Hugh Fitzgerald: In Toronto, The Waterboarding of Free Speech


In Toronto, in late July, a man named Faisal Hussain went to a restaurant row in Greektown, shot and killed two girls, and wounded 13. The police, including Toronto police chief Mark Saunders, repeatedly insisted that the shooter had no connection to terrorism. A Muslim activist, well-versed in media matters, issued a statement in the Hussain family’s name, offering expressions of sympathy to the families of the victims, while insisting that for a long time Faisal Hussain had been struggling with the demons of mental illness. Neighbors and friends of Faisal Hussain described him in recent times as seeming content. Aamir Sukhera, his close friend, said “he had a million-dollar smile, and he was very upbeat and happy whenever I saw him. I didn’t identify any triggers. I couldn’t see anything wrong.”

The Islamic State claimed Hussain as a “soldier of the Islamic State who carried out the attack in response to calls to target the citizens of the coalition countries,” but the Toronto police remained unconvinced. Police officials did admit, however, that Hussain apparently visited ISIS websites. And that is still where things stand: an official denial of any  connection to terrorism, and an embrace by the police of the “mental illness” explanation, with no further discussion either of Hussain’s reported recent good mood or of his visits to ISIS websites.

Another act of violence, of a different kind, connected to the shooting, was captured on camera. A crowd had gathered on Danforth Avenue, in front of the fountain at the Alexander the Great Parkette which had become a kind of memorial to the victims, bedecked with flowers in honor of the dead and wounded.

Standing slightly apart from the crowd  was a lone man, sturdy and tall,  who was attempting to hold onto a sign that a hijabbed woman was trying to wrestle out of his hands. He managed to hold onto it, and silently held it up. It read thus:

C.B.C. presents
Little Mosque on the praire [sic]
Two dead girls in Greek Town.

Instantly the crowd started to shout “Shame! Shame!” and kept shouting it.

The sign made  clear that he was not attacking Muslims. When another  man stepped up to the protester and yelled, “Not all Muslims are bad,” the protester retorted, “I don’t know about Muslims, I talked about Islam!” His real object of criticism was, in fact, not even Islam but, rather, the C.B.C. — the Canadian Broadcasting Company — and its coverage of Islam. The C.B.C. had broadcast  from 2006 to 2012  a feel-good comedy about Muslims, designed to make light of fears about Muslim terrorism and to show how Muslims were just like the rest of us, in goodhearted ill-informed  Canada. Little Mosque on the Prairie was dreary, and where occasionally comic, was so only in the way it managed to avoid all the obvious Islamic elephants in the room. Funny, infrequently, and then not in the way its producers and actors had hoped. After five seasons, each less comic than the last, it was put out of its televised misery in 2012.

Below that line the man with the sign had juxtaposed six words about the latest killing by a Muslim in Canada: “Two dead girls in Greek town.” That juxtaposition was meant to suggest that the C.B.C. was not doing its job, that in offering a sanitized view of Islam, as in Little Mosque, it promoted willful ignorance of the faith, which contributed to a climate that prevented the police from picking up Faisal Hussain — even though he had been “on their radar,” and preventing the Danforth Avenue shooting.

It was what happened next that disturbed. As the crowd that had assembled continued to chant “Shame! Shame!,” the man continued to hold his sign aloft, and then another man, even larger, came out of the crowd, grabbed at his sign, and at the same time, pushed him backwards into the pool. It might have been worse — the man falling backwards might have hit his head on the concrete basin. As he emerged from his dunking, the crowd changed from chant to cheer. What were they cheering in such an unseemly fashion? They were cheering this violent attempt to shut down free speech. Someone in seeming authority, to judge by his jacket, came running up, telling people they should cut it out, leave the fellow with the sign alone. This presence  seemed to keep the crowd from doing anything more to this man whose mild sign merely expressed dismay at how the C.B.C. covered Islam, from sanitizing it with a comedy, to protecting it in the “mental illness” coverage of Faisal Hussain.

No one in that crowd seemed embarrassed that this man had been shoved into the pool for holding up a quite innocuous sign, intended to provoke thought. For those in this sudden mob,  he had it coming. He was on the wrong side. No one appeared to think that free speech was being violated, or still worse, that if it was, it should matter. The object of all this scorn deserved to be shut up, to have his sign taken away, deserved to be shoved backwards into a pool, a pool with a stone rim on which he might have hit his head. Perhaps he deserved still worse. Did anyone in the Canadian media think they should deplore this chanting mob, and the violence against this man? No one did. The man with the sign was of the devil’s party, a hate-speechifier and islamophobe. Just look at that sign. Why should we allow him free speech? Let’s shut him up.

When it comes to discussing Islam, free speech is under constant assault. There is silent censorship of websites critical of Islam, by Google, Facebook, Twitter and others, who either remove such sites, or make it ever more difficult for people to find them. We have no idea of the extent of this censorship, nor of who is choosing the sites to censor or limit, nor what criteria they apply. It’s a black box. Then there are those who censor themselves, knowing that if they are openly critical of Islam they can lose jobs, clients, promotions, votes. On campuses, without the slightest evidence, Robert Spencer has been accused of  “hate speech.” He has had to cancel appearances, has been shouted down at talks, has endured the unnerving spectacle of almost an entire audience of students get up and leave, by prearrangement, in the middle of his talk. Meanwhile, those who were waiting outside to be admitted, because they actually wanted to hear what he has to say, were still kept out. Campus newspapers rage against him and other “islamophobes” whom they claim offer or incite “hate speech,” again without adducing any examples of such incitement. But constant  repetition of such charges, especially by such groups as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has taken it upon itself to be a Defender of the Faith, is enough for the charges, and epithets, to stick.

It was a disturbing display — that Canadian crowd cheering the man who shoved another man backwards into a pool because he held up a sign that expressed no hate but, and only elliptically, questioned the C.B.C.’s coverage of Islam. But the crowd, the mob, knew that they were in the right. “Shame! Shame!” Let’s get his sign. No, let’s get him. Shove and shout down and shove again, harder this time,  push and shove any Islamophobe — meaning any critic of Islam or of its anodyne coverage by the media — who dares to show up. Push him into the pool. Grab his sign. Hit him. Again. He deserves it, the bigot. Free speech? In Toronto, at the Alexander the Great Parkette, those virtuous Canadians who pride themselves on their tolerance showed, not for the first time, that they don’t need no stinkin’ free speech.

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