Media v. Muslims
Is it possible to have an honest and open debate about Islam in Canada?
The topic, Media, Muslims, and Free Speech, is fraught with landmines—of highly contested ideologies, geo political and cultural faultlines of the age we live in, and much-debated media methodologies.
The media are operating in the age of Muslim terrorism: al Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Daesh (ISIS), and others—all of whom inflict unspeakable horrors, beheading people, kidnapping girls, and blowing up civilians.
There’s the seemingly endless war on terrorism, which has meant wars on Muslim nations or on Muslims—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere—wars that have killed or led to the killing of about one million Muslims in fifteen years. One million Muslims dead.
Wars turn the media, or much of the media, into cheerleaders for their troops. That’s what the American media did in the early years of the Vietnam War. That’s what they did for too long in the Iraq War. That’s what the Canadian media did with our military mission in Afghanistan, especially with journalists embedded with our troops. Embedded journalism is valid because it provides a closer view of what our troops are doing. But it can and often does obscure democratic debate about such wars.
It is also useful to remember that much of mainstream media in Canada editorially endorsed both the war on Afghanistan and also the war on Iraq. Canadians, on the other hand, were sceptical about the first and deeply opposed to the second.
Wars need propaganda to keep public opinion on side. So, wars are waged as much in the media as on the battlefields. Propaganda includes outright lies, such as the presence of the non-existent WMDs in Iraq. And it includes soft tactics, such as Laura Bush and Cherie Blair becoming the chief cheerleaders of the war in Afghanistan by championing the cause of Afghan women. Afghan women may need liberating, but we didn’t invade Afghanistan to liberate them.
While our leaders repeatedly proclaim that they are waging war on terrorists, not on Muslims, let alone Islam, it’s not easy to separate out the Muslims over there and Muslims here. It was inevitable that the propaganda to justify wars on Muslim nations would deteriorate into cultural warfare on Muslims, often waged through the media.
If we are busy saving Afghan women, we end up wanting to save Muslim women here as well. If Afghan men are misogynists, many end up assuming that Muslim men here may be as well, and that Canadian Muslim women also need to be saved.
The confusion or deliberate conflation of Muslim terrorists and ordinary Muslims leads to laying collective guilt on law-abiding Muslims. “What do you, Siddiqui, have to say about this or that horrible act of terrorism?” I am personally responsible. Muslims are suspected of being Fifth Columnists. That’s what Japanese Canadians were suspected of during the Second World War and held in internment camps, a shameful policy for which Ottawa has since officially apologized. Of course, Muslims today are not being interned. But many Muslims complain of being psychologically interned, of being under surveillance and suspicion, of being under siege.
Next, there’s the raging debate about terrorism waged by Muslims in the name of jihad. Is it the result of Western wars on Muslims? Or, is terrorism/jihadism an integral part of the Islamic ethos? If Islam is a violent religion, what explains the fact that the phenomenon of widespread Muslim terrorism as we know it today has exploded only in recent years? The first generation of Muslim immigrants to the West were not terrorists. It’s the second generation, born or raised here, highly assimilated in the language, education, and pop culture of the West, who are becoming jihadists.
Elizabeth Manningham-Buller, former head of M15 in the UK, has said: “Our involvement in Iraq has radicalized a whole generation of young people.” About the same message has been delivered by most Western intelligence services, namely, that the radicalization of young Muslims is largely a result of U.S. foreign policy, which is backed by many of its allies.
But we are not supposed to probe this link. “To question this is almost to be terrorist oneself,” says British author Tariq Ali.
The second column I wrote after the horror of 9/11, (on September 19, 2001) was headlined: “It’s the American foreign policy, stupid.” I was pilloried for it, by the establishment and the commentariat. But of the hundreds of responses I got from Canadians, an overwhelming majority said, Thank you for saying it.
The link between Western wars on Muslim nations and Muslim terrorism still remains a taboo topic with much of the media, which proffer dozens of reasons for terrorism except the most obvious one.
All of the above, however, does not explain the terrorism of Boko Haram and others in regions with no Western invasions.
