The Grant Rant

A journalist's view from Niagara

From your point of view, when have things gone too far? At what point do you believe we’ve crossed that bridge too far?

For many Canadians, myself included, one of those bridges was crossed last weekend when a gaggle of dullstones used their right to free speech to march in front of a Toronto mosque and display their ignorant hatred before the whole country.

With signs that read “Ban Islam,” and “Muslims are terrorists,” the protesters showed themselves to be little more than cogs in the growing ethno-nationalistic wheel rolling out from the United States and gaining some ground in Canada.

The protesters were roundly criticized, including in this column. It all seemed particularly uncouth given the recent murder spree at a Quebec City mosque.

All of that is happening while Liberal members of Parliament are trying to pass M-103, a motion condemning religious discrimination but that singles out “Islamophobia” as a particularly insidious problem in Canada that has to be confronted.

Just as Canadian’s rallied behind Quebec’s Muslim community after the shootings, Torontoians showed overt support for the members of the Masjid Toronto mosque. Toronto’s mayor and Ontario’s premier got in on the act too.

And so all seemed right in the nation. The forces of bigotry had again been pushed to margins by superior displays of citizenship and compassion.

And yet, life is rarely so black and white. There was something lurking beneath the surface of it all. Something the Canadian media has barely picked up on. Something the lunk-headed protesters showed no sign of being aware of, and that only came out after the dust had settled from the march outside the Toronto mosque.

A message of hatred had been preached inside the walls of Masjid Toronto.

According to reporting by the Toronto Sun, a 2016 sermon an imam from the mosque called for the extermination of the “filth of the Jews.”

Specifically, imam Ayman Elkasrawy is reported to have invoked the following prayer:

“O Allah! Give them victory over the criminal people, O Allah! Destroy anyone who killed Muslims, O Allah! Destroy anyone who displaced the sons of the Muslims, O Allah! Count their number; slay them one by one and spare not one of them, O Allah! Purify Al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews!”

And also this gem:

O Allah! Give victory to Islam and raise the standing of the Muslims and humiliate the polytheism and polytheists … Infidels and the atheists and destroy anyone who killed Muslims.

(For reference the Al-Aqsa mosque is a famous mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem.)

The Jewish Defence League in Toronto has filed a complaint with police, who are investigating the matter as a possible hate crime. The mosque is conducting its own internal probe.

Elkasrawy has since apologised for the sermon, saying he “misspoke” during that prayer and that he believes “that all human beings: Muslim, Jews and people of all and no faith deserve to live a life free of any threat to their safety.”

The apology is appreciated, but it is difficult to understand how advocating the murder of purported enemies of Islam, calling for the humiliation and destruction of believers of others faiths and atheists, and referring to Jews as “filth,” is a slip of the tongue.

(Indeed, “I misspoke” has become the tepid and meaningless platitude for anyone, from clerics to politicians, who gets caught with their foot in their mouths. It is a phrase that needs to be expunged from our political lexicon.)

Has there been outrage? Has there been calls for condemnation from the public and politicians at least at the level of response to the protests? After all, as ugly and ignorant as those marchers were, they weren’t calling for anyone to be put to the sword. Sure, there was a public reaction?

Not exactly.

A group of Mulsim and Jewish Liberal MPs, including the author of M-103, issued a statement denouncing the sermon and recent instances of anti-semitism. But beyond the Toronto Sun’s coverage, very little else was said. No tweets from the premier. No protests. No outrage.

And that is a problem.

Criticizing protesters attacking a religious institution like a mosque is something most Canadians can get behind. But it seems that criticizing the institutions themselves and the beliefs they proffer is a bridge too far for many.

Perhaps some believe that criticizing this imam as sharply as they did the protesters could be construed as an act of hatred or racism, or that it will contribute to a climate of “Islamophobia”, to borrow from the logic of M-103.

But if we are not willing to challenge hateful ideas when they arise in our society, if we attack bigoted ideas from Group A, but not those from Group B because we don’t want to upset or insult them, we simply expose our concern for multiculturalism, democracy and tolerance as base hypocrisy – what the late, great Christopher Hitchens called “pseudo-multiculturalism. ”

No idea should be above criticism, debate and even mockery in a free society just because it is spoken by a religious cleric or by someone from an identifiable minority group. Publicly discussing those ideas is a way of airing them out, protecting those who need it, and advancing for the  kind of society we say we want to live in.

And we ought to be particularly willing to criticize religious ideas and clerics precisely because they have tremendous influence over believers. Religious institutions can too often become echo chambers that brook no alternative points of view while reinforcing hard dividing lines between an “us” and a “them.” Inevitably, the “them” are reduced to a group that must be demonized, delegitimized, ostracized or even, as in this case, killed.

Religious criticism remains somewhat taboo, even in 2017. Even after sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, Christian dominionists – ironically mirroring the goals of Islamists – attempting to turn democracy into a theocracy, creationists trying to foist religious mythology onto science classrooms and fundamentalists claiming homosexuality can be “cured” through “conversion therapy,” as a culture we still retreat behind the notion that religion should be protected from criticism.

(I’ve been writing about this for years. Back in 2008, for example, I wrote about an attempt by a Mulsim group to sue Maclean’s Magazine on the grounds that an article offended their religious sensibilities.)

In the specific case of Islam, criticism is muted by this sort of cultural taboo, a desire to protect minority groups and, sadly, fear. We’ve seen the reaction in some corners of the Muslim world to cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammed. And as insidious as the Christian right is in North America, there is no current Christian equivalent of ISIS. The fear some people have is, at the very least, understandable.

So when a Muslim cleric in Canada is found calling for the deaths of non-believers and referring to Jews as filth, the reaction should not be left to the religious communities involved and a smattering of politicians. We all have a responsibility to speak up.

Those of us who would stand against the mosque protesters, who would stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters when their community is violently attacked, should stand up just as forcefully to combat messages of hatred and bigotry no matter where they originate.

If we are honest and honourable, we have no other choice.


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