muslims, politics

The Parched Vineyard: the Canadian Muslim community’s public relations debacle

The Canadian columnist and writer Rick Salutin asks the following question in his latest column for The Toronto