So, the debate on jihadism rages on. Jihadists can be rich, like Osama bin Laden, or poor, like the Taliban. Or they may be mentally disturbed people, such as the two in Canada, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ottawa and Martin Couture-Rouleau in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. Then there were the Toronto 18 and also others, charged and convicted of planning terrorism.
On the flip side, there are the tortured—Maher Arar, who did get some justice because of the inquiry headed by Justice Dennis O’Connor. There are three others—Muayyed Nureddin, Ahmad El Maati, and Abdullah Almalki—who are yet to get justice, despite the recommendation of Justice Frank Iacobucci.
Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism. Racists and bigots have cleverly traded their anti-Semitism for anti-Muslim hostility. Familiar anti-Jewish tropes are being applied to Muslims. Islam is incompatible with secularism, just as Judaism was said to be. Muslims cannot be trusted just as Jews could not be. Muslims are going to take over, just as Jews were —and are—said to be taking over the world.
Islamophobia is not confined to right-wingers. Many so-called liberals, including in the media, say things about Muslims and Islam that they never would about any other people or faith.
Newer ways are being found to insult, humiliate and demean Muslims and Islam—burning the Quran, insulting the Prophet Muhammad, introducing pork into school menus in France, and going after the niqab, even the hijab. The list is long.
I had thought that Canada would be immune to such ugliness. I have been jolted out of my naiveté. While Canada has not turned against immigrants, many Canadians have certainly turned against Muslims. Quebec had a nasty debate in 2007–08 over so-called reasonable accommodation of minorities, especially Muslims. In 2012, it introduced the Charter of Quebec Values, which proposed banning all religious attire and symbols. But its real target were Muslims, as the Parti Quebecois government made abundantly clear.
While Premier Pauline Marois was only planning to target Muslims, Prime Minister Stephen Harper already was, across Canada. She was doing it in the name of secularism. He was doing it in the name of national security.
The fear of Muslim terrorism, and Muslims, have been so hyped that the public has lost touch with reality. Two people in Canada and a total of forty-five people in the United States have been killed by terrorists since 9/11. But about fourteen thousand Americans are killed by guns every year, more than thirty thousand die in automobile accidents, and hundreds die by falling in the bathtub, as President Obama is said to remind his staff.
The FBI notes that the main terrorist threat to the US comes not from Muslim extremists but rather right wing, white Christian extremists. Canadian Security Intelligence Service says about the same thing about Canada, without minimizing the threat posed by jihadists.
Anti-Muslim animus can also be seen in sharia hysteria. We experienced this in Ontario in 2004–05. In the US, nearly half the American states have taken legislative or administrative measures banning the sharia that could not possible come. How could it? Would the US Congress or the Canadian Parliament pass legislation replacing existing laws with sharia law?
Know also that attacking multiculturalism has been a way of attacking Muslims, implying that multiculturalism has mollycoddled Muslims.
Similarly, defending secularism in France and Quebec is, in many cases, a fig leaf to attack Muslims, Charles Taylor, Canada’s foremost philosopher, told me in an interview. French sociologist Francois Dubet writes: “Talking about secularism has become a way to claim a white Christian France . . . . It’s a way to say, ‘We don’t want Muslims.’”
We are more concerned about the victims of terrorism in the West than we are about the far more numerous Muslim victims of terrorism in Muslim nations—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, and other places. There is an understandable parochial bias in that formulation, but what it says is that our society sheds tears for the white victims of terrorism, but not for its brown and black victims. Jumbo headlines for the murders in Paris and Brussels but hardly any headlines for the mass murders in Kabul, Karachi and Baghdad.
Such double standards were fine at a time when the world was isolated. They over there cared for their own and we in the West cared for ours. But in this globalized world, especially the global village called Canada, this formulation is increasingly jarring. It undermines media credibility with many a Canadian. It also points to a sociological phenomenon: many Canadians are making the transition from parochial to global far more rapidly than are our media.
