PEN Canada standing up for Salman Rushdie 30 years after ambitious plan to condemn Iran’s state-sanctioned act of terror against him

Good reminder of just how courageous Canadian political leaders, particularly Bob Rae then Premier of Ontario, were. British PM Thatcher was equally principle in providing Rushdie with protection despite his harsh criticism of her policies and reference to her as Mrs. Torture in Satanic Verses.

As noted before, I was posted to Tehran when the fatwa was issued and we were concerned that the Toronto event might impact our safety but fortunately it didn’t.

Proud of the Canadian leaders who stood up for free speech when many did not. Sharp contrast to some of the shallow and tendentious invocations of freedom and free speech that are all too common today:

Thirty years ago, PEN Canada, a non-partisan organization that supports freedom of expression in Canada and writers endangered around the world, staged an extraordinary coup in Toronto. Held in support of award-winning English novelist Salman Rushdie, it went on to have international ramifications – with this country at the root of it.

In 1992, Rushdie was in his fourth year of hiding, under constant police protection for fear of his life. Three years earlier, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran had issued a fatwa calling for his murder, and the murder of those associated with his novel, The Satanic Verses. Khomeini claimed the novel insulted Islam, though his son admitted later that he never read it.

Internationally, political will to stand up to such an astonishing public threat against a private citizen of another country was sadly lacking. But no country was willing to act alone. Louise Dennys, then president of PEN Canada, told the head of the International Salman Rushdie Defence Committee that she believed Canada could break the impasse.

A handful of PEN members – Louise, with Ric Young, John Ralston Saul, Adrienne Clarkson, Marian Botsford-Fraser and Clayton Ruby – hatched an ambitious plan to persuade the Canadian government to condemn Iran’s state-sanctioned act of terrorism against Rushdie. The strategy: to use the annual PEN Canada Benefit to showcase public support for Rushdie in the country and galvanize the government in Ottawa to take the issue to the United Nations. They needed to bring Rushdie to Canada and draw intense media coverage.

This was no easy matter. It required absolute secrecy, the support of MI6 in Britain alongside CSIS and the RCMP in Canada, and a frantic last-minute search for means – ultimately, a private jet offered by an anonymous donor – to bring Rushdie across the Atlantic when the initial flight plan fell through.

Miraculously, they managed it. On Dec. 7, 1992, Rushdie appeared as a surprise guest on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre before an astonished audience of a thousand people. There was a collective gasp as the crowd rose to its feet in applause, even as they suddenly became aware of the 60-some security personnel present in the theatre, talking into their sleeves.

And then Bob Rae, premier of Ontario at the time, came on stage and embraced Rushdie, the first head of government anywhere to publicly stand with him. Rae called upon all governments to “do the right thing.”

It did not end there. The small delegation flew straight to Ottawa. Overnight, a morning press conference was convened. A few hours later, Barbara McDougall became the first secretary of state of any country to meet with Rushdie. Jean Chrétien, then the leader of the Official Opposition, walked him over to the House of Commons where he testified before the Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Development and Human Rights.

The result was electrifying. Within 48 hours, Canada became the first country in the world to pass a unanimous, all-party resolution condemning the Iranian government for its shameful record on human rights, demanding the withdrawal of the fatwa. Three months later, at the instigation of the Canadian government, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva passed a resolution condemning Iran’s actions and calling for sanctions.

Remarkably – and sadly, given the cause – a full generation after the epochal 1992 benefit, the organization is again holding an event to stand with Rushdie after the horrific attack on him in August at the Chautauqua Institute, in upper New York State. Together with the Toronto International Festival of Authors, Penguin Random House Canada and the Writers Trust, PEN Canada will hold a reading of Rushdie’s works on Sept. 27.

Thirty years ago, PEN Canada, a non-partisan organization that supports freedom of expression in Canada and writers endangered around the world, staged an extraordinary coup in Toronto. Held in support of award-winning English novelist Salman Rushdie, it went on to have international ramifications – with this country at the root of it.

In 1992, Rushdie was in his fourth year of hiding, under constant police protection for fear of his life. Three years earlier, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran had issued a fatwa calling for his murder, and the murder of those associated with his novel, The Satanic Verses. Khomeini claimed the novel insulted Islam, though his son admitted later that he never read it.

