The Magazine

Speaking of Islam

Liberty and grievance in Canada.

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By LEE HARRIS
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The English-speaking peoples are justifiably proud of their tradition of free speech. When Thomas Macaulay reviewed the achievements of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he observed that the victorious English Whigs had shown how "the authority of law and the security of property" could be reconciled with "a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known."

Since Macaulay's day, many of the other nations of the world have also figured out how to reconcile liberty of discussion with the general welfare, until a point has been reached where we in the West have completely forgotten what a remarkable achievement our ancestors bequeathed to us. Even a devout Whig like Macaulay, writing midway between us and the Glorious Revolution, recalled a time when unrestricted liberty of discussion could not be made compatible with domestic tranquility. Today, on the other hand, most of us have lost any awareness of the painful fact that, under certain conditions, a society might be forced to make a tragic choice between two incompatible goods, namely, free speech and the public welfare. Yet the events of the last several years should have awakened us from our dogmatic slumber, for when it comes to speaking of Islam, there is troubling evidence that our cherished liberty of discussion may not be compatible with security of life and limb, not to mention the security of property.

It is only by keeping these sobering facts in mind that we can hope to put into perspective the strange drama unfolding in Canada--a drama that contains elements that might have been borrowed from the theater of the absurd, making it uncertain whether we are dealing with a surreal farce or an all too real tragedy.

On January 11, 2008, in a small drab government office in Alberta, a hearing was held to investigate a complaint brought against Ezra Levant, a Canadian publisher, author, and libertarian activist. The case, in truth, had its origins two years earlier in Denmark, where the daily news-paper Jyllands-Posten commissioned and published a set of cartoons lampooning the prophet known to Muslims as Muhammad. As most of us remember, after a delay of several months, and with an assist from a road-show to the Middle East organized by unhappy Danish imams, the so-called Danish cartoons set off havoc in various corners of the Muslim world, leaving a death toll of around 100 people, many of whom were shot by police in their attempt to quell the riots. In the aftermath, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the cartoon controversy was the worst international crisis for his country since World War II, when Denmark was invaded by the Nazis.

Ezra Levant had nothing to do with the original cartoon debacle. His magazine, the now defunct Western Standard, decided to reprint the cartoons in order to let its readers see and judge the drawings for themselves. When the cartoons appeared on February 14, 2006, there were no riots, deaths, or international crises. But, not long afterwards, Levant found himself in hot water. Syed Soharwardy, representing the self-proclaimed Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, filed a complaint with the Calgary police, alleging that Levant was inciting hatred against him--a crime in Canada. These criminal charges, according to the Calgary police, are still under investigation. In addition, Soharwardy lodged a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizen Commission.

In a related case, four Muslim law students affiliated with the Canadian Islamic Congress have filed complaints against author Mark Steyn for publishing an excerpt from his bestselling book, America Alone, in the Canadian newsweekly Maclean's. These complaints, filed in December 2007, will be heard by the British Columbian Human Rights Tribunal and by the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

There has been remarkably little interest shown in these cases by the American media, usually so alert to perceived violations of the right to free speech, and it is perhaps too easy to speculate why the editorial boards of our leading newspapers and magazines have not gotten up in arms over these attacks on their Canadian colleagues. Could it be that they are not as keen on defending our right to speak ill of Islam as they are to defend our right to speak ill of virtually everything else? On the other hand, the Canadian cases have caught the attention of the blogosphere, especially but not exclusively among those to the right of center. After Levant made the videotape of his appearance before the Alberta Human Rights Commission available on YouTube, it was inundated with viewers, most of them enthusiastically sympathetic with his defiant response to the order to appear before the commission. There is also a Free Mark Steyn! website dedicated to information about his pending case and to defending other "Canadians from the thought police and 'human rights' commissars."