What shall we do with hateful preachers? Do we confront bad ideas with better ones, or call in the cops? The perennial question is posed again for citizens of Vancouver by the disturbing reports from Sheik Younnus Kathrada's Fraser Street store-front house of prayer, where, it is reported, the Saudi-trained cleric regularly issues anti-Semitic statements and calls to the faithful to engage in "offensive jihad" and to hate the Jews.
We've endured such vile effusions before over the centuries, and we have every reason to be concerned when old men claim to speak for the divine while urging their listeners to hate. This repulsive nonsense is the theme music to history's most nightmarish crimes, and it is an obscenity that must be confronted.
The question remains, however, as to whether invoking state power to shut up the hate mongers is an appropriate response, or a dangerous abandonment of our fragile commitment to democracy. Clearly, no such hesitations trouble the Vancouver police, who have already announced that they are investigating Sheik Kathrada, or the Vancouver Sun's Pete McMartin, who called for a "full Zundel" legal strategy to either throw the cleric out of Canada or, failing that, to lay hate speech charges.
The Sheik now claims in a message posted on the Dar al Madinah website that he has been quoted out of context, and his strictures aren't aimed at all Jews, just some of them. There is little comfort to be found in this feeble defense. While no one should underestimate the power of selective quotation and media spin to distort the position of a story subject, it is difficult to imagine a context in which statements such as calling Jews "the brothers of swine and monkeys" or "We hate them (the Jews) for the sake of our Lord" qualify as anything but mind-numbingly stupid and toxic anti-Semitism. Here Hitler, meet Sheik Kathrada.
Make no mistake. This is the language of racism, and has been properly condemned by responsible Muslim leaders across Canada, and confronted by a courageous local Muslim activist, Hanif Karim, who picketed alone outside Sheik Kathrada's house of prayer, on Friday October 22, exposing himself to the rage of the Sheik's followers. Karim has been on this case for several years, long before the Sun took up the matter, and organized a letter of protest about the Sheik's public racism signed by twenty other local Muslims more than two years ago.
I don't come to this issue as a neutral observer. Some of my children and grandchildren lie in the cross hairs of the anti-Semitism promoted by Sheik Kathrada, and my first response to reading his statements is protective rage. Also, Hanif Karim and his valiant wife Rahat Kurd are cherished and respected friends. I have spent most of my adult life fighting the sort of hateful bilge the Sheik is promoting, whether it comes from an Islamic, Christian, secular or Jewish sources. All the world's great faiths can be corrupted by the toxins of racism, and the poison can flood into the discourse of non-believers as well. No matter what belief system is invoked to justify it, racism is vile and dangerous, and all citizens of a democracy have a particular responsibility to fight it.
But we are well advised to conduct that fight in a way that doesn't destroy democracy in the process, and the reflexive calls for hate speech prosecution -- the "full Zundel" invoked by Pete McMartin -- pose serious dangers to the core commitments necessary for democratic self government. Our democratic commitment to free speech must extend to the most vile and hateful speech, or it means little. We can all agree that inoffensive opinions we all share shouldn't be censored, but genuine democratic debate demands freedom for the most rebarbative statements, and for vigorous, angry counter arguments as well. Once the police are given the power to prosecute for speech rather than action, the floodgates of anti-democratic censorship are opened and all our freedoms begin to drown.
It is instructive to remember that Weimar Germany boasted very robust anti-hate speech laws, and that they were vigorously enforced during the run-up to Nazi take-over. Efforts to quell racism, which is a fundamentally authoritarian ideology, with counter authoritarianism may well be doomed to failure.
We don't need another Zundel case in response to Sheik Kathrada's ugly and hateful statements. Such abuse of state power dishonours our commitment to freedom, creates martyrs and heroes for the bigots, and endangers free speech for us all. We need to speak out against racism, certainly, and do so in ways that don't erode the very freedom that allows us to speak.
Tom Sandborn is a Vancouver writer.