Why Stephen Harper Owes Canadian Muslims an Apology

By Omer Aziz | The Globe and Mail
February 5, 2014

Among moderate and educated Muslims – that is, the tens of thousands of Muslims who populate Canadian businesses and universities – there is a quiet insecurity many of us share. After 9/11, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Iraq War, and so on, this is the dragging fear that “we” may be labeled and libeled as one of “them,” where “them” can refer to an endless catalogue of reprehensible groups.

Each time there is a terrorist attack or a mass killing – the Norway massacre, the Sandy Hook killings, the Boston Marathon bombings – the Canadian Muslim feels a gnawing pang of anxiety that loudly screams, “Please, don’t let this be one of ours, not again.”

With so many media depictions of Muslims as little more than bearded or veiled monsters, the reflexive reaction is unsurprising. It is almost a pathology now, evidenced by the ritualistic throat-clearing that precedes a Muslim’s comments on politics or religion, that yes, Israel has the right to exist, and no, suicide-bombing is wrong, and no, we should not impose Sharia, and no, that verse from the Qur’an is being misinterpreted. So, when the Prime Minister’s Office recently attacked the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) as being tied to Hamas, my ears shot up.

Before Stephen Harper and his large entourage left on for a trip to Israel last month the NCCM, a prominent civil liberties and advocacy organization (with which I have no affiliation), objected to the inclusion of Daniel Korobkin, a Toronto rabbi who had allegedly spoken warmly of two prominent anti-Islam activists, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. It is no secret that Geller and Spencer are part of the increasingly energetic anti-Islam industry in the United States. Both have made repulsive accusations and have not limited their inane opprobrium to Islam. The Prime Minister’s spokesman rebuffed the NCCM, stating the government would “not take seriously criticism from an organization with documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas.”

The NCCM has demanded an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and filed a notice of libel against Mr. Harper and PMO spokesman Jason MacDonald. On the CBC after the incident, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird said he could not comment but added: “I’d encourage any Canadian to Google the group in question and do some research on their own and come to their own conclusions.”

In the spirit of Bertrand Russell’s arguments for “evidence against interest” – that is, evidence opposing my personal interest in not seeing a national Muslim group be found backing terrorist organizations – I scoured the anti-Islam corners of the Internet to find justification for the PMO’s assertions. Perhaps there was something to the allegation, that it was not just a crude attempt to deflect attention.

The NCCM was previously known as the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Canada branch. Its ostensible parent organization had been established in 1994 by three leaders of the Islamic Association of Palestine, a group a U.S. court found to be linked to Hamas. The federal judge in that case recently acknowledged CAIR’s argument that the evidence produced by the U.S. government “largely predates” Hamas’s designation as a terrorist organization. The only “link” between today’s National Council of Canadian Muslims and Hamas then, is that an earlier incarnation of NCCM was loosely tied to an organization that was founded by three individuals from another organization two decades ago that had links to Hamas. If this absurd chain of guilt-by-associations is confusing, it should be: it is the equivalent of calling someone a racist today because they knew someone who was racist twenty years ago. One expects this palling-around-with-terrorists drivel from Sarah Palin, or a haranguing drunk in a bar, not the office of the prime minister.

There is a broader issue here, and that is the sheer ease with which one can tarnish Muslims – not just foreign ones, but fellow citizens – and get away with it. Canadian society rightly isolates and condemns racists, homophobes and anti-Semites. The excommunication of racial supremacists has been so effective that even a false charge of racism or anti-Semitism can ruin a career or, if assiduously repudiated, discredit the mudslinger. Being called a terrorist-sympathizer, a Hamas supporter, an al-Qaeda apologist, or whatever potentially libelous charge someone throws at you to exploit your Islamic faith can also ruin your career, but comes at little cost for the alleged libeler if it is false.

During a brief stint as a Parliamentary intern I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Harper on a few occasions, and I do not think for a moment that he harbors an ill thought toward Muslims. He is doing what he thinks best for the country that elected his party three times to government. Whether he realizes it or not, however, his office has smeared a national organization established to represent Muslims, making mere punching bags out of citizens, dehumanizing them, and debasing the venerable Prime Minister’s Office. He owes the NCCM and all Muslims an apology.

Omer Aziz (@omeraziz12) is a writer, human rights journalist and recent Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar at Cambridge University.