Letters

September 2005

Multiculturalism And Its Limits
It seems characteristically Canadian to ask whether our nation’s multiculturalism can embrace Islamic radicals and reformers, and not whether Islamic radicals and reformers can, or ought to, embrace our nation’s multiculturalism (“Under The Sheltering Crescent Moon,” June). The dialectic between Canadian self-preservation and the survival of Islam within our own value system depends on the distinction between radicals, on the one hand, and, on the other, those who recognize that their community’s values must be negotiated and reconciled with a prevailing social culture. Canadians need not seek validation of our fundamental values from esoteric religious fanatics.

Rebecca Waserman
Toronto, Ontario

One can only assume Ray Conlogue has no familiarity with the history of early Islam for him to repeat the tired line that Islam is a religion of peace. The violent, intolerant aspect of Islam did not suddenly emerge with Wahhabism, as Mr. Conlogue claims. As a military commander at Medina, Muhammad had several of the neighbouring Jewish tribes massacred—including, most brutally, the Banu Qurayza. He also condoned the murder of his critics, including the female poet Asma bint Marwan. Of Muhammad’s first four successors, three were assassinated by fellow Muslims.

Rather than sifting through Islamic literature for quotes to support liberal positions, moderate Muslims in Canada should be willing to shine a light into the dark corners of Islam’s basement. Until then, fanaticism will continue to flourish.

Stuart Nurse
Vancouver, BC

I was surprised that Ray Conlogue’s article touts Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, as a model citizen who seeks to “build bridges” with his non-Muslim neighbours and who is well on his way to integrating fully into Canadian society.

Let us not forget that Mr. Elmasry is the same individual who announced on television last year that in his view all Israeli civilians over the age of eighteen could be considered legitimate targets for terror. Surely such opinions would be construed as extremist by Canadian standards, and difficult to reconcile with our nation’s traditional norms and values. That he continues to hold a position of authority in what is considered a mainstream Arab/Muslim organization, described by Mr. Conlogue as influential, is troubling.

On the surface, Mr. Elmasry, who is also an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo, indeed displays the visible trappings of integration. The dangerous irony is that while Mr. Elmasry ostensibly reflects the success of Canada’s multicultural model, in actuality he challenges the very system that has sought to inculcate tolerance and respect for all peoples of all religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Frank Dimant
Vice President, B’nai Brith Canada
Toronto, Ontario

Mr. Conlogue writes that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has arrested several Muslims on suspicion of terrorist activity. This is inaccurate, and unfortunately may only serve to perpetuate a common misconception about csis and its powers. The service’s mandate, established by the csis Act in 1984, is to investigate threats to Canada’s security and report that information to the government. csis does not investigate criminal activity; it is a civilian security intelligence service with no law enforcement powers and cannot arrest or detain people.

Barbara Campion
csis Media Liaison Officer
Ottawa, Ontario

Ray Conlogue responds:
Rebecca Waserman’s insistence that Muslims reconcile themselves to Canada’s prevailing secular culture overlooks the fact that secularism appears to be on the wane. Muslims can now make common cause with the growing conservative Christian movement, not to mention orthodox Jews, in asserting their right to live a God-centred life. In this, Islam is no more esoteric or fanatic than these faiths, with which it has a close historic kinship. While this may be uncomfortable for Ms. Waserman and myself, in the end the democratic majority will have its way.

Stuart Nurse offers a highly selective reading of early Islamic history, including its relations with Jews. Some Jewish tribes joined with the dominant Arab tribe to attack Muslims, while others (such as those of Medina, where Muhammad sought refuge) felt kinship with the new monotheism and were treated well.

By our standards, early Islam was violent. By the standards of its own time, however, Islam was progressive: it tolerated polygamy because women without husbands were subject to many abuses, and offered women a half-share of a man’s inheritance where previously they received nothing. It would be absurd to judge early Islam—or early Christianity for that matter—by the standards of today. Nonetheless, the public perception that Islam is a violent religion will likely be reinforced by the London bombings in July. During such times of public anxiety, it is worth remembering that most of the world’s billion-plus Muslims condemn al Qaeda unequivocally.

Frank Dimant notes the comments made by Mohamed Elmasry on a television interview show, arguing that those views are incompatible with Canadian norms and values. Mr. Elmasry has since stated that he himself does not share his views. (Equally inflammatory views were expressed on the same show by Adam Aptowitzer, a B’nai Brith spokesman who has since resigned. Mr. Aptowitzer suggested that Israeli “terror” is an option to be used by states in order to prevent death of their own citizens and others.) Mr. Elmasry may hold private beliefs few Canadians share, including a desire for Islamic government in countries such as Egypt and Afghanistan. But in his public role as a spokesman for Canadian Muslims, he has stated unequivocally that Canada is a multicultural society and that Muslims must accept this reality.

