More than 500 people protested against approximately 30 supporters of anti-Islam group Pegida Canada

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For a city whose public image has been beat up more than once in recent years by ugly incidents with racial overtones, it was a victory in what many see as a worrying new war against tolerance.

It was especially heartening to many people after the violent, unite-the-right rally in Virginia earlier this month, the one that boomeranged around the world and left an anti-racism protester dead.

It also stood in contrast to unflattering headlines London has faced in recent years about unprovoked attacks against Muslims, a fan tossing a banana onto the ice as a black NHL player took part in a shootout, and the N-word hurled at two black stage actors in the street.

And London’s duelling anti-Islam and counter-protester rallies Saturday, in which the latter overwhelmed the former, wasn’t without friction.

It was a reminder that ugliness lurks and, some say, now finds expression disguised as support for so-called Western values.

Islam is an easy target, one expert says, because when religion and culture is made the focus, groups intolerant of others can avoid talking about racism and hate despite the very same undertones in their politics of exclusion.

“This is the wake-up call that we’ve needed to acknowledge there really is a threat in many of our communities,” said Barbara Perry of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, who specializes in the study of hate crimes.

Emotions in London briefly flared Saturday as protesters went nose to nose. Talking devolved into spitting and shoving. Slurs were hurled across police lines.

Officers defused the flare-ups so quickly, making two arrests, that many people were unaware of them.

One woman, protesting against anti-Islamists, was arrested for spitting in another woman’s face over a religious insult.

“It’s totally unacceptable, and criminal,” said London lawyer Faisal Joseph, outspoken on human rights issues. “Obviously, emotions were running over . . . but you can’t take the law into your own hands.”

But the few isolated exchanges shouldn’t cast a pall on London, he said. Residents supporting their Muslim neighbours made a strong showing, with most following the letter of the law. That spirit could pay dividends as Islamophobic rhetoric picks up steam in Canada, Joseph said.

“It’s a whole new thing where people are using freedom of speech as a cloak for freedom to hate and do violence, and it’s very, very dangerous,” he said.

By better than 10 to one, counter-­protesters eclipsed the turnout by Pegida, or the Patriots of Canada Against the Islamization of the West.

“We need to continue to shout louder than the bigots,” Perry said.

At times the chanting and drumming by counter-protesters was so loud, the railing by Pegida — against the perceived dangers of London’s Muslim community — couldn’t continue.

One area First Nations chief said the take-away from the competing rallies reflected well on London. “The people who oppose (Islam) weren’t really showing as much as we thought. I think this is a really good message for the city,” Chippewas of the Thames Chief Myeengun Henry said.

The focus on inclusion and acceptance is positive, not just for Muslim Londoners, but for Southwestern Ontario’s Indigenous people, Henry said.

Still, now is no time for complacency, observers warn.

Perry suggested Canadians should expect many more anti-Islam rallies in coming months.

Such displays are one of the best tools for radical groups, because they can leave Muslim youth feeling isolated and excluded from their communities, said Jasmin Zine, a professor of sociology and Muslim studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“They have to deal with the collective blame and guilt” of anger against Muslims, she said.

Zine said while Pegida and its supporters numbered only in the dozens in London, that’s worrying enough.

“This is how they co-ordinate,” she said, adding the get-togethers empower Pegida’s followers. “They feel a sense of legitimacy.”

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