We also have double standards when it comes to our concern for the persecution of minorities. We worry about the diminishing Christian minority in the Arab Middle East and about the Yazidi victims of ISIS, and rightly so. But we do not worry about the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar right under the nose of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The other glaring double standard is on free speech. It seems that we must have free speech to malign Muslims but Muslims must not claim the right to be free from hate speech, which is also a very Canadian value.
Free speech is not absolute. It is not an unfettered right. It is circumscribed by laws of libel, laws against hate and, most important, by self-restraint.
The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights promotes free speech, but it also requires states to prohibit “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatreds that constitutes incitement to discrimination.”
PEN International is the leading advocate of free speech in the world. I have been an elected member of its board. The PEN Charter speaks to the “unhampered transmission of thought” but it also calls on PEN members to foster “good understanding and mutual respect among nations to do their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds.”
We no longer caricature Aboriginal peoples. We don’t publish cartoons of savage-looking blacks or hook-nosed Jews or narrow-eyed Chinese. But some people not only draw incendiary caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad but also insist that it’s their duty to do so. Thus the Danish cartoons and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Yet others insist that it’s perfectly alright to attribute collective characteristics to Muslims, as we used to do with the Aboriginal peoples or black people. Thus Maclean’s magazine, and its 4,800-word excerpt from a book, published in 2006, saying that too many Muslims are prone to violence and pose an existentialist threat to the West, including Canada.
Unlike the United States, which has little or no limit on free speech, Canada and several European states do maintain anti-hate laws. Which is why we had Section 13 of the federal Human Rights Code. It prohibited exposing a person or a people to hatred or contempt on grounds of race, religion or ethnic origin. Various provincial human rights codes also have provisions against hate speech.
But in 2012, the Harper government axed the anti-hate provision of the Canadian Human Rights Act. The campaign against Section 13 had come about in response to complaints filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission as well as three provincial human rights commissions, including Ontario, against that Maclean’s magazine article.
While the complaint against Maclean’s did not meet the technical requirements of hate speech in Ontario, the then chair of the Human Rights Commission, Barbara Hall, condemned the magazine:
“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.”
She dismissed the free speech argument, noting, that “Freedom of expression is not the only right in the Charter. There is a full set of rights accorded to all members of our society, including freedom from discrimination . . . If you want to stand up and defend the right to freedom of expression, then you must be willing to do the same for the right to freedom from discrimination.”
The media, which have traditionally campaigned for expanding the boundaries of free speech, had also advocated the elimination of Section 13. They had joined in an unholy alliance with the Islamophobes. They did so for their own good reasons. Still, they should have addressed the twin issue of how to protect a weak minority from discrimination and hate speech.
Ironically, within a year of the Harper government axing Section 13, the Supreme Court of Canada found that section to be valid. Ruling in 2013 on an earlier case, it unanimously rejected the argument that unfettered speech helps further public debate. Rather than advancing dialogue, “hate speech is antithetical to this objective in that it shuts down dialogue by making it difficult or impossible for members of the vulnerable group to respond, thereby stifling discourse.”
In yet another irony, the Harper government decided in 2015 to curb free speech in the name of fighting terrorism—it criminalized the promotion of terrorism and banned material that could have the effect of radicalization.
So, free speech for Islamophobes but not those whose words the government did not like.
The most spectacular example of double standards on free speech has been in France. Millions marched in January 2015 under the banner of “Je Suis Charlie,” but within days, 100 people were charged for questioning the anti-terrorism laws or refusing to stand in silence in solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
The Muslim world had a different reaction to the gratuitous media attacks on the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran. Many Muslim nations launched a misguided campaign to place restrictions on expression considered offensive or defamatory to religions. We at PEN International strongly opposed the move, for obvious reasons.
John Ralston Saul of Canada, then president of International Pen, appeared before a Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in 2010, and argued: “Human rights are attached to individuals, not to states or organized groups or ideas. When governments attempt to limit the rights of citizens, they are not seeking to protect faith or belief. They are seeking increased power over the citizenry.”
I can add here that some of these Muslim nations were being highly hypocritical. Many don’t have free speech, and in fact control and censor their media. In doing so, they are, in fact, violating the spirit of the Quran. According to Muslim tradition, the first revealed word from God to the Prophet Muhammad was, “Read.”
Read in the name of the Lord who created you from a cell.
Read in the name of the Lord who gave you the power of the pen.
—(96:1 and 96:2).
So, the very first injunction from God to the believers is not about the omnipotence and omniscience of God, nor about the greatness of the Prophet Muhammad or Islam, but rather a simple yet profound exhortation to read and write, acquire and spread knowledge. Yet, ironically, in many Muslim nations, there’s neither the full freedom to read nor to write.
All of issues that I have outlined are highly contentious, and people of good faith can agree to disagree. The more relevant point is that the media have been in the thick of these highly charged debates—reporting on them, commenting on them.
Let’s not make the mistake of shooting the messenger.
Let’s also re-familiarize ourselves with how the mass media operate.
Media are not in the business of doing public relations for Muslims or any other group, just as they are not in the business of doing PR for governments or politicians. Just ask Premier Kathleen Wynne.
Media often follow public opinion, rarely lead it.
Media cater to the masses, not the intelligentsia. On our bad days, we stoop to the lowest common denominator. On our good days, we aim for the highest common factor.
We traffic in clichés and stereotypes.
We are always looking for the unusual, the two-headed toad.
We thrive on conflict.
The public is not blameless, either. If David Walmsley, the Globe and Mail‘s editor, or Michael Cooke, the Toronto Star‘s editor, put out a front page with a headline, “35 Million Canadians Had a Peaceful Day Yesterday,” probably none of you would read it.
Media and Muslims
Keeping all of this in mind, what can we say about the media and Muslims?
Media have discovered that Islamophobia sells. Just as anti-Islamic books have been bestsellers in the last fifteen years have been anti-Islamic books across Europe, the United States, and Canada, and just as Islamophobia works for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and it did for Stephen Harper for a while, it works for newspapers and radio and television as well. It gets you a certain guaranteed audience. Muslim bashing has, in fact, become a business model for some. It is used by Fox News and it is copied, in varying degrees, by the popular press and some electronic media in Canada.
The popular press fans fear and hysteria about terrorism and Muslims.
You’d recall that the 2008 Bouchard–Taylor Commission in Quebec concluded that the tabloid press and some radio and television stations in Montreal were partly responsible for the so-called reasonable accommodation crisis. The commission hired its own reporters and researchers to check out some of more sensational stories, and concluded that almost all of those stories bore little or no resemblance to the facts. The media had created a crisis where none existed.
In English Canada, the National Post and the Postmedia group of newspapers across the country, which now include the Sun chain of tabloid papers, is very relevant to this discussion.
Hardly a week goes by without these publications finding something or the other wrong with Muslims and Islam. These publications are forever looking for terrorists under every Canadian minaret. They are hunting for any imam or any Muslim who might make some outrageous statement that can then be splashed as proof of rampant Muslim militancy or malevolence.
In the 1950s there was the Red Scare. Today, Postmedia are giving you the Green Scare.
Some of the more outrageous allegations against Muslims have been carried on editorial and opinion pages, especially in Postmedia publications. People are, of course, entitled to their views in a free society, which can use good debates. But even opinion pieces must adhere to basic facts and pass the test of plausibility.
Is it really true that Canadian imams are inciting terrorism? Are our mosques really crawling with potential terrorists? Is a preference for halal products really a sign of fundamentalism or militancy, more than it may be for your preference for kosher food?
The Toronto Sun visited an Islamic bookstore on Gerrard street in Toronto and rattled the owner for carrying some book that talked about beating disobedient wives. A Montreal television station discovered some objectionable material on the shelves of a Muslim students’ association at Concordia University and the institution promptly proceeded to cull “controversial” and “inappropriate” books. Aren’t there “controversial” and “inappropriate” materials in the religious texts of most faiths, starting with the Old Testament, widely available across Canada?
Canadians who read only the National Post or the Toronto Sun, or in other cities where they have no other choice but to read the Postmedia papers—Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and English Montreal—those readers would likely have an opinion of Muslims that would be totally different from the people reading, for example, the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star.
