The mass murder in Quebec City on January 29th was a dismal but important victory for religious obscurantism. Freedom of expression was already threatened, but in the aftermath of this event new threats against this freedom, especially repression of criticism of religion, have begun to appear. Here are a few examples.
(1) About a week after the killings, a coalition of Muslim organizations called for all levels of government to launch campaigns against so-called “islamophobia.” In a Globe and Mail article, we read that:
“The leaders asked provinces to establish school courses to teach children about racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of xenophobia. They also called on the federal government to establish Jan. 29 as a national day of remembrance for the Quebec City massacre that killed six people and of action against Islamophobia.”
First of all, the above statement conflates race with religious affiliation, a deliberate and dishonest blurring of this important distinction. This is a tactic which we have seen many times in the past, a tactic whose purpose is to rationalize false accusations of “racism” against anyone who dares to criticize Islam or Islamism. As for the proposal to establish a “national day of remembrance,” why not create a national day of action against Islamism on January 15th, anniversary of the terror attack in Ouagadougou, Burkino Faso, in 2016, in which 30 persons, including six Quebeckers, were killed?
According to the photo accompanying a Radio-Canada article about this coalition, one of its participants is a certain Haroun Bouazzi. I will have more to say about him shortly.
(2) During his speech at the funeral, held in Montreal, for three of the victims of the massacre, mayor Denis Coderre stated that the killing was “racist.” Really? And what race would that be? Does mayor Coderre have telepathic powers which enable him to read the killer’s thoughts and deduce the presence of this prejudice? On the other hand, we can reasonably conclude, based on the event’s circumstances, that it was based on anti-Muslim prejudice. After all, it occurred during prayers at a mosque. However, nothing allows us to infer a racist motive. As all the victims were men, why did mayor Coderre not accuse the killer of androphobia? Once again, we see the gratuitous blurring of the demarcation between race and religious affiliation.
(3) During the February 5th broadcast of the Radio-Canada television show Tout le monde en parle (Everyone’s Talking About It), Quebec premier Philippe Couillard declared the following (my translation):
“You people on social media who post hateful nonsense, know that you are being watched. If you continue, you will end up with a criminal record and you will have deserved it.”
Just who will decide what is hate speech and what is legitimate commentary? The Criminal Code of Canada contains provisions forbidding hate propaganda. Apparently Couillard is unaware that, despite the shortcomings of that legislation, in particular its religious exception, the definition of hate propaganda established by the courts is far more strict and nuanced than the “hateful nonsense” to which Couillard refers. Indeed, by making such a declaration, Couillard is spreading “hateful nonsense” himself because his statement looks very much like intimidation and a call for denunciation by informants.
(4) The essayist and secular activist Djemila Benhabib recently won a court case before the Quebec Superior Court which rejected an accusation of defamation brought against her by the Écoles musulmanes de Montréal (Muslim Schools of Montreal). This was a victory for freedom of expression and a blow against religious obscurantism. However, soon after the Quebec City killings, this freedom was against compromised: the Maison de la littérature (House of Literature) in Quebec City cancelled an event, scheduled for February 12th, at which Madame Benhabib was to speak. The pretext for the cancellation was that it might offend the Muslim community. But how could a talk by Benhabib, who regularly criticizes political Islam, i.e. Islamism, offend Muslims who are not of that radical tendency? The given pretext might have had some validity if the event had been delayed until after a reasonable mourning period; however, it was simply cancelled, not postponed.
Djemila Benhabib responded to the cancellation in a Facebook post on February 9th. Here is an excerpt (my translation):
“I see this decision as a serious attack on freedom of expression and an attempt to censor public debate. It is an attempt to make Islam off-limits, to place it above all criticism when it should be debated publicly. It is an attempt to deter speech, to instill in the population a climate of fear, suspicion and denunciation.”
(Latest news: We have just learned that, as a result of public support for Djemila, the event may be rescheduled in May. To be confirmed.)
(5) On February 8th, I attended a colloquium, at the Université de Montréal, on the theme of “systemic racism” with principal speaker Michèle Sirois followed by a panel discussion with five participants. One of the panelists, Jonathan Marleau of the youth wing of the Liberal Party of Quebec, repeated the slanderous allegation that the debate over the Secularism Charter proposed by the previous Quebec government constituted one of the causes of the massacre.
The panelist Haroun Bouazzi (mentioned above), who claims to be a secularist but devotes practically all his energies to denouncing “islamophobia,” gave a very short talk which consisted mainly of specious personal attacks directed against three of the other panelists. Bouazzi accused all three of “nourishing fascism.” Why? Because Madame Sirois opposed Draft Bill 62 (which would give full reign to religious accommodations); because Léon Ouaknine observed the extreme misogyny inherent in Islam; and because Hassan Jamali had denounced the veiling of young girls. After this brief performance, Bouazzi immediately left, declaring as he fled his refusal to listen to any replies or to participate in any debate with either the other panelists or the audience. We see in this behaviour an odious proclivity for defaming secularists by associating them with fascism.
This same Haroun Bouazzi, during his presentation before the commission studying Draft Bill 62, recommended that the Bill be modified by removing the provision which guarantees gender equality. Furthermore, he proposed establishing a council to fight against “systemic racism.” As Léon Ouaknine pointed out in his talk, the notion of systemic racism, much like the term “islamophobia,” is an intellectual imposture which is employed in order to suppress free thought, using accusations of racism. It is a means of blocking freedom of expression in the same way that campaigns against hate speech are often used, by promoting the policing of social media.
(6) Very recently, Charles Taylor renounced the ban on religious symbols for state employees in positions of authority, a ban which he nevertheless recommended nine years ago as co-president of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. His pretext for this very public turnaround is the massacre in Quebec City. The ex-MNA Fatima Houda-Pépin severely criticizes Taylor’s declaration because he gratuitously links the necessary debate about secularism to an unrelated tragic event. Furthermore, she reveals that Taylor had already renounced that recommendation years ago, but discreetly, long before the Quebec City killings.
We see in these examples that a wave of threats to freedom of expression — especially attempts to silence the healthy and necessary criticism of religions, in particular Islam and Islamism — has become manifest and widespread. There is a common thread running through all of the examples above: a stigmatisation of those who favour secularism or who criticize religion, by associating them with racism, with hate speech, with the extreme right, even with murderous violence. What we have here is a campaign of slander directed against those who defend Enlightenment values.
In a few months’ time, will it become illegal to publish statements such as “Islam was spread by the sword” or “Islamism frightens me”?