Internationally, political will to stand up to such an astonishing public threat against a private citizen of another country was sadly lacking. But no country was willing to act alone. Louise Dennys, then president of PEN Canada, told the head of the International Salman Rushdie Defence Committee that she believed Canada could break the impasse.

A handful of PEN members – Louise, with Ric Young, John Ralston Saul, Adrienne Clarkson, Marian Botsford-Fraser and Clayton Ruby – hatched an ambitious plan to persuade the Canadian government to condemn Iran’s state-sanctioned act of terrorism against Rushdie. The strategy: to use the annual PEN Canada Benefit to showcase public support for Rushdie in the country and galvanize the government in Ottawa to take the issue to the United Nations. They needed to bring Rushdie to Canada and draw intense media coverage.

This was no easy matter. It required absolute secrecy, the support of MI6 in Britain alongside CSIS and the RCMP in Canada, and a frantic last-minute search for means – ultimately, a private jet offered by an anonymous donor – to bring Rushdie across the Atlantic when the initial flight plan fell through.

Miraculously, they managed it. On Dec. 7, 1992, Rushdie appeared as a surprise guest on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre before an astonished audience of a thousand people. There was a collective gasp as the crowd rose to its feet in applause, even as they suddenly became aware of the 60-some security personnel present in the theatre, talking into their sleeves.

And then Bob Rae, premier of Ontario at the time, came on stage and embraced Rushdie, the first head of government anywhere to publicly stand with him. Rae called upon all governments to “do the right thing.”

It did not end there. The small delegation flew straight to Ottawa. Overnight, a morning press conference was convened. A few hours later, Barbara McDougall became the first secretary of state of any country to meet with Rushdie. Jean Chrétien, then the leader of the Official Opposition, walked him over to the House of Commons where he testified before the Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Development and Human Rights.

The result was electrifying. Within 48 hours, Canada became the first country in the world to pass a unanimous, all-party resolution condemning the Iranian government for its shameful record on human rights, demanding the withdrawal of the fatwa. Three months later, at the instigation of the Canadian government, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva passed a resolution condemning Iran’s actions and calling for sanctions.

Remarkably – and sadly, given the cause – a full generation after the epochal 1992 benefit, the organization is again holding an event to stand with Rushdie after the horrific attack on him in August at the Chautauqua Institute, in upper New York State. Together with the Toronto International Festival of Authors, Penguin Random House Canada and the Writers Trust, PEN Canada will hold a reading of Rushdie’s works on Sept. 27.

Source: PEN Canada standing up for Salman Rushdie 30 years after ambitious plan to condemn Iran’s state-sanctioned act of terror against him

‘Weaponization’ of free speech prompts talk of a new hate law

One to watch:

The climate for hate speech regulation in Canada appears to be shifting.

Traditional free speech advocates are reconsidering the status quo they helped create, in which hate speech is only a Criminal Code charge that requires political approval, and so is rarely prosecuted. There is even talk of resurrecting the defunct and much maligned ban on internet hate speech, Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act.

The latest example was a lecture this week by Omar Mouallem, an Edmonton journalist and board member of free expression group PEN Canada, in which he argued online racists have “weaponized” free speech against Muslims, and Canada should consider a new anti-hate law to stop them.

Mouallem told a University of Alberta audience that public discourse is “fatally flawed,” and overrun with hate propagandists who traffic in lies and provocations in order to pose as censorship victims.

The far right has “co-opted” the issue of free speech, and their activism is not a principled defence of a Charter value, but “a sly political strategy to divide opponents on the left, humiliate them and cast them as hypocrites and unconstitutional, to clear a way for unconstitutional ideas,” Mouallem said in an advance email interview.

The traditional liberal response of public censure and rebuttal is no longer effective because it just “devolves into a pissing match that goes nowhere and only makes people double down on their opinions,” he said. “Given that Facebook groups and social media are the meeting point for hate groups to organize, and that online hate speech has a great ability to spread wider and faster, I think special regulation is worth considering.”

It is striking to hear that from a board member of PEN Canada, which is devoted to fighting censorship and defending freedom of expression, and was instrumental in the legislative repeal of Section 13, a law in the Canadian Human Rights Act that banned repeated messages, by phone or internet, that were “likely to expose” protected groups to hatred or contempt.

