Publisher defies ‘junk lawsuit’ over Muhammad cartoons

Date: 20 Feb, 2014| Author: Fred Streiman

IN HONOUR of World Press Freedom Day, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) held a panel discussion May 3 at the University of Toronto.Entitled ‘Drawing Controversy: The Muhammad Cartoons,’ the event addressed the backlash of militant Muslims against Danish caricatures of Islam’s most sacred prophet. The panel of media experts asked: “What have we learned? What does the controversy mean for a multi-cultural, ‘tolerant’ country such as Canada, and how this has affected free expression around the world?”

One key figure was conspicuous by his absence, according to CBC journalist Michael Enright. The feisty Ezra Levant, whose Western Standard magazine was the only high-profile Canadian publication to showcase the cartoons, was not on the panel. In a Sunday Edition commentary April 30, Enright said he found Levant’s absence highly problematic. While Levant, Enright observed, was considered a “high-octane troublemaker” by some for publishing the offending cartoons, “the action taken against him is far more offensive — and dangerous.”

The action Enright was referring to is still unfolding, as Levant awaits the next move of the Alberta Human Rights Commission. On February 14, Western Standard and the Jewish Free Press were charged with fomenting hatred by Calgary-based Syed B. Soharwardy, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada and founder of Muslims Against Terrorism. Claiming to be a “direct descendant” of Islam’s founder, Soharwardy denounced what he termed “extremely racist, hateful and insulting cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as a terrorist, violent and immoral person. This false depiction of my Prophet and my ancestor has publicized me and my family as someone related to a terrorist and the followers of terrorists. We are not terrorists. We are law abiding Canadians. These cartoons have sighted violence, hatred and discrimination against my family and me.”

In a March 2 followup, Soharwardy insisted that “both publishers knew that the worldwide Muslim community was very upset on the publications of these cartoons. They knew that it will be very offensive to Canadian/ Albertan Muslims, but they went ahead and published these cartoons in order to make a story. By publishing these caricatures, they publicly insulted all Canadian Muslims . . . This is clearly demonizing of our religion.”

Soharwardy’s complaint included several emails he said he had received. One of them urged him to “lighten up,” chiding: “What is wrong with you people? You are the most sour, excitable, unrealistic, humourless bunch I’ve ever seen.” However, several others offered less charitable sentiments, including: “Islam is hate that supports the censorship of communism and oppresses free speech”; “Your kind has burned the American flag, knocked down two office towers in New York . . . abuse[d] women in Algeria and practise[d] widespread male homosexuality;” and “Time for you too go back too any Islamic hellhole, where you can happily slaughter those that leave Islam or make fun of the meccan murderer. Muhammad was a bastard.”

“I am sure the two news magazine have inspired people to send these hateful messages to me,” Soharwardy wrote. Upon close examination, however, it is clear that some of the emails were dated before Western Standard’s publication of the cartoons.Soharwardy’s complaint “is a frivolous and vexatious abuse of process,” Levant responded in a March 30 letter. “It has no basis in fact or Canadian law. It is contrary to Canadian values of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and religious plurality, under which Canadians are free from compulsion to submit to religious edicts.”

Behind the complaint, he contended, was a more sinister intent — what he termed “an attempt to abuse the power of the state to chill discussion about subjects that are in the public interest. It is also an inappropriate combination of mosque and state, using a secular government agency to enforce a Muslim religious precept, namely the fundamentalist prohibition of the depiction of Muhammad.”

The conflict has sparked much spirited commentary in Canadian media. “During the years when my colleagues and I were labouring to create such commissions, we never imagined that they might ultimately be used against freedom of speech,” lamented Alan Borovoy, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in the March 16 Calgary Herald. He added: “There should be no question of the right to publish the impugned cartoons . . . A free culture cannot protect people against material that hurts.”

