A group of Canadian Muslim students has filed a complaint under their country's Human Rights Act against Maclean's magazine for a piece they feel violated their human rights. The case has sparked a debate in Canada about
press freedoms and multiculturalism. One of the students who filed the claim, Naseem Mithoowani, explains why they did it.
BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. Under Canadian law, freedom of the press is a fundamental right – but not an absolute one. The Canadian Human Rights Act is also part of the law and it protects individuals or groups from, quote, "hatred or contempt." There's even a definition for hatred. It's a feeling of extreme ill will that allows for no redeeming qualities of a person or persons.
Late last year, a group of four Muslim-Canadians filed a human rights complaint under the act against one of Canadian's leading news magazines, Maclean's. At issue, a 2006 piece by conservative columnist Mark Steyn which argued essentially that Muslims are multiplying rapidly and will defeat anyone standing in their path on the way to world domination.
It could be described as alarmist, or even offensive, but should that matter? Shouldn't a magazine be free from government interference even if some people are offended? The issue has sparked quite a controversy in Canada over press freedom.
Naseem Mithoowani is one of the students who filed the complaint. She says the theme of Steyn's piece, which was called The Future Belongs to Islam, exposed her to hatred and contempt - NASEEM MITHOOWANI: - the theme of the article being that, in general, we need to be scared of Muslims in the West because Muslims in the West are multiplying like mosquitoes, and that we wish to overtake Western societies in what will essentially be a bloody civil warfare and subject any Westerners that come within our range, basically, to oppression. BOB GARFIELD: Before you filed your complaint, you tried to persuade Maclean's to let you rebut the Mark Steyn piece. Tell me how that played out. NASEEM MITHOOWANI: Before we actually met with Maclean's, we wanted to do some research into the editorial content of Maclean's Magazine to see if this was essentially one article or one in a series of many.
What we found was within two years Maclean's published 19 very lengthy articles, all which in some way, shape or form alleged that Muslims are to be viewed as the enemy.
We felt that it was time for the Muslim population to play a part in the discussion about Islam and Muslims that Maclean's had started. We therefore went to Maclean's editors. We asked that a mutually acceptable author – so not us, because we're not writers, but somebody that we could both agree upon – would be allowed to author a response to the Steyn article.
We were told that Maclean's would rather go bankrupt than allow for any response. And that's what really spurred the human rights complaint. BOB GARFIELD: This is all very difficult for Americans to process because we have the First Amendment, which is near absolute, and the idea of government intervening in matters of free expression strikes us as unnatural. NASEEM MITHOOWANI: There's two unique features about our charter which contains our freedom of expression that I don't believe you would have in your Constitution, the first being that our rights and freedoms are explicitly subject to reasonable limits, reasonable within a free and democratic society. Secondly, our rights and freedoms are to be interpreted in light of a multicultural society and to further that feature of our society.
So we have basically recognized that there are other rights and values that can sometimes, in reasonable circumstances, trump freedom of expression. BOB GARFIELD: Now, I can tell you categorically that if anyone came in who had a complaint with something that we at On the Media had done and the person began to dictate exactly what it is we will do to redress the wrong, we would smile and show them the door, because even more important than the specifics of what we do in any given story, we are impelled to protect the sanctity of our editorial independence. You understand that principle, no? NASEEM MITHOOWANI: I think it's been misrepresented in that we had a demand and if it wasn't met we were going to start legal action. We had a proposal that we were hoping we could both compromise on it.
Essentially, I don't think that publishing a rebuttal article is an excessive demand. We have not named Mark Steyn as a party to the complaint. We've not asked for a retraction. We've not asked for an apology from Maclean's. What we asked for was that the community that's being under attack have the chance to respond.
And I'd also like to add that in Canada, we have what are called Press Councils. It's a regulatory body in the same way that lawyers and doctors are subject to regulatory bodies. Maclean's does not subscribe to a Press Council – subscription is voluntary in Canada – nor does it provide an ombudsperson to hear complaints. So essentially there is no recourse for even factual inaccuracies in their material. BOB GARFIELD: For a moment, let's agree that the piece is not only inflammatory but, you know, fundamentally fascistic. Let's start with that as a premise. NASEEM MITHOOWANI: Okay. BOB GARFIELD: Before you filed the petition, did you consider that you would be seen as intolerant of other views, and, worse than that, by using the tools of Canada's liberal democracy to stifle dissent, that you were, in fact, realizing his very predictions, which is that Islam is, you know, going the use the very tools of our society to take control over us all? NASEEM MITHOOWANI: I actually – that possibility never crossed my mind, because I don't see myself as separate from Western society. I see myself as a Muslim living in the West and therefore entitled to the legal recourse that any Westerner is entitled to.
It's sort of a Catch-22. When Muslims feel aggrieved and they resort to tactics such as violence, we criticize it, rightfully so. When Muslims in the West try to use civilized legal recourse, we are also told that somehow this is incompatible with Western values. And to me, that's incomprehensible. I don't understand what we can do. BOB GARFIELD: Naseem, thank you very much. NASEEM MITHOOWANI: Thank you so much for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Naseem Mithoowani is a recent graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School. She joined us from London, Ontario.
Maclean's declined an interview, but Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Whyte made this statement last December, quote: "The student lawyers in question came to us five months after the story ran. They asked for an opportunity to respond. We said that we had already run many responses to the article in our letters section but that we would consider a reasonable request.
They wanted a five-page article written by an author of their choice to run without any editing by us except for spelling and grammar. They also wanted to place their response on the cover and to art-direct it themselves. We told them we didn't consider that a reasonable request for response.
When they insisted, I told them I would rather go bankrupt than let someone from outside of our operations dictate the content of the magazine. I still feel that way."