One of the greatest protections Americans have against Islamists, and the threat they pose, are the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Never take them for granted, for most countries, even some Western allies, do not benefit from such a bulwark against illiberal forces.
In Canada, for instance, freedom of speech is not constitutionally guaranteed to the same degree it is in America. And those wishing for a glimpse into how forces sympathetic to Islamism will try to influence (read: stifle) public debate about the Muslim faith should be aware of recent Canadian experiences.
The weapon of choice for those attempting to muzzle Muslim critics in public fora isn’t guns, but rather the bureaucratic mechanisms of the state – more specifically, entities known as "human rights commissions." And their victims are free speech and media commentators like Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant.
But be careful. The name is a misnomer. These organizations have little to do with protecting "human rights" at all. They are quasi-judicial, politically-correct bodies that have the authority to pursue anyone if a complaint is made based on one of the "prohibited grounds of discrimination" listed in the enabling legislation — race, ethnic origin, age and sex, for example. The law goes on to state specific examples of illegal discrimination, such as communicating anything that "is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt."
Standard rules of procedure and due process are not followed, and just about any complaint is admissible for consideration – as long as the feeling of being wronged is there.
The list of cases that have been heard by the commission’s tribunals is baffling – as are their rulings, which almost always come down on the side of the plaintiff. (To cite just one egregious example, a British Columbia human rights tribunal ruled in favor of a McDonalds employee who refused to wash her hands.)
Those who originally conceived of the human rights commissions never intended for them to be used to limit speech.
They have strayed far from their original purpose, which was to protect minorities from discrimination in situations like job hiring and renting an apartment.
Two well-known Canadian journalists have found themselves in the crosshairs of these commissions – for discussing Islam. Ezra Levant, a conservative commentator who now hosts his own national TV show, had the temerity in February 2006 to republish the infamous series of Danish cartoons of Muhammad in the pages of his now-defunct magazine, the Western Standard.
Levant thought he was simply reporting on an issue that was making news. That was his job. But a complaint was filed at the Alberta Human Rights Commission by activist Syed Soharwardy, who claimed the Danish drawings were offensive towards Islam and Muslims. In his grievance, Soharwardy alleged he and his family had been subject to "violence, hate and discrimination" because the cartoons were republished. Amid an outcry from people of all political and religious beliefs (including Muslims), Soharwardy eventually withdrew his action. But it wasn’t until after Levant spent tens of thousands of dollars, and wasted countless hours, defending himself against this assault.
The next target was Mark Steyn, one of Canada’s best known leaders of thought. Steyn published an article in Macleans, a newsweekly, called ‘The future belongs to Islam,’ which was an excerpt of his best-selling book America Alone. The Canadian Islamic Congress filed a complaint to the British Columbia, Ontario, and Canadian Human Rights Commissions, accusing Steyn and Macleans of spreading "hatred and Islamophobia" in the book excerpt and 21 other articles published over a two year period.
The Ontario and Canadian commissions rightly declined to hear the case, although the latter issued what amounted to a guilty verdict without trial in its statement, noting that it "strongly condemns the Islamophobic portrayal of Muslims" in the magazine. The British Columbia commission heard the case and ruled in favor of the defendants.
The persecution of these commentators, as ridiculous as they were, has served a useful purpose. Before these sagas, most people had never heard of these commissions – and many of those who had weren’t aware of the dangerously far-reaching powers. It brought together people of different political stripes – many on the left were just as outraged as those on the right. And it put into sharp relief the extent to which radical Islam will go to silence critics.
Keith Martin, a Canadian member of parliament (he has since retired) from the Liberal party, proposed to change the legislation that creates the national commission to remove the section that enables press persecution.
"In an open and liberal democracy, we have a right to be protected from hate speech, but we do not have a right to not be offended," Martin said. The proposed legislation didn’t become law before the last election, but hopefully someone will reintroduce it in the Canadian parliament.
It is important for all those devoted to free speech and pluralism to be aware of the Canadian experience. Human rights commissions, or various incarnations thereof, exist in America, so watch out.