable from the practice of Islam, yet open to interpretation.” It is often associated with harsh corporal punishments such as stoning and lashings, but these punishments only constitute a portion of the law.

Farooq says that while many non-Muslims would associate Sharia law with a violent, barbaric form of justice, the vast majority of Muslims, the National Council included, are opposed to this definition of Sharia and have left regions where that type of interpretation is being practised.

“Ignorance around this discussion is precisely why people can accuse Trudeau of being a closet Muslim and be okay with that,” he explained.