Finally, I regret my error in ascribing powers of arrest to csis. The agency’s mandate requires it to persuade the Canadian government to detain those it suspects of terrorist sympathies. But in the end, there is little practical difference: security certificates have been issued in twenty-four of the twenty-seven cases in which csis requested them, and in all cases since September 11, 2001.

Polling Discontent
While it is refreshing to see Allan Gregg acknowledge that public opinion surveys have undermined the political process, I am amused that it took him so long (“Desperately Seeking Ideas,” June). It was clear twenty years ago that polls were a serious problem. Unfortunately, our political leadership and news media now have a well-entrenched, narcotic-like dependence on public opinion surveys, and I don’t know how they might break the habit. Mr. Gregg’s article is a step in the right direction, but is itself a mirror of the flawed process he describes: he identifies a problem already recognized within the educated electorate, then fails to offer any clear solutions.

David Brosz
Courtenay, BC

Allan Gregg’s description of Canadian politics, with its “incendiary testimony” and “raucous deliberations,” reminded me that in this more laid-back part of the country we would prefer to see controlled and deliberate debate and much less partisanship. If we get any good government at all, whether federally or provincially, it is by default. Our politicians appear to be interested first and only in being elected; any suggestion of good government is a distant afterthought.

Our media are also less than they could be. In Mr. Gregg’s indictment of “rampant media speculation,” rampant and speculation seem to ring true. I want media that dispassionately report both sides of the story, rather than the subjective nonsense we are receiving. As it stands, the media sway the undiscerning public and, as such, are no better than our less than honourable politicians. I am afraid that good government and responsible media have become oxymorons.

Trevor Peasland
Victoria, BC

I agree with Allan Gregg that the next election must be fought on principles. But such principles must go deeper than a simplistic list of prospective names by which Canada might be known. None of the prospective issues authored by Mr. Gregg focuses on a principle of governance. Instead, he mentions a series of particular hot-button issues—the environment, peacekeeping, cities—that can be counted upon to attract a certain special-interest segment of the population.

We seem unwilling to address the elephant in our living room: power in Canada is concentrated in Ontario, which cares more about maintaining the status quo than including all our disparate, culturally diverse, and independent-thinking regions into a truly reflective association. The greater our detachment from politics, the more we guarantee that Canada will remain as it is—held hostage by a single view of the country, with no vision for nationhood that can appeal equally to all Canadians.

As an Albertan, I am every bit as Canadian as anyone else in this land. But I am also disenfranchised, because nothing truly forward-thinking is done at the national level unless and until it benefits Ontario. And should any of us try to address that inequity, we are called redneck, racist, intolerant, or—worst of all—separatist. The sadness in this is that Ontarians are likely to be hurt by my accusation, fervently believing that what is good for Ontario is good for the rest of the country as well. But real equality cannot be realized as long as one region believes that it alone, as if by the grace of God, has the right to determine what is best for the rest of us. Quebec already knows this, and is willing to draw the line in the sand. Would that it did not have to come to that for the rest of us.

Markus Lemke
Calgary, Alberta

Allan Gregg responds:
Running throughout these letters is a common theme: frustration with a political system some feel has lost touch with the concerns of citizens. From David Brosz’s lament over politicians’ and the media’s “narcotic-like dependence on public opinion polls” to Trevor Peasland’s belief that “good government and responsible media have become oxymorons” to Markus Lemke’s declaration, “I am also disenfranchised,” the sentiments reflect a growing disenchantment with political life and mounting cynicism toward those we entrust to preside over it.

Contrary to Mr. Brosz’s claim, however, it is not clear that the current malaise has been with us for twenty years. Two decades ago, a solid majority of Canadians expressed confidence in our political leaders, whereas now we find that fewer than one in five do. This discontent also knows no borders, and therefore is not likely to be restricted to the prairies or brought on by the tyranny of Ontario-centric rule, as suggested by Mr. Lemke.

For good or ill, this is the system we have. To Mr. Brosz’s comment that I have failed to offer any clear solutions, I can only say I wish I had a magic wand. But in the meantime, and in the absence of any quick fix, the biggest threat to our political system may be citizens’ lack of interest, and it is dialogue like this that is needed to repair it.

