Is the problem really political correctness?

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Leigha McCarroll, former intern at the Rideau Institute, reflects on recent proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence:

A few weeks ago, Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui wrote about how the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence (SECD) has been operating a “McCarthyesque” kangaroo court in its deliberations on the security threats Canada is currently facing. After attending the proceedings on February 2nd, 2015 myself, I couldn’t agree more.

Prior to attending, I had heard about the scandal-plagued Senate and the continued calls for its reform, but I was—naively—expecting fair and unprejudiced proceedings involving informed, enlightened dialogue on Bills C-44 and C-51 and their potential implications.

A front-row seat at the hearings showed how idealistic and, ultimately, false my expectations actually were. I was dismayed by the inflammatory and alarmist undercurrent pervading the hearings that often drowned out the valuable insights offered by many of the witnesses.

Senator Dan Lang began the hearing on February 2nd by stating that

some leaders within the Muslim community in Canada are, on one hand, condemning the Islamic jihadist movement, yet at the same time supporting various organizations […] which have been reported as giving money to international terrorist groups such as Hamas. This is a question that the Muslim community in Canada has to answer.

This type of narrative, peppered with the terms like “Islamic jihadism” or “Islamic terrorism”, suggests that, as a group, Muslim Canadians are somehow responsible for the acts of terrorists. The misuse of terminology underlying this narrative was condemned and criticized by numerous witnesses as offensive and misleading.

With regard to Senator Lang’s statement and the threat of terrorists, witness Imam Syed Badiuddin Soharwardy asserted, “[…] Islam does not unite them. The ideology unites them. That ideology is not Islam. Please do not blame Islam. Please don’t call it Islamic terrorism.”

Shahina Siddiqui, founder and Executive Director of the Islamic Social Services Association, echoed Mr. Soharwardy’s sentiments, stating,

Canadian Muslims have made it very clear: ISIS does not speak for us. ISIS is rejected as a terrorist organization. That brings me to the language we are using to contextualize this whole phenomenon. For example, calling them jihadis […] is actually playing right into their hands.

Siddiqui went on to provide a concise definition of “jihad” as “struggle”, the true meaning of which she explained is “drowned out both by the extremists and by Islamophobes.” She stressed the importance of using the right language to frame the dialogue, noting, “We want to call a spade a spade. Terrorism is not jihad, it is terrorism; it’s evil; and we need to purge it.”

However, these pleas to ground the debate in more accurate terminology went unheard.

In Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak’s response to Ms. Siddiqui, Beyak stated, “Canadians don’t want to hear all that. They’re tired of us being offended and thin-skinned, and they want us to do something about it.”

My heart sank at the term “thin-skinned.” How, especially in the supposed “chamber of sober second thought”, can taking issue with language be dubbed thin-skinned?

Senator Beyak also claimed that the National Council of Canadian Muslims, of which Ms. Siddiqui is a member, was connected to CAIR, an “unindicted co-conspirator in a successful terrorist financing case.” She asked, “How can we trust community organizations to help us develop a counter-radicalization strategy when they themselves are affiliated with organizations with known ties to terrorism?”

As Ms. Siddiqui affirmed, this type of inflammatory rhetoric constitutes defamation. She responded, “A person’s reputation is all one has. When I am called a terrorist supporter or somebody who caters to that, you are attacking me at a very fundamental level—my employment.”

These testimonies did nothing to dissuade Senator Beyak.

Perhaps her most questionable comment was to former Liberal Cabinet Minister Ujjal Dosanjh, who called for the elimination of political correctness regarding the use of terminology. She commented, “Until we get rid of political correctness, the only right we’ll have left will be the right to be offended, I fear.”

How one can claim to be maintaining a chamber of sober second thought while eschewing not only “political correctness”, but rational thought itself?

Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell was the only Senator who throughout the hearings made a consistent effort to challenge the prejudiced language.

When witness Mark Lebuis, director of Point de Bascule (a blog that Professor Faisal Kutty among many others describes as “anti-Islam“) asserted, without any concrete evidence, that “the main danger facing Canada may go beyond the violent jihadist threat, and [be] made worse, by a little discussed associated phenomenon—the penetration of our institutions by Islamists,” his testimony was received warmly for the most part.

Senator Beyak lauded him for his “excellent, well-informed and documented presentation,” and Senator Carolyn Stewart-Olsen said, “We appreciate what you’re saying and the work that you put into this…”

Only Senator Mitchell confronted Lebuis’ arguments for making what he rightly deemed to be “sweeping allegations based on anecdotal evidence” and for “implying that somehow there is something unique about their religion that would make them all violent.” He followed up by calling Lebuis’ rhetoric “extremely dangerous.”

In what was my favourite moment of the hearings, after hearing Lebuis speak of a Qu’ran encouraging violent jihad that was distributed by Saudi Arabia, Senator Mitchell quipped, “So I guess we shouldn’t be selling them military vehicles.”

Despite Senator Mitchell’s efforts, the rhetoric that dominated the hearings served to further advance the alarmist tactics of the proponents of Bills C-44 and C-51.

The Committee heard from Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and CSIS head Michel Coulombe, who, naturally, spoke of the importance of these new bills.

In contrast to the many cheerleaders, however, the Committee did hear some cautionary accounts from a number of witnesses. In addition to two prominent Ottawa Imams and Ms. Siddiqui, the committee heard from human rights lawyer Paul Copeland, professors Craig Forcese and Kent Roach, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, professors Lorne Dawson and Grant Hiebert, and psychologist Mahdi Qasas, who provided valuable insights ranging from the need to properly address radicalization and to minimize the marginalization of specific groups to the problematic legal implications of the bills for the civil liberties of Canadians.

I hope—and maybe this is still naive—that the SECD chooses to demonstrate a modicum of sober thought by taking these important views into account when drafting their upcoming report on the bills.

If there is any reason to hope, it arises from the possibility that these cautionary accounts may have contributed to the Conservatives’ recent shift in tone on C-51.

Ian MacLeod of the Ottawa Citizen observes that when the legislation was tabled in January, Steven Blaney “steadfastly ruled out making any amendments and attacked many critics who called for changes,” but following the SECD meeting on March 30th, Blaney said, “We are open to amendments that will increase and clarify the bill.”

Although this is but a small step, it shows that continued informed and enlightened criticisms of these bills and of the fear-mongering rhetoric of the Conservative government is necessary.

It also shows that, ultimately, well-informed and concerned Canadians should not give up on the opportunity to continue building a just country that upholds the civil liberties and human rights of its citizens.

Click here to view the full transcripts of the committee’s proceedings.

Good read: Fighting Islamophobia with ‘Political Correctness’Huffington Post, 19 June 2014.

Photo credit: Scazon via Flickr

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