Posts Tagged ‘Human Rights Commissions’

Steyn, Levant, Channel 4 and the Western Suppression of Free Speech

June 9, 2008

Last week, the American Conservative journalist, Mark Steyn, went on trial before a Canadian Human Rights Commission court, accused of spreading hate against Islam. Steyn is extremely critical of radical Islam, and the author of a book, America Alone, which considers that America will quickly end up as the last refuge of Western values and politics as Europe is taken over by Islam. It’s a controversial book, and Steyn’s critics have pointed out a number of factual flaws in his arguments. It is not, however, the reason Steyn is on trial. Steyn, with the Canadian magazine, McClean’s, is on trial for an article he wrote for them critically describing the threat posed by militant Islamicists in the West, quoting violently bigoted comments by various western imams and religious leaders themselves. His opponents in this case are Mohammed Elmasry of the Canadian Islamic Congress and three young Muslims, who demanded that, through right of reply, McClean’s should run an article by them criticising Steyn’s comments. McClean’s refused to be dictated to in this fashion, so Elmasry and his three colleagues took Steyn and McClean’s to a Human Rights court.

The Canadian Human Rights Commissions were set up originally with the best of intentions to protect people from ethnic minorities from genuine discrimination, such as being summarily evicted by their landlords and left homeless. Since then, according to their critics such as Steyn and the Canadian Conservative journalist Ezra Levant, the courts have become increasingly dictatorial and anti-democratic. Normal legal rules of procedure and evidence don’t seem to apply to them. Neither does factual accuracy. Under Section 13 of the code establishing the Human Rights Commissions and their courts, factual accuracy is no defence if the accused is nevertheless considered by the court to be spreading hatred or prejudice.

Ezra Levant is similarly being prosecuted by the Human Rights Courts for his critical comments about militant Islam and specifically for publishing the notorious Danish cartoons. He is extremely critical of the Human Rights Commission and their apparent contempt for free speech and the normal rules that govern the police and judiciary in democracies in order to protect democratic freedom. His blog, like Steyn’s site, includes details of his individual case. Levant also covers what he considers to be the abuse of power by the Human Rights Commissions generally, and campaigns for their abolition.

While critical of militant Islam, Steyn and Levant also have the support of Muslim journalists and writers in Canada who are strongly opposed to the militant intolerance preached by the militants in the name of Islam. Levant has said something in his blog to the effect that the Canadian Islamic Congress is unrepresentative of Canadian Islam as a whole, and that their attempts to suppress criticism of militant Islam has probably done much more to spread suspicion of Islam generally than either Steyn or himself.

Now this would normally be a matter of concern only to Canadians. However, Steyn, Levant and their supporters, such as the Canadian writer and ID supporter Denyse O’Leary, have stated that foreign individuals outside Canada should closely examine the conduct of Human Rights Commissions in their attack on free speech in order to prevent similar abuses occurring in their countries. This also goes well beyond the lines of party politics. Steyn and Levant are Conservatives, but their prosecution is of real concern to people concerned with maintaining traditional democratic liberties such as free speech and conscience regardless of party allegiance. Some of the appointees to the Human Rights Commission courts were given their posts by Conservative administrations. As for Steyn and Levant, it shouldn’t matter here whether the accused are Conservatives, Liberals or members of the Socialist New Democrat Party. Their prosecution before a court system where factual accuracy is apparently no defence is a threat to democracy itself.

As for their comment that the situation in Canada should also concern non-Canadians, it’s a very, very good point. Unfortunately the prosecution of Steyn and Levant for their coverage and criticism of militant Islam is very relevant to British politics and the attempt by some parts of the British legal system to prevent the media from covering militantly bigoted attacks on British society by British Muslims. In the middle of last month, the Crown Prosecution Service and West Midlands police force gave a statement recognising that they had been incorrect to accuse Channel 4 of misleading editing in its programme, Undercover Mosque, and agreed to pay damages of £100,000 to charity. The programme Undercover Mosque was broadcast in January 2007 in the Channel 4 Despatches documentary series. It showed supposedly moderate Islamic clergy vehemently denouncing non-Muslims as ‘filthy’, ‘accursed’ and ‘criminals’. The West Midlands police then investigated the clergy involved, before claiming, seven months later, that the programme had misrepresented the clergy through selective editing. Ofcom, the government’s broadcasting watchdog, then investigated the programme, and came to the conclusion that the editing had not misrepresented the militant preachers. This verdict was accepted by the West Midlands police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