Too Smart By Half
Dan Falk’s ramble around the notion of genius might have benefited from a touch of deconstruction (“Totally Genius,” June). Whatever we may call Shakespeare today, the term “genius” was unknown in the time of Elizabethan England. It was fabricated during the Enlightenment from the modest Latin concept of things generic, at a time when the old patronage system of the arts was evolving into a market economy. It was therefore conveniently available for the status-seeking Romantics, and became their touchstone. This led to such nonsense as Shelley’s claim, in A Defence of Poetry, that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” No wonder scientists have yet to solve questions about genius; they obviously remain content to get on with something less futile.

Mr. Falk also uses the word “art” as if it existed for the ancients as it does for us, though it too is a construct of the Enlightenment—along with a whole vocabulary still in use, such as connoisseur, taste, virtuoso, and the term “artist” itself. In Plato’s day, there was no such person as what we now call an artist. When Plato spoke of divine madness, he was referring to performers, and especially poets, whom he sought not to praise but to denigrate in favour of philosophers. As for Greek painters and sculptors, they were at best tradesmen and at worst slaves, so divine madness was not for them, though one supposes they could go just plain nuts.

Dennis Young
Halifax, Nova Scotia

In determining the origins of Einstein’s genius, it seems remiss not to mention his early collaborator, his first (and long-suffering) wife, the brilliant young Serbian physicist Mileva Maric. As Newton pointed out, if some scientists can see further, it is because they are standing on the shoulders of giants—although apparently there is also much to gain by sleeping with them.

David Lee
Toronto, Ontario

Classic Comedy
Andrew Clark appears to have succumbed to some Roman literary propaganda in perpetuating the claim that satire was theirs alone (“Striking Back At The Empire,” June). The first satire was not written by the Roman poet Ennius, as Mr. Clark asserts, but by Archilochus, a Greek poet who lived some 700 years earlier. Latin versifiers also drew on the works of another Greek, Aesop, whose fables were allegorical satires. Mr. Clark’s claim is further shaken by the plays of Aristophanes, which are satires, and by the fact that Aristotle, the great Greek taxonomist, describes satire in his Poetics. Mr. Clark is nonetheless to be commended for relating Lenny Bruce to the classics.

Andrij Kudla Wynnyckyj
Toronto, Ontario

All Cocked Up
Robert Mason Lee’s article suggests bad behaviour is causing the monarchy to unravel (“Royal Cock-up,” May). Coming to terms with the monarchy in this country, however, will take more than our fascination with the excesses of the institution. Instead, it’s time we concentrated on our own evolution as an independent nation. Why do we continue to share an unelected, non-resident head of state with our former colonizer and fourteen other former colonies? Is it proper for a country to exclude its own citizens from holding the highest office in its government? Until we address these points, we remain just one notch above a colony, inhabited by a people uncertain of their identity or place in the world.

Amid cries of traitor and sellout, similar questions of Canadian sovereignty were raised during the flag debate of the 1960s. A few visionaries prevailed, however; and just as we now look back at the birth of that beloved icon, Canadians will eventually look back on the day we obtained our own unique, democratically chosen head of state and ask what took us so long.

Tom Freda
Toronto, Ontario

Ethics And HIV
I hope I can allay some of Angela Long’s concerns (Letters, June) regarding research being done on Nairobi prostitutes, as described by Larry Krotz (“Medical Mystery,” April). She asks whether those women are receiving antiretroviral drugs and/or preventive measures for their hiv infection.

Research into these women has been ongoing since 1983, at which point hiv antiretroviral drugs had not yet been developed. Our early work examined risk factors for hiv acquisition and progression, without the ability to offer specific medical therapy. Once we found that the virus was sexually transmitted, and that the presence of other sexually transmitted infections made it easier to acquire hiv, prevention became a major focus of our work.

Our risk-reduction program includes counselling, free condoms, and sexually transmitted disease screening and therapy. As they have become available in Africa in recent years, life-saving medications have been made available to the women involved, initially through referral to nearby antiretroviral clinics, and, more recently, through the establishment of an antiretroviral program at the sex-worker clinic.

No researchers can or should carry out studies in a vacuum. All our research proposals must undergo rigorous, independent ethical review, both by our institutions in Canada and by a research ethics board at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. The points raised by Ms. Long would be raised very rapidly by these committees if we were not proactive in addressing them.

Dr. Rupert Kaul
Canada Research Chair in hiv
Department of Medicine
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario