It has been two years since the riots that resulted from the publication, a few months earlier, of the Dread Cartoons of Blasphemy.
In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten called for cartoonists to submit caricatures of the Islamic false prophet Mohammed. The request was meant as a commentary on self-imposed journalistic censorship, after a children's author couldn't find an illustrator for a book about Mohammed. The 12 submissions received, when published, touched off a firestorm of rage amongst Muslims living in Europe. But seeing that the rest of the Ummah wasn't seething enough, a few imams decided to fan the flames with a tour of the Middle East, Dread Cartoons in hand (along with a few rather obvious forgeries to really whip the gullible locals into the appropriate levels of frenzy). The result: riots, demonstrations, burnings, and dozens of killings - over a few harmless drawings.
Meanwhile, major news outlets showed their cowardice in the face of Islamic offense, reporting on the unrest but refusing to show the reason for the unrest. Only a few Western publications dared duplicate the Dread Cartoons, and in a few of those, their editors were disciplined for so doing. One of the few that did was Alberta's Western Standard. They didn't provoke any car torchings; rather, retaliation came in a more typically "Canadian" form. Syed Soharwardy, imam and head of the self-proclaimed Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, filed a discrimination complaint with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission against Western Standard publisher Ezra Levant, arguing that since he had "published cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad as terrorist [sic]," he had "defamed me and my family because we follow and Related to [sic] Prophet Muhammad."
The Canadian Human Rights Commission was set up 30 years ago (and its provincial counterparts at various times) to protect people from genuine discrimination: for example, someone denied housing because of his race, that sort of thing. The HRCs weren't intended as a weapon for people who take offense to use against the controversial ideas that offended them - indeed, Alan Borovoy, Canada's leading civil libertarian, who helped establish the commissions, has stated that "[n]obody ever thought the commissions would have anything to do with expressions of opinion or the dissemination of news reports. That wasn't on the table."1 Worse, it costs nothing to make a complaint (apart from the time to prepare it), while the respondent must pay for his own defense, and the taxpayer of course foots the bill for the whole process.
In short, an HRC is an unelected, pseudo-judicial body (whose adjudicators are bureaucrats, not judges nor even necessarily lawyers) that is able to levy fines and penalties on respondents but is intrinsically biased in favour of complainants. This is the kangaroo court that Levant was subjected to by Soharwardy's complaint. But rather than be cowed into submission by the Star Chamber proceedings, he prepared a statement defending not the specific actions of defending the Dread Cartoons, but his Charter right to be as controversial or offensive as he wished. Moreover he excoriated the HRC and his inquisitor there in the room, questioning the right of the government to tell him what kinds of speech he could freely express, and even questioning the very legitimacy of the hearing itself. And then, having brought a camera to the hearing, he posted video clips of the salient bits to YouTube - where they became very popular in short order.
Seeing that popular opinion was with Levant, Soharwardy has since decided to drop his complaint against Levant. He now claims that
I was unaware of the ongoing debate about whether . . . such commissions are the right venue in which to argue questions about hate speech. . . .
[M]y complaint was beyond what I now believe should be the mandate of such a commission.2
Apparently, Soharwardy was also unaware that insulting the False Prophet Mohammed is not a crime in Canada, as prior to lodging his complaint with the AHRCC, he had tried to have Levant arrested.
It's not over for Levant, however. He believes Soharwardy has basically admitted to abuse of process, and intends to sue him to recover the cost of defending himself against this frivolous complaint. Additionally, another complaint, filed by the Edmonton Muslim Council, still stands. And, of course, we cannot forget the complaint filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal by four law students working with the Canadian Islamic Congress against columnist Mark Steyn, after Maclean's published an excerpt from his book America Alone (which, by the way, everyone should read).
Soharwardy himself, ironically, is now himself the target of a human-rights complaint, filed by three Muslim women who say he treats them as second-class citizens in his mosque. Since this seems to me to be an internal religious matter, it will be interesting to see how it plays out in a secular hearing. Meanwhile, however, one of the complainants has been assaulted in her own home by a Muslim man and woman. I'm sure there's no connection whatever.
And I'm sorry, but in honour of the occasion, I just can't help myself:
1 Alexandra Zabjek, "Defense of Free Speech Must Be Absolute: Advocate," Edmonton Journal, 22 January 2008, Canada.com, 21 Feburary 2008, <http://www.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/cityplus/story.html?id=449e1994-5d1d-4808-abca-aa7b1f096f66>.
2 Syed Soharwardy, "Why I'm Withdrawing My Human Rights Complaint Against Ezra Levant," globeandmail.com, 15 February 2008, <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080215.wcomment0215/BNStory/National/home>.