The lecture follows news that the federal Liberal government is openly mulling bringing back Section 13, which was repealed by Parliament in 2014, but later found by courts to be constitutionally valid. It allowed for legal orders banning offenders from engaging in further hate speech, on pain of criminal contempt charges, and provided for fines of $10,000.

It also follows the backtracking of another press freedom group, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, which launched a petition for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “disinvite” U.S. President Donald Trump from a G7 Summit on the grounds that his administration’s attacks on press freedom have harmed American democracy. That petition was deleted soon after it was announced, amid criticism that it hypocritically also violated the principles of free expression.

Even libraries have illustrated the shift. A memorial held in a Toronto library last year for Barbara Kulaszka, a prominent lawyer for Canadian hate propagandists, led the Toronto Public Library to change its room-booking policy, allowing officials to refuse bookings that are “likely to promote, or would have the effect of promoting, discrimination, contempt or hatred of any group.”

Tasleem Thawar, executive director of PEN Canada, said she encourages diverse perspectives on the board. There has been no change to the group’s official position “that an educated, thoughtful, and vibrantly expressive citizenry is the best defence against the spread of hateful ideologies,” she said.

“If the federal government were to propose a new law (against hate speech), we would certainly comment on the specifics and its possible effects,” she said. “However, PEN is also committed to dispelling hatreds, as stated in the PEN International Charter, including on the basis of identity markers like class, race, gender, and nationality. And it is true that hateful, marginalizing and even demonizing speech can chill the freedom of expression of the groups who are being subjected to such public bigotry.”

All this might be evidence that the culture war over Canada’s uniquely balanced approach to hate speech is set to flare up again. Old arguments are being repurposed to fit modern media. Laws that were written in the age of telephone hotlines and printed newspapers are being reconsidered in the context of Twitter, Facebook and Google.

As ever, religion — especially Islam — is at the core of the debate, according to Richard Moon, the University of Windsor law professor who authored an influential 2008 report for the Canadian Human Rights Commission that urged it to stop regulating online hate via Section 13.

In his forthcoming book Putting Faith in Hate: When Religion is the Source or Target of Hate Speech, Moon describes the traditional distinction between speech that attacks a belief, which is typically protected by law, and speech that attacks a group, which can rise to the level of banned hate speech. He argues that our understanding of religion complicates this distinction, because religion is both a personal commitment and a cultural identity. Hate speech, then, often works by falsely attributing an objectionable belief to every member of a cultural group.

“Most contemporary anti-Muslim speech takes this form, presenting Islam as a regressive and violent belief system that is incompatible with liberal democratic values. The implication is that those who identify as Muslims – those who hold such beliefs – are dangerous and should be treated accordingly. Beliefs that may be held by a fringe element in the tradition are falsely attributed to all Muslims,” Moon writes.

Mouallem, who does not identify as Muslim, is a former rapper, freelance writer, and co-author of a book on the Fort McMurray wildfire. He said he does not advocate the return of Section 13 exactly as it was. It often worked, he said, but it is “too tainted.”

Section 13 was a “messy, if not farcical process,” he said, made more so by the “manipulation” of Richard Warman, the lawyer and former Canadian Human Rights Commission staffer who effectively monopolized the law, filing nearly every case and eventually winning them all, sometimes after posing online as a neo-Nazi to gather evidence. It was also “misused,” he said, by Canadian Muslim leaders on the “wishy-washy” case of alleged anti-Islam hate speech in Maclean’s magazine.

But Canada should have some kind of “online clause” that addresses both the “uniqueness of online content” and this current historical moment in which there is “widespread vilification” of Muslims and “rapid mobilization of extremist groups.”

Now there are “flagrant” examples that would be caught by such a law, he said, such as Ezra Levant’s use of the term “rapefugees.”

“Allowing hate speech to remain in the public sphere actually signals that it’s socially acceptable, which gives licence to perpetuate it, and eventually can make it mainstream,” Mouallem said.

The expression that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” meaning hate speech is best countered by more and better speech is “ineffective when you’re dealing with majority tyranny and certain discrimination is widely accepted. This is the unique moment of hate speech in Canada and much of the ‘West’ right now,” he said. “Society has made an exception for Islam.”

Source: ‘Weaponization’ of free speech prompts talk of a new hate law