Recognize my name? Lately, Ezra Levant of the now-defunct Western Standard has been doing his best to demonize me in interviews and blogs.
Mr. Levant probably had never heard of me until I filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission against his decision to reprint the Danish cartoons that sparked a wave of violent and destructive protests across Europe and the Muslim world in 2005.
The reprinting of the cartoons wasn't about free speech. The originals are readily available on the Internet for any who wish to see them. The reprinting seem aimed more at forcing people who are deeply unhappy about the cartoons, and who would not seek them out, to be faced with them again. This is hurtful to many in the Muslim community, and can create ill-will between Muslims and non-Muslims. (Interestingly, other Canadian magazines and newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, came to the same conclusion.) I therefore filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission. I worried that pointless re-publication of the Danish cartoons could alienate the young people of my community, when in fact I would prefer to see them move into the mainstream of Canadian society.
Having no previous experience with any human rights commission, I was unaware of the ongoing debate about whether such commissions should have narrower or broader mandates, or of the doubts many Canadians have about whether such commissions are the right venue in which to argue questions about hate speech.
Subsequent discussions with several Muslim leaders, and more particularly with some of my Christian and Jewish friends, have led me to conclude that my complaint was beyond what I now believe should be the mandate of such a commission. I now am of the view that this matter should have been handled in the court of public opinion.
Consequently, I am withdrawing my complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission against Mr. Levant's right to publish the offensive and hateful drawings.
I believe his decision was irresponsible and was intended to cause strife, but I now appreciate that it may not fall outside the limits of free speech.
Perhaps our elected leaders should, indeed, legislate a narrower role for human rights commissions, but the campaign by Mr. Levant and others to have such commissions abolished is going too far. These commissions play an important role in protecting the most vulnerable in our society by countering discrimination in important areas such as housing, employment, and government services.
In his writings, Mr. Levant has characterized me as many things. Let me set the record straight.
When I left Pakistan long ago, several Western countries offered to accept me and my wife as immigrants. We chose Canada as the best place in the world to live, work and raise a family, irrespective of skin colour. We still believe that. We are proud Canadians, and share Canadian values, as do our two accomplished teenagers. I hold two masters degrees in engineering, one American the other Canadian. My work has included university teaching and management of major IT projects. Outside of work, I volunteer my time trying to develop greater understanding and better relationships between Muslims and people of other faiths, particularly Christians and Jews. I enjoy excellent relationships with numerous Jewish leaders: In my mosque in Calgary we have studied Jewish festivals, and invite Jewish experts to speak to us.
So if anyone is looking for anti-Semitism, you won't find it in my mosque.
The history of anti-Semitism in Alberta is non-trivial, and it didn't come from newcomers like me, who abhor it. In fact, I'm pretty mainstream and heavily into interfaith dialogue.
Which leads me to an offer to Ezra Levant: We clearly disagree about the cartoons; but I'm willing to sit down with you and discuss it.
And if you really believe the central issue is that human rights commissions have over-broad mandates, then that is an issue on which we may now be able to converge.
Syed Soharwardy is founder of the Calgary-based Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, and founder of Muslims Against Terrorism.