I spoke to John Honderich, chair of the board of Torstar Corp., publisher of the Toronto Star as well as Metro and Metroland group of newspapers. I asked him if he thinks there has been an anti-Muslim bias in the media. “Yes, there is,” especially in the Postmedia newspapers, he said. Some of their columnists conflate Muslim terrorists and Muslims: “This has been lethal.”
John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star, told me on recently that a big segment of the Canadian media has been peddling “flat-out racism and bigotry” against Canadian Muslims. The propaganda machine against Muslims has really been “profoundly awful.”
He added: “The popular press, perhaps, are doing what they’re doing not out of some deep conviction or ideological basis, but because they are playing to the notion of building the loyalty of a certain segment of their customer base by creating a tribal solidarity against Muslims. They’re doing it to strengthen their own brand. It is despicable. We have to call them out on it for not abiding by the rules of their craft.”
Portrayal of Muslims
Even the so-called sophisticated newspapers, as well as major television networks, depict Muslims as a monolith. But Canada’s 1.1 million Muslims are as diverse as Canada itself.
First, they are not as fresh off the boat, as often portrayed. Muslim presence in Canada dates back to Confederation. The 1871 Census recorded thirteen Canadian Muslims. The first Canadian mosque was built in Edmonton in 1938, the ceremony emceed by a Christian. It is now a museum in Fort Edmonton Park.
Canadian Muslims are highly diverse, by country of origin, language, culture, ethnicity, and race. Nearly a third, 300,000, are Canadian-born. The two-thirds who are immigrants have come from dozens of countries. They speak dozens of languages and have distinct cultures.
Muslims constitute the second youngest demographic in Canada, after aboriginals. Their median age is 28.9 years, compared to the overall Canadian median age of 37.3 years. Proportionately more Muslims are entering the labour force than leaving it—an asset to the economy. These young Muslims will help pay our pensions and medical care.
Muslims are second only to Jewish Canadians as the most educated of the minorities, with 17 percent having finished eighteen years or more of education. Yet Muslims are disproportionately unemployed and under-employed, presumably because of widespread discrimination. The media have had little or nothing to say about this.
One of the other biggest shortcomings of the media has been that they always talk about Muslims, but they rarely talk to ordinary Muslims. The Muslims they do talk to are the same half-a-dozen or a dozen Muslims that Stephen Harper liked to talk to, people who have made a career out of attacking other Muslims and Islam. The Conservatives were imitating the well-known colonial tactics of the French in Algeria and the British in India, of cultivating a handful of pliant Muslims to do their bidding.
What does that tell us about the media, that the Muslim commentators and pundits they most quote and patronize are often the most mistrusted by Muslims?
One byproduct of laying collective guilt on Muslims has been the incessant media demand that Muslims condemn the latest act of terrorism. This, all Muslim groups have done, and continue to do. But the media rarely report on them. So, the impression persists among large numbers of Canadians that Muslims have not condemned terrorism and may, in fact, be endorsing it by their silence. The media leave Muslims in a no-win situation.
Media and Islamophobia
I have bad news for journalists. The credibility of media with Muslims is very low. Muslims generally don’t trust us. In fact, they are outright afraid of us. They don’t think they would get a fair shake from us. They are petrified that their words would be twisted and distorted if the media don’t find the clichés and stereotypes they’re looking for. I have heard from numerous people on how they were eagerly sought by some radio and TV stations but, upon discovering that they weren’t saying what the producers of the show hoped to hear, they were summarily uninvited.
Let’s talk about Islamophobia and the media.
We know that Muslims are being harassed—Muslim women in particular. They have been spat upon, physically attacked (shoved, punched, and kicked) in public spaces. Some have had their hijabs pulled off their heads. Mosques and Muslim schools have been firebombed, ransacked, vandalized, disfigured with graffiti. This is happening, in varying degrees, in Canada and across Europe, and in the United States and Australia.