What is disturbing about this case is that rather than accept that militantly bigoted comments and sermons were being preached by the clergy concerned, the police force and CPS instead attempted to suppress its reporting. This seems partly to have been due to prevent racial tension and violence. Anil Patani, the West Midland Police Force’s assistant chief constable (security and cohesion), stated that the programme threatened ‘community cohesion’ by unfairly representing the Muslim preachers. My own view here is that this is rubbish. Community cohesion was threatened long before Channel 4 made the documentary the moment when the imams concerned were allowed, or invited to speak. In fact violent denunciations of non-Muslim Britons by radical Muslim clergy have been a problem for a long time. In the 1990s the BBC filmed one cleric telling his congregation that British society was a monstrous ‘killing machine’ and that ‘killing Muslims comes very easily to them.’ This particular cleric was intensely controversial in the Muslim community, and there were demonstrations against him and his bigotry by British Muslims.

However, there also seems to be a real reluctance to act against militant Islamic bigotry on the part of the British authorities, even when they have been alerted to a very real threat posed by some mosques and their clergy by concerned Muslims. The people who first attempted to alert the authorities to the militant activities at Finchley Park mosque, which was closed down a few years ago after it was found to be supporting Islamicist terrorism, were Muslims, and for a long time their warnings were ignored.

My feeling is that there’s a political aspect to this reluctance by the authorities to act against the Islamicist militants. Some of it is probably an attempt to avoid making this situation worse by appearing to provoke, or increase suspicion and hatred of Muslims in wider British society. However, there’s also a diplomatic element involved. Many British mosques are funded by the governments of Muslim countries, partly as a way of extending their influence into British Muslim society. Where that particular Islamic nation has a particularly intolerant attitude, there’s a danger that this influence will be passed on to British Muslims through the funding nation presenting it as a genuine part of Islam. Moreover, the programme Undercover Mosque was particular embarrassing for the British government as it showed supposedly moderate Muslims as preaching vehement hatred instead of peace and harmony.

My point here is not to attack or criticise Islam or muslims generally. The militant preachers of hate are intensely controversial in the Muslim community, and I can remember reading comments by muslim writers demanding that the media also pay attention to demonstrations by Muslims against them and more generally as normal members of British society. Across the world, ordinary muslims have acted to save non-muslims from terrorist atrocities committed by the Islamicists. When a party of German tourists was massacred by Islamicist militants in Egypt in the 1990s, a number of them were saved by the local people running out to hide them in their own houses. The Shari’a, the Islamic legal code, explicitly forbids killing women, children and non-combatants, and members of the Egyptian public condemned the Islamicists’ atrocity as ‘completely against Islam’ when interviewed on a BBC Radio travel programme. What concerns me is that rather than tackle the fact that there are bigoted clerics preaching a vicious hatred of non-muslims, the authorities have instead attempted to prevent it being reported. The suppression of the reporting of militant hatred for apparently political reasons is the real issue here, and it is a genuine, threat to democracy whatever the group or organisation preaching hatred and bigotry is. Christians and members of other faiths and ideologies have and are being persecuted for their conscience in numerous states around the world, so I’m acutely aware of the danger of creating a similar climate of religious intolerance in Britain towards Islam. However, genuine democratic politics depends on the free discussion of issues, and this becomes particularly important when there is a very real danger from terrorism and susceptible, confused or alienated people being turned against their fellow countrymen by bigots. In this situation, it is entirely appropriate that the problem should be reported and discussed. Attempting to ignore the problem, or deny that it exists by prosecuting those who do report it won’t change the situation and will set a dangerous precedent for the official suppression of news the authorities consider embarrassing or potentially threatening generally. The Human Rights Commissions in Canada and the attempt by the West Midlands police force and the Crown Prosecution Service in Britain to prosecute the producers of Undercover Mosque aren’t just a problem for the reporting of militant Islam, but a threat generally to free speech and democratic politics.