Everyone remembers the Mohammed cartoons. Those ten cartoons, each with its own level of offensiveness towards Muslims. Each an affront to anyone professing to believe in Islam and Mohammed as the messenger of Allah.
Very few publishers in North America chose to reprint the cartoons, which originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jylland Posten in September 2005. Ezra Levant of the now-defunct Canadian magazine, The Western Standard, was one. Known for his controversial conservative commentary, pro-Israel stance and libertarian beliefs, Levant believed that publishing the cartoons was a necessary exercise in free speech.
On the very day that the Western Standard with the infamous cartoons was being printed, Levant appeared on Calgary radio to debate Syed Soharwardy, an imam trained at an anti-Semitic Saudi university, who advocates Sharia law in Canada. The debate centered around the cartoons and all the accompanying shouldas, wouldas and couldas. Soharwardy did not know that Levant was about to publish the cartoons (a.k.a. offend Mohammed), but that did not matter. Levant was the clear winner in the debate and that offended Soharwardy, who marched down to a Calgary Police station and demanded that they arrest Levant for offending him during the debate and simply discussing the cartoons in the media.
After the officers explained that they didn’t do that in Canada, Soharwardy filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The Commission is made up of individuals appointed by the government to hear human rights complaints. The commissioners are a mish-mash of lawyers, nurses, politicians, engineers, who may or may not have direct legal experience. It costs nothing to file a complaint, so Soharwardy could avail himself of it at no charge while the defendant bears the cost of his defense.
Fast forward to January 11, 2008 and Ezra Levant is finally before an Alberta “human rights officer” for questioning. The officer refused to allow journalists or part of Levant’s defense team to enter (something that is normally allowed in regular courts) but did allow the proceedings to be videotaped.
In his opening statement, Levant made his feelings on the proceedings very clear:
“I am here at this government interrogation under protest. It is my position that the government has no legal or moral authority to interrogate me or anyone else for publishing these words and pictures. That is a violation of my ancient and inalienable freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and in this case, religious freedom and the separation of mosque and state. It is especially perverted that a bureaucracy calling itself the Alberta human rights commission would be the government agency violating my human rights. So I will now call those bureaucrats “the commission” or “the hrc”, since to call the commission a “human rights commission” is to destroy the meaning of those words. I believe that this commission has no proper authority over me. The commission was meant as a low-level, quasi-judicial body to arbitrate squabbles about housing, employment and other matters, where a complainant felt that their race or sex was the reason they were discriminated against. The commission was meant to deal with deeds, not words or ideas. Now the commission, which is funded by a secular government, from the pockets of taxpayers of all backgrounds, is taking it upon itself to be an enforcer of the views of radical Islam. So much for the separation of mosque and state.”
There are so many great points that Levant makes about freedom of speech for its own sake. For one thing, Levant strongly believes that unreasonable speech is the most important type of speech to protect.
“Obviously the word ‘reasonable’ depends on the individual, everyone has a different definition of that and that’s sort of the point,” said Levant in a telephone interview after the hearing. “If we don’t allow unreasonable speech then we really exclude any conversation of any importance or interest because other than ‘how’s the weather’ and talking about recipes or things that are utterly uncontroversial, almost everything offends someone. So we can’t have a system that is based on giving a veto to the most thin-skinned person in the room. What I regard as unreasonable is different from what you regard as unreasonable and what I regard as offensive is different from what you do. And the only way we are going to be able to reconcile that in such a diverse society and I mean diverse intellectually, diverse politically, diverse religiously is if we say “well we are going to allow it all, as long as it doesn’t actually hurt anybody”, as long as it’s not incitement to violence or fraud, in fact I list about ten instances in one of my videos of the limits. For example, copyright is a limit on free expression in a way. Anyone who signs a confidentiality agreement is limiting their free expression. But we accept all of this because there is a basis of law in our culture for that.”
As long as a political or religious discussion does not flip over into a culture of violence, Levant believes that we should let our offended feelings go. “In a typical day we are probably offended by ten or twenty things. I can’t turn on the news at night without being offended. The number one response, just to keep our sanity, is to ignore things and to brush them off and not take things so personally. And if something just sticks in our craw, then rebut it, write a letter to your editor, call a radio talk show. And if you are really revved up by something, well then get politically active, start an activist group, lobby for a change. There is a degree in how we respond. That’s a civil society.”
Levant has posted Soharwardy’s complaint on his web site and says “you’ll notice that most of his words are not even referring to the cartoons. They are referring that I dared talk about the cartoons on radio and TV, he even mentioned our debate. That is a fascist. That is someone who is bringing Saudi values to Canada. What’s happened here is we’ve handed the veto to the most hypersensitive or thin-skinned or malicious person in the room. Which these days, inordinately, is radical Muslims. So they see it as a weakness in our armor. Our great strength is our free, liberal society, but this human rights commission is a bit of a chink in our armor, so that’s why they are pouncing on it, because it is such a flaw in our system.”
Levant believes that if free speech is limited in civil society, violence will be the natural consequence. “If someone has an emotion, they feel a grievance, they feel like things are not fair, talking about it not only helps affect change, but it’s a way of dealing with issues. And if you are not allowed to say what is on your mind if the state forces you to apologize, I think that breeds deeper and deeper anger and resentment. Like pressure building in a pipe. So not only does free speech vent those feelings, but actually makes it possible for the world to be changed to remedy the underlying problem.”
Levant is correct in stating that the most unreasonable speech must be protected. It is the unreasonable free speech of women that got them the vote; the unreasonable free speech of blacks that allowed schools to be de-segregated; the unreasonable free speech of Native Americans that allowed them to be repaid for past wrongs; the unreasonable free speech of South Africans that got rid of apartheid.
Equally important is the declaration by Levant that the one institution that he does not have to answer to about the reasonableness of his free speech is the government.
The 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights guaranteed:
1. human rights and fundamental freedoms, namely, (c) freedom of religion; (d) freedom of speech; (e) freedom of assembly and association; and (f) freedom of the press.
In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteed:
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: a) freedom of conscience and religion; b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.
Levant is currently awaiting the commission’s decision on whether an actual hearing will take place. If it does, and Levant is convicted, the commission will order him “to apologize,” as Soharwardy has requested. But that’s just what Levant wants to happen because it is his will and intent to take this as far up the chain as the Supreme Court of Canada so that “real” judges can hear the case and judge it on its merits using the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as its guide.
But, as Levant says, the complaint and the validity assigned by the commission has already been a “shot across the bow” by radical Muslims to any media outlet in Canada. And the limiting of free speech has begun.
Heather Cook lives in Calgary, Alberta with her husband, a former U.S. Army officer, and two children. She can be found online at heather-cook.com.