In 2014, Statistics Canada reported an increase in hate crimes against Muslims, the only community against which hate crimes had increased, as much as 44 percent in 2013 (the last year for which such stats are available). The most ironic thing about that report was that at a time when a majority of Canadians, and the media, ostensibly are concerned about the rights of Muslim women, most of the hate crimes were directed against Muslim women.
Earlier this year, the Muslim Council of Greater Hamilton warned Muslim males with a beard or a kufi cap, and Muslim women wearing a hijab, to walk only in groups. In Toronto, husbands and parents have been telling their wives and daughters not to put on their hijabs when venturing out into the public.
Is Canada like Eastern Europe, where Gypsies face harassment in public spaces? Or, are we like France, where Muslim hoodlums go after Jewish groups and Jewish leaders send advisories not to be too overtly Jewish in public?
One can argue that this bout of bigotry is more or less of the same variety that other minorities suffered throughout our history. That implies that we should accept it and wait for it to blow over. But that absolves the media of any responsibility. After all, in the past, the media did go along with the bigotry of their time—anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and racism against blacks and Asians. Can today’s media do no better? Don’t we claim a moral component to our mission? Telling the truth, strengthening democracy, promoting civil society, advancing peace and harmony, and standing up for the weak and vulnerable. Have we lived up to this mission in the case of Muslims?
Not all is disheartening about the media —or Canada. I do wish to acknowledge that the media have improved in recent years.
There was the CBC‘s Little Mosque on the Prairie, a spectacularly successful show, at home and abroad. It has been said, quite rightly, that only in Canada could such a show have been produced.
When the Fox model was copied in Canada by Sun TV, it failed to draw an audience. And eventually it folded. Chalk another triumph for Canada and Canadians. My colleague, Ian Urquhart, former managing editor of the Toronto Star told me that whereas Fox’s anti-Muslim vitriol has deeply influenced the American public and public policy, and led to disastrous decision-making, Sun TV failed to have any such impact on Canadians.
The Postmedia group of newspapers failed to get Stephen Harper reelected, despite their best efforts, including election-eve Page One editorials endorsing the Conservatives.
Let’s also note that when the Peterborough mosque was firebombed in November last year, the revulsion expressed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Wynne, as well by a large number of Canadians, was exemplary. And when the mosque was repaired, the prime minister was there for the re-opening. We can’t imagine Donald Trump or Ted Cruz doing it or, for that matter, Francois Hollande, the socialist-turned-war president.
In 2006, no mainstream media in Canada reproduced the Danish cartoons, with the exception of TVO.
Edward Greenspon, then-editor-in-chief the Globe and Mail, said, “We came to the conclusion that republishing would be both gratuitous and unnecessarily provocative, especially given what we knew about how offended Muslims felt about the cartoons.”
In 2015, when the Toronto Star refused to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Cruickshank, the publisher, explained, “Committing blasphemy for reasons of principle seems an oddly childish act.”
Last fall, the media did provide leadership and led public opinion on Syrian refugees. They exposed Harper’s machinations to keep the Syrian refugees out. Playing a leading role were the Globe and Mail and CTV News.
The Toronto Star devoted its entire front page to welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada in December of 2015 with the message “Ahlan wa Sahlan“: Welcome. It was a historic page that was shown all over the world.
Earlier this year, the Toronto Star made the decision to no longer refer to ISIS as “Islamic State,” choosing to use “Daesh” instead. Editor Cooke explained, “These people are a huge multinational gang of killers and rapists—they have no legitimacy as a state and this change helps emphasize that.”
The media also played a helpful role in increasing Muslim civic engagement in the last federal election by publicizing the Canadian Muslim Vote campaign. According to one estimate, Muslim participation rate in the election went up from the usual 45 percent to 78 percent (vs. the national turnout of 68 percent). Indeed, it soared to 88 percent in nine ridings in the Greater Toronto Area, including this riding of Don Valley East, represented by Yasmin Ratansi, who is here today.
Guidelines for the Media
Let me offer some suggestions. The media may like some, reject others. That’s their right.
