Levant to Congress: put Canada on the watch list of human rights abusers
I had the pleasure of making a presentation as an expert witness to the U.S. Congress's bi-partisan human rights caucus today.
I didn't count, but I'd estimate that there were over 100 people there. I met quite a few readers of my blog, and even a donor to my legal defence fund -- what a warm welcome in a far away city! There were a surprising number of journalists, including Luiza Savage, Maclean's magazine's Washington Bureau Chief. And there were a lot of religious liberty NGOs, including those from the Bahai, Hindu and Buddhist communities -- including several in bright orange monk's robes.
As a Canadian, I had forgotten that, in the U.S., every Congressman (and certainly every Senator) has their own foreign policy staff. Many such advisors were present, as well as lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice, the House Justice Committee, and the State Department.
My fellow panellists were impressive, especially the Turkish scholar whose specialty was documenting the treatment of apostates in Muslim countries, and the State Department lawyer who is the point-person in response to the international diplomatic campaign to have criticism of Islam criminalized. And -- very usefully -- the second secretary of the Pakistani Embassy was there. It was very striking to hear, directly from the source, the plans that Pakistan and the rest of the Muslim world have when it comes to censoring their critics through the twisting of Western legal apparatuses. It was like getting a glimpse at the other team's playbook -- and having our worst fears confirmed. Frankly, I was surprised that she showed up.
I'll get into more details in a later post; it was a fascinating discussion, and the question-and-answer session was particularly clarifying. But for now, allow me to post my prepared comments. I've put in bold a few of my favourite comments. If I had to think of my most important suggestion, it would be for the U.S. Congress to add Canada to its watch list of countries that abuse human rights like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. What do you think?
Thank you for that kind introduction, and for the invitation to be here today. It’s an honour to be asked to give a briefing at the U.S. Congress, and especially to the Human Rights Caucus. Your work is very important.
My expertise in the subject matter of today’s session was not acquired voluntarily, but by unhappy experience: I have been the subject of government persecution for my political and religious views for nearly 900 days. Unfortunately, stories like mine are not uncommon in the world. But they’re not supposed to happen in Canada, one of the freest countries.
In February of 2006, I was the publisher of a Canadian magazine called the Western Standard. We published a news story about the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, and the riots in the Muslim world that followed. To illustrate what all the fuss was about, we accompanied the story with pictures of several of those cartoons. It was a news story in a news magazine.
Before our magazine even hit the streets, a radical imam named Syed Soharwardy asked the police to arrest me – for blaspheming against Islam. The police didn’t, of course. But the Alberta “human rights commission”, a government agency, accepted Soharwardy’s complaint, and then an identical one from the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities. The government has been investigating me ever since, including summoning me to a 90-minute interrogation. According to access to information documents, no fewer than 15 bureaucrats are working on my case. I’m a major crime scene!
Since then, Canada’s largest news magazine, called Maclean’s – our equivalent to Time magazine – was sued in three different human rights commissions for writing about the demographic growth of Islam in the West. And the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, the largest newspaper in Atlantic Canada, is being pursued by Nova Scotia’s human rights commission for printing an editorial cartoon depicting a local Muslim activist in a niqab – even though that is how she dresses.
In other words, Canadian human rights commissions -- secular government organizations -- are prosecuting religious fatwas. It’s a soft jihad against any criticism of radical Islam. It’s called “lawfare”, and it’s a greater danger to our western values of freedom, religious pluralism and the separation of church and state than the hard jihad of terrorism is. Even if targets like Maclean’s eventually “win”, they lose; the process is the punishment – and the chill affects everyone else.
Canadian human rights commissions, however, are not respectful of the sensitivities of all religions. Less politically correct faiths are regularly prosecuted by them. This May, an Alberta pastor named Stephen Boissoin was given a lifetime gag order, never to say anything critical of homosexuality – not in a church sermon, not even in private e-mails. As well, in what can only be called a Maoist verdict, he has been ordered to renounce his religious beliefs, and to publish a self-denunciation in the local newspaper.
This is Canada we’re talking about. Not Iran, not China, not Cuba.
How did this happen? How did Canadians lose their rights, on the one hand, to criticize radical Islam, and on the other hand, lose their rights to practice Christianity?
The answer is a combination of good intentions and bad intentions.
The good intentions came from do-gooders who, thirty or forty years ago, set up these human rights commissions with the noble ideal of promoting harmony amongst different religions and races. But those good intentions came with the power of the law to censor people who said rude, even racist things. So it became illegal in Canada to say anything that was regarded as hateful, even if it was non-violent. We invented “thought crimes”.
The actual wording of the laws is to ban anything that is quote, “likely to expose a person to hatred or contempt”. Note the word “likely” – you don’t actually have to do anything wrong. You can be convicted for a “pre-crime”, something that hasn’t happened yet. And look at what’s illegal: causing emotions. Not real harm or damages. Just exposing someone to feelings. By the way, the truth of what you say is not a defence. And at the Maclean’s magazine trial last month, half a day was spent determining whether their jokes were funny. They even had a joke expert.
Don’t laugh – literally. Just three weeks ago, a comedian was ordered to stand trial for telling off-colour jokes in a night club. Warning to Chris Rock: don’t bother coming to Canada.
According to Alan Borovoy, of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, even a documentary about the Holocaust is against the law, since it could, possibly, cause people to have feelings of contempt for Germans.
At first, these thought crimes were targeted at people so odious, no-one spoke out in their defence. Neo-Nazis mainly – including an 80-year-old man named John Taylor who served 9 months in jail for having an anti-Semitic phone message.
We don’t like anti-Semitism or other bigotry; I certainly don’t. But instead of the traditional answer to offensive speech – more speech, better speech, truer speech – Canada took the easy way, and simply outlawed hurt feelings. Instead of doing the hard work of building a truly tolerant society, we thought we could wave a magic wand, and legislate bad feelings out of existence.
But legal precedents cut both ways. So, after thirty years of prosecuting people who were critical of Jews, now Canada’s human rights commissions are being used by radical Muslims to prosecute people who criticize radical Islam – and being used by gay rights activists to prosecute pastors like Reverend Boissoin, religious newspapers like Catholic Insight, and even the Bishop of Calgary, Fred Henry, for a letter to his diocese against same-sex marriage.
To paraphrase Father Martin Niemoller, first the human rights commissions went for the neo-Nazis, but I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a neo-Nazi. Then the human rights commissions went for the fundamentalist Christians, but I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a fundamentalist Christian.
Because we didn’t fight for freedom of speech and freedom of conscience for people who were hard to like, now we’re having to fight for those fundamental freedoms for ourselves. It’s always better to fight in the first ditch rather than the last one.
The legal onslaught against freedom of speech and religious pluralism continues. There are 14 human rights commission in Canada, employing 1,000 people, and with an annual budget of $200-million. It’s an industry, and it needs social strife to stay in business. So it positively drums up discontent. This spring in Alberta, 60,000 new immigrants were taught English as a Second Language using a workbook all about how to file grievances, including against un-funny jokes.
I’m pleased that a political backlash is growing in Canada. Across the political spectrum, from both the Liberal and Conservative parties, from newspaper editorials on the left and the right, and from NGOs ranging from EGALE, Canada’s largest gay right lobby, to the Canadian Association of Journalists, to the liberal Muslim Canadian Congress, public opinion is waking up to the dangers of these human rights commissions and their thought crime laws. The public is starting to revolt.
So why should Americans care? I can think of three reasons. And what should Americans do? I can think of two things.
1. Americans should care because Americans have always cared about liberty around the world, especially political and religious liberty. It is one of America’s greatest characteristics: a love for the well-being of other countries. Being a Good Samaritan is in your nature, and the world is freer because of it.
2. America should care because what happens in Europe and Canada soon comes – or tries to come – to the U.S. When it comes to censorship, we’re a laboratory for bad ideas. And the coalition between foreign trouble-makers and domestic busy-bodies is an idea that is spreading here, too.
3. Despite your First Amendment, human rights commissions are popping up all over the U.S.
The city of Philadelphia’ s “human relations” commission has a staff of 33, and a multi-million dollar budget. Last year, they prosecuted Geno’s Steak House because they put up a sign asking customers to order their Philly Cheese Steaks in English. We might agree with Geno’s sign or disagree. But to have a government agency prosecute them is a threat to the First Amendment. And, if it’s a steak house today, it could be a news magazine tomorrow. And if it’s do-gooders today, I can assure you it won’t be for long.
So what can Americans do?
1. The first thing you can do is what you always do: continue to monitor the erosion of freedom around the world, including through Congressional committees like this one. Publish annual reports shaming foreign countries for their abuses of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Put Canada on that list, to let our government know what they’re doing isn’t acceptable.
2. And rededicate yourselves to your First Amendment. Understand that the erosion of freedom doesn’t always happen with a bang – it can happen with a whimper. And that, when it comes to free speech, it’s usually unpopular people who are censored first. But if they can go for a neo-Nazi yesterday, it’s Geno’s Steak House today, and then a Christian pastor or a news magazine tomorrow.
I believe in a pluralist society where I can be Jewish, he can be Christian, she can be Muslim, and we all get along peacefully – we can agree to disagree about political or religious matters. The use of our own Western laws to crush such disagreement, and end healthy debate, is a threat to all of us, and the U.S. Congress should be on guard.