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Free speech cannot be an excuse for hate

Haroon Siddiqui

Jun 15, 2008 04:30 AM


One staple of anti-Semitism has been that Jews have taken over the world, or are about to. Now Muslims are being accused of the same.

That Muslims pose a dire demographic and ideological threat to the West was the hypothesis of a 4,800-word article, The Future Belongs to Islam, in Maclean's magazine in October 2006. Its reverberations are still being felt.

Last month, the Ontario Human Rights Commission called it "Islamophobic." This month, the British Columbia commission held a week-long hearing. And the federal commission is weighing a report from its investigators.

The commissions are responding to petitions filed by a Muslim group that argued the article constituted hate and that Maclean's refused an adequate counter-response.

The issue has triggered a heated debate.

Many commentators vilified the complainants or Muslims in general. Joining the latter was CBC-TV's Rex Murphy. He sneered at the idea that Canadian Muslims would have the temerity to go to human rights commissions when "real human rights violations" were rampant across the Muslim world, especially in Saudi Arabia.

The parallel was similar to ones heard by Quebec's Bouchard-Taylor commission, which has since dismissed them as "deceitful."

Murphy is entitled to his sulphurous opinions. But why doesn't the publicly funded CBC offer counterbalancing points of view?

Other commentators have invoked the free-speech argument, in its various formulations free speech is so precious that even hate speech should not be censored. Or hate speech may be curbed but only through the Criminal Code. Or hate speech is best dealt with under human rights statutes, which should be tightened to allow only "vexatious" cases, not "frivolous" ones.

But freedom of speech is not absolute. "Except for the U.S., virtually every Western democracy has laws against hate," notes Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress. "Our anti-hate laws are probably the most underused."

The Supreme Court has upheld those laws. Jewish, gay and other groups have long advocated their use. Few Canadians complained. But now that Muslims are, many are.

"That's really what it's about," Farber told me. "When non-Muslims were using it, nobody really cared.

"People need scapegoats. It used to be Jews. Now it's Muslims, to a great extent. Tomorrow, it may be Bahais or somebody else ...

"People should focus on the law, not on those using it. If the complaint is frivolous, the system will deal with it."

Barbara Hall, chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, has offered a similarly clear-headed view.

Even while refusing to hear the Maclean's case because her commission, unlike the one in B.C., does not have the jurisdiction to hear cases against the media she used her "broader mandate to promote and advance respect for human rights" to speak out:

"Islamophobia is a form of racism ... Since September 2001, Islamophobic attitudes are becoming more prevalent and Muslims are increasingly the target of intolerance ...

"The Maclean's article, and others like it, are examples of this. By portraying Muslims as all sharing the same negative characteristics, including being a threat to `the West,' this explicit expression of Islamophobia further perpetuates and promotes prejudice toward Muslims and others."

Her statement, posted on the commission's website, is worth reading. So is a blog by John Miller, professor of journalism at Ryerson University:

He calls the Maclean's article "xenophobic," and says it's riddled with errors. He ridicules the Canadian Association of Journalists for its knee-jerk defence, given that the article may have violated the association's own guidelines for fairness, accuracy, access and anti-discrimination.

People will always differ on what constitutes hate or where to draw the line on free speech. But most people would agree that free speech is not a licence to target vulnerable groups, let alone risk rupturing the common good in Canada.

Haroon Siddiqui's column appears Thursday and Sunday.



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