“I still think Levant’s decision to reprint cartoons was provocative and publicity-seeking, rather than a reasoned stand for ethical journalism,” admonished Deborah Jones in a March 30 post to the Canadian Journalist blog. Nevertheless, she conceded, Levant “has a right to air his views, just as everyone else has the right to disagree with him, and the effort by some Muslims to punish the magazine’s views by using Alberta’s Human Rights Commission is outrageous. Much more outrageous is the commission’s complicity.”

“The human rights law under attack has many safeguards,” stressed Marvin Kurz, honorary legal counsel of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada. Levant, he wrote in the Globe & Mail, “can argue that the cartoons may offend, even deeply, but they are legal. In saying this, he can point out that the cartoons may be blasphemous, but our hate speech laws are not aimed at blasphemy.”

“Alberta’s Muslim leaders could have done worse,” asserted CanWest columnist George Jonas. “Like imams in other places, they could have tried inciting riots. To their credit, they made no attempt to do so. But neither did they consider that in a secular democracy people trade freely in a marketplace of ideas, opinions, and beliefs.”

Instead, he opined, Levant’s opponents “turned to our society’s nearest kin to theocratic repression, the Holy Inquisition of the shibboleths of super-liberalism, the politburo of Canada’s multiculturalist-collectivist-feminist-environmentalist axis, where they struck gold. The Orwellian commissars of Alberta’s human rights directorate, instead of advising Soharwardy & Co, to go soak their heads in cold water, started processing their complaint.” caught up recently with a busy Levant, who phoned as he was leaving Toronto. Asked about his absence from the recent CJFE event, he said with characteristic bluntness: “I was not asked — which is no surprise to me.”

Many of CJFE’s directors, he said, are “people in high office” in mainstream media, who chose not to run the Danish cartoons. “These are the same people who enforced the censorship” of the images. Therefore, he said, “it would be a pretzelian feat of logic to think they would ask me.” The anger over the cartoons, he contended, had been heated to a frenzy by Machiavellian Islamists with political agendas. At first, he noted, “the cartoons went relatively unnoticed,” until protests were fomented by what he termed “agents provocateurs. Look at the countries where they happened, such as Syria and Iran. There’s no such thing as freedom of assembly there.”

The protests, he said, were “pure theatre, terrorist theatre.” He characterized the strategy behind them as “Tyranny 101: Have an external enemy for the masses to focus their anger on.” In response to Soharwardy’s contention that the Muhammad caricatures “have created unbearable stress, humiliation and insult for my family and me . . . [and] caused serious damage to the reputation of all Canadian Muslims,” Levant contended: “The test for civil rights is not based on the subjective offense taken by the thinnest-skinned” member of the community.

However, he added that devotees of any religions “absolutely” have the right to object to what they see as gratuitous and hurtful attacks on their beliefs and traditions. He also said they were free to object “peacefully, through letters to the editor, phoning talk shows, boycotts, getting politically active. These are healthy outlets for expression in a democratic society.” This was the approach, he pointed out, taken by Christians offended by things such as Piss Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code. “The response was not to burn down embassies” — or, Levant added, to commit murder, as a Muslim extremist did in the case of Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh. In Canada, said Levant, “we don’t slit throats.”

Soharwardy, he contended, “seeks not to rebut and debate — but to censor, Saudi-style.” Levant brusquely dismissed what he termed his opponent’s “junk lawsuit,” referring to the commission’s protracted semi-judicial process as an “abusive” exercise reminiscent of a “gulag” mentality. The commission, he insisted, was acting as “a politically correct enforcer — a destroyer and limiter of human rights.” Noting that the commission could possibly fine Western Standard, or force him to apologize, the publisher was adamant. Soharwardy, he said, “asks for us to submit, and renounce ourselves. If this man cannot convince me I’m wrong, I will never let him order me to say I’m wrong.”

Asked if he had ever had second thoughts about publishing the cartoons, Levant quickly responded: “Not for a second.”