1. It would be helpful for newsrooms, or the industry as a whole, to articulate some ethical guidelines on coverage of and commentary on Muslims. Develop a manual that would clarify what do the following words mean and to whom do they apply—”Moderate Muslims,” “anti-modern Muslims,” “fundamentalist Muslims,” “militant Muslims,” “Islamist Muslims,” etc. Who, exactly, are “radical Muslims” —those who believe in violence, or in something else? Who are the Muslims who are anti-modern? Is it the Muslims who don’t drive cars, don’t use iPhones, don’t tweet, don’t build or visit museums, or refuse blood transfusions?What does being “linked to” or “associated with” terrorism or jihadism or fundamentalism really mean? Provide specifics when making such damaging allegations.
2. Don’t find excuses to attribute crimes by Muslims to their religion. Use the same standard for them as for other people.
3. Resist generic photos of niqab-wearing women when the story has little or nothing to do with the subject. By using such photos, you leave the impression that most Muslim women wear the niqab, whereas those who do constitute a tiny, tiny minority. You may be obsessed with that image but don’t distort reality.
4. Don’t give respectability to marginalized bigoted groups. Quote them if you must, but do provide your readers and viewers the context of how representative, or unrepresentative, such groups are of the community that they claim to speak for.
5. Put opinion pieces and commentaries to the simple test of truth. Obviously, not all editors can be expected to be theologians on Islam, but they know far less about Islam than they might about Christianity or Judaism. So, consult people who may know better.
6. Give us a range of views. For example, the CBC commentator Rex Murphy has advanced some questionable propositions about Muslims. He is entitled to his views. But where’s the counter-opinion on the taxpayer-supported CBC?
7. Extend the courtesy of listening to complaints from Muslims. Don’t be dismissive. In the case of Maclean’s magazine, the Muslims who went to complain came out dejected and defeated, which is what prompted them to file complaints to the Human Rights Commissions. The same thing happened in the case of the Danish cartoons—the editors of Jyllands-Posten were dismissive of the complaints by Danish Muslims, which prompted them to take their case abroad to the Muslim world.
As the media consider these issues, it may also be worthwhile for the newly formed National NewsMedia Council to help foster a debate.
The council, formed last year, promotes professional and ethical journalistic practices, including fairness of coverage and accuracy.
Since the council acts on complaints, it would be worthwhile for some group, of Muslims or non-Muslims, to invite it to have a debate on the issue and make suggestions on how best to deal with it, within the rules of fair and unbiased journalism.
Similarly, I urge such other media organizations as Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and Canadian Journalism Foundation, as well as PEN Canada, to hold discussions and debates on this subject.
I am aware that since Muslims are often seen solely through the lens of their faith, I may be seen in some quarters as an apologist for Muslims, if not for jihadism. Such accusations are not inflicted on, say, a Christian journalist writing about Christian issues, a Jewish Canadian writing about Jewish issues, or a Buddhist writing about Buddhist issues, or a Hindu writing about issues of Hinduism.
Such are our times.
I have been told numerous times, including by many well-wishers, that it was decidedly not good for my career to write what I was writing; that I would have been more popular had I not questioned the mainstream post-9/11 narrative on Islam and Muslims. My response was simply that I am a Canadian who happens to be a Muslim, who writes what I think needs to be written about Canadian public policy. Much to the credit of the Toronto Star, I was never told what to write or what not to write.
My plea is simply this: Let’s have an open and honest debate. To do so, first and foremost, the media must get out of their instinctive defensive crouch which we usually adopt when criticized. We are masters of attacking everyone, but we are less than graceful when we are put under scrutiny. It’s important to have this debate, not just for the sake of Canadian Muslims, who cannot possibly be maligned any more than they already have been.
We must have this debate for the sake of ethical journalism. We must also have this debate for the sake of Canada, because our pluralistic values and our harmonious model of peaceful heterogeneity are at stake.
I describe myself as an “incurably optimistic Canadian.” So I think if any nation can debate this issue, within the framework of free speech and fair play, it is Canada. If we get this right, we might even export it to the United States, Europe, and Australia.
We owe it to Canada to at least try.
Adapted from a speech given at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto on April 17, 2016.