M-103: A threat to free speech or much ado about nothing?
By John Sikkema
Iqra Khalid, Member of Parliament for Mississauga, tabled her Private Member’s Motion, M-103, in December, 2016.
The motion calls on the House of Commons to:
(a) recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear;
(b) condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination and take note of House of Commons’ petition e-411 and the issues raised by it; and
(c) request that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study on how the government could
(i) develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, … [and]
(ii) collect data to contextualize hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for impacted communities, and that the Committee should present its findings and recommendations to the House no later than 240 calendar days from the adoption of this motion […].
Even with a few phrases removed (as above), the motion is wordy and unclear.
And it begs several questions. Is there an “increasing public climate of hate and fear” in Canada? If so, whose job is it to “quell” that “increasing public climate”? And how? Judging from the rest of her motion, Ms. Khalid believes it is the government’s job and she wants the Committee on Canadian Heritage to say how.
In fairness, the government does have an important role to play in shaping the “climate” of public opinion towards certain ideas or groups of people (there’s an important difference). Politicians should set an example of fairness, honesty, and civility, neither fearmongering nor fearing to speak the truth. Police and other government officials should apply laws without prejudice or bias. Government hiring should be fair and merit-based. And so on.
Does this have anything to do with free expression?
What concerns some people with M-103, however, is whether or not this government is preparing to limit expression that is critical of a particular religion, namely Islam.
Ms. Khalid’s motion does not require the government to do any such thing. The motion, if passed, would not have immediate legal impact on freedom of expression in Canada. It is not a bill. Parts (a) and (b) are symbolic, while part (c) merely could provide a pretext for an expression-limiting bill in the future, based on what the Committee might recommend.
Prime Minister Trudeau, however, defended motion M-103 by saying that “You’re not allowed to call ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theatre and call that free speech. That endangers our community.” And Liberal MP Ken Hardie, explained why he had changed his mind and decided to support the motion by saying, “We need a way to deal appropriately with broadcasters who appeared to have incited hatred in the Quebec City attack.”
Such statements do not change the fact that M-103 is merely a motion, not a bill. But they do raise questions about what governments intends to do in the future and whether it does have limits on freedom of expression in mind.
M-103 calls on the House to “take note of” Petition e-411, which says that an “infinitesimally small number of extremist individuals have conducted terrorist activities while claiming to speak for the religion of Islam.” And it says that those individuals “do not reflect in any way the values or the teachings of the religion of Islam”. Commentator Barbara Kay says that the petition’s wording is “clearly meant as a directive to Canadians concerning the ‘correct’ opinions we are to adopt.” You can decide whether or not that is a fair characterization, but in any event, M-103 simply calls on the House to “take note of” this petition – another way in which this motion lacks clarity.
What is “Islamophobia”?
Another question M-103 leaves unanswered is: what is Islamophobia? No definition is provided. The motion lumps Islamophobia in with “systemic racism”, but Islam is not a race. Worldwide there are millions of African, Indian, Chinese, and white Muslims, among other ethnicities. In any case, Canadian law clearly condemns discrimination based on race.
The motion also lumps Islamophobia in with “religious discrimination”. But again, Canadian law already protects people from being discriminated against in receiving housing, services, or employment, based on their religious identity.
So what is “Islamophobia”? On its face, the term simply means irrational fear of Islam. But who gets to decide whether someone’s fear of Islam is irrational? Rex Murphy comments on the growing use of the suffix “phobia”:
However settled and utile the term may be in its original and clinical understanding, it becomes very much a semantic free-floater when lifted from its root and applied to circumstances that defy definition and are both immensely subjective and more often than not bend to the rhetoric of partisans than the rulings of medical science.
Ms. Khalid stated in the House of Commons that she believes Islamophobia is “the irrational hatred of Muslims that leads to discrimination,” although that definition is not in the motion itself and Committee members would be free to interpret the term as they see fit.
A vague Committee mandate
If the concern is about racial or religious bias in policing or in the Canadian judicial system, Parliament should be focused on detecting and eliminating such bias. But that is hard to do objectively when you single out “Islamophobia” and assume that it is on the rise.
Given that this motion calls at the end for the Committee to study how the government could “collect data to contextualize hate crime reports”, it could be that Ms. Khalid suspects that hate crimes – crimes motivated by hatred towards a person based on their race, religion, sex, or other identifier – are on the rise and wants a committee to confirm her suspicion.
The motion does not specifically mention hate crimes against Muslims here (in part (c),(ii)), so it appears to direct the Committee to study hate crime reports of all kinds, or study how the government could collect data related to such reports. This would be a huge undertaking. Also, it is “data to contextualize” hate crime reports, not simply reports, that the Committee would have study. What kind of data would that be?
And it is not clear that a study of “data to contextualize” hate crime reports (some reports may be baseless) would be a good basis upon which to make recommendations to Parliament. At the end of the day, this motion may be simply a waste of Parliament’s time.
“Naming the problem”
Ms. Khalid refuses to remove the word “Islamophobia” from the motion, which would mean that it simply condemns “systemic racism and religious discrimination”, saying, “We cannot address a problem if we fail to call it by its true name.”
The irony in this statement is obvious. Politicians, particularly on the left, are often criticized for being unwilling to name the problem of “radical Islam” or “Islamic terrorism”. Yet M-103 is, says Ms. Khalid, about the necessity of naming the problem of discrimination and crime motivated by hatred of Muslims.
M-103 is therefore said to be similar to prior condemnations of anti-Semitism. Only anti-Semitism means hostility, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews – against people. The term Islamophobia is problematic because it risks confusing condemnation or criticism of Islam with hostility towards or mistreatment of Muslims. There is an important difference. Indeed, if mistreatment of Muslims is a problem, then let’s call it what it is. But words matter, and the term Islamophobia sheds more heat than light.
How should Christians respond?
As always, humility is called for when attempting to articulate a Christian manner of responding to an issue such as this.
If M-103 is simply a “political billboard” for virtue signalling but of no practical consequence, as Rex Murphy believes, then we might be wise to ignore it and to devote our attention to matters of consequence. If, on the other hand, this motion is consequential in terms of making Canada more or less just or free, then it merits our attention.
Christians believe in equality under law and the just application of the law. We are obviously against “irrational hatred of Muslims that leads to discrimination”, if that is indeed what “Islamophobia” means. So too we are grieved by crimes and calls to commit crimes against Muslims, or any other group or individual for that matter. Canadian law already condemns these actions, but if those laws are not being adequately and objectively enforced, then of course we should care. Only it is not clear that M-103 achieves anything on any of these issues.
In speeches in support of M-103, Ms. Khalid and Mr. Virani mentioned refugees and their vulnerability. Of course, we find ourselves in a time where there are significant numbers of refugees entering Canada from predominantly Muslim regions. Christians should remember and practice what the Bible says about welcoming sojourners and loving our neighbours. Does that mean supporting M-103? Unfortunately, here too it is not clear what (if anything) M-103 does to help refugees or anyone else. If you believe that there is a way that M-103 could be improved so as to possibly accomplish something worthwhile, tell your MP.
As for the free speech implications – if any – of this motion, Christians must speak the truth about Islam and about the Gospel regardless of what the government says. Nevertheless, it is right and good for Christians to defend free expression, particularly on religious matters. If you believe that M-103 is a threat to free expression, explain why to your MP.