A Big Space – Dignity – Lies between Silence on Hate & Opposing It

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Hussein Hoballah, Montreal


Offences against Muslims are non-stop, particularly in Quebec and generally in Canada, and they are exposing furtive hate within souls, which threatens societal security, multiculturalism and tolerance. That is even getting worse because it is being overlooked and no real action is being made; the targeted people are not raising their voices and complaining to police forces, courts or civil groups… But hate can only be faced when voices are raised and law is resorted to. Only then can rights be protected and harm be eliminated.

Reflection should be made upon two incidents that happened in the last couple of weeks and two court rulings made in the recent days so that we learn how to act in the future. 

Around the end of September, a Muslim was humiliated by a Starbucks barista while 30-40 customers in the café remained silent about it! 

Interviewed by “Sada al-Mashrek”, a witness is outraged by the silence of all those customers during the incident in the vicinity of Concordia University, wondering why they just sat and watched what was happening.

Slamming their indifference, he says, “They all knew that I was having a heated exchange, but none of them bothered to support me and the victim; they all either looked the other way or were laughing, as if we had been putting a show there!”

The witness stresses that “if 2 or 3 people had stood up the other day, it could have sent a very strong message to that employee or his colleagues: ‘We need to stop because this is going to create a situation for us.’ Maybe next time they plan to insult or denigrate a human being they might think there is going to be a reaction from other people in the café. They were sure nobody would stand up…”

Another outraging incident followed Team Régis Labeaume’s decision to join Boufeldja Benabdallah, the co-founder of the “Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec” to their list of mayoral candidates running for Quebec City’s upcoming elections. The “Alliance Citoyenne de Québec”, a local party operating in the city where six praying men were killed at a mosque a few years ago, responded to the team’s decision by calling Islam “a cancer growing slowly within the Quebec society”. A section of the party’s platform, titled “Islamisation” and published in French on the party’s website, claims that “Islam contradicts Quebec’s essential values”. 

The party confirmed it won’t receive “any candidate who supports the Islamisation of Quebec”, adding that the ACQ plans to create a municipal administration that “will do its best to prevent the Islamisation of Quebec City”.

ACQ leader and mayoral candidate Alain Giasson alleged that “Boufeldja Benabdallah wants to Islamicise Quebec” and that “Quebec City is being Islamicised slowly, gradually and furtively”.   

Boufeldja Benabdallah complained to Elections Quebec against the hate speech propagated by the party’s platform. Unfortunately, however, Elections Quebec said it had no authority to react. Spokeswoman Julie St-Arnaud said “Election Quebec’s rules do not state that candidacy can be rescinded when a candidate makes such statements.. The choice is up to voters who make it to the election polls.”

The bitter reality has made many wonder what would have happened had the party spit its venom at a different community. Would the same reaction or an instant, official one have been made? While Elections Quebec has no power to act in such cases, why doesn’t it get an authorisation to do so?

It’s true that Quebec’s Anti-Racism Minister Benoit Charette condemned ACQ’s statements after the “Canadian Muslim Forum” reached out to him. Charette tweeted, “We can’t show tolerance to such speech, nor should any party – regardless of its size – promote it.”

But that tweet won’t suffice to end the ceaseless hate speech, especially when no serious action has been shown by the party that backgrounded discrimination amongst civilians (once it prevented Muslim women in hijab from working in Quebec’s public services and sparked further anti-Muslim-women hate). That fact necessitates that concerned community activists conduct serious efforts and create a new strategy.

On the bright side, in contrast, two significant rulings were made recently, opposing the anti-Muslim hate. The first was made last week by the “Human Rights Tribunal of Quebec”, ordering a woman to pay $15,300 to compensate for offending another in hijab at a Quebec restaurant and for the moral damages that had affected the latter and her family.

Back on 28 September 2018, Mona Amer was having dinner with her husband and three children at a Thai restaurant in Quebec City when a woman, named Véronique Bédard-Lafrance and accompanied by a man, attacked Amer with verbal racism.  

On 30 January 2019, Amer complained to court, making way for a ruling by Justice Christian Brunelle that confirms that though freedom of expression is a basic right for all, it doesn’t mean that insults can be made “on the basis of particular individual characteristics as ethnic or national origins”.

In a press conference, Amer’s family said they pursued the lawsuit not for the money but to educate people on tolerance and respect. Amer stated they did so to make those people refrain from insulting the people of different communities.

The second significant ruling is the sentencing of Calgary mayoral candidate Kevin J Johnston for 18 months of jail after he insisted on defaming the owner and CEO of “Paramount Fine Foods” Mohamad Fakih and calling him a “terrorist” and “baby killer”.

Johnston’s new sentence will begin on 4 January 2022: three months of prison for every one of six acts of contempt of court he has committed.

Back in 2017, Johnston made a series of false, hateful statements about Fakih and refused to stop doing that, thus forcing Fakih to file a lawsuit. In 2019, the court announced its ruling and Johnston was ordered to pay Fakih $2.5 million. 

But does prison suffice to end hate? Of course not. It is, however, one of the ways to confront those who misuse the freedom of expression in Canada to show their hate to other Canadian citizens. So prison is a starting point that must be followed by watching out for all hateful incidents and the hatemongering sparked by laws that embolden racists and haters of people of different ethnicities or colours..

A big space lies between those who are silent on hate and those who oppose it – a space defined by the dignity of motherlands and the citizens and communities originating from them, and that must be respected. No citizen should remain silent on his/her rights. No community can end violations against its members unless hard work to enforce the law is done.