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May 27, 2010

Towards hate-free speech

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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We Canadian Muslims support the promotion of democratic values for the public good; hence, we support free speech. This should go without saying but more often than not I find myself saying this over and over.

Why? Since there is no scientific explanation for why the opposite about Canadian Muslims is believed, I must make an educated guess—the media. It creates, sustains and feeds an image of Canadian Muslims contrary to the truth, mainly to serve their owners’ political agendas.

We Canadian Muslims also support free and open debate for all as a precondition for achieving a true and sustainable democracy.

Canada has made significant strides toward gender equality and racial equality, but religious equality lags far behind, especially for Canadian Muslims: Islamophobia is on the rise.

Hence the state should support the robustness of free public debate. Hate-speech threatens the value of free speech, erodes civil discourse, and breeds violence.

In the years since 9/11, vandalism to mosques, Islamic schools and community centres has increased. (Note: police list some hate crimes against Muslims under “blacks.”) My local mosque in Waterloo, Ontario, a city of 100,000, was a victim of vandalism last month. In larger cities, the situation is much worse.

In many areas of our lives, the state uses its power to achieve public benefits, for example, it imposes speed limits in the name of road safety. By the same token, it should be able to impose speech limits.

The old idea that the state is an enemy of freedom should not be replaced with the idea that it can be a friend of freedom by doing nothing.

All spheres of human activity, like housing, education, and speech, must be placed under a strong anti-discrimination code, and human rights legislation must be enacted to protect disadvantaged groups, especially racial, religious and ethnic minorities.

As targets of hate-speech, these groups and individuals experience a diminished sense of self-worth, and are impeded from participating fully in civil society. They also usually do not have the financial or political resources to challenge their attackers.

Hate-speech creates a silencing dynamic that makes it almost impossible for disadvantaged groups to participate, even minimally, in any public discussion. The mantra that “the remedy for hate-speech is more and better speech” is both false and misleading because those who are expected to respond with “more and better speech” cannot do so, or if they do their words are often dismissed as lacking in credibility.

To enhance and equalize democratic debates, the state should act to empower those disadvantaged by hate-speech, even if that may mean lowering the voices of some in order that others may be heard.

A case in point is Canada’s Muslim minority, which has been unfairly pitted against the vast and loud voice of the corporate media, a repeat hate-speech offender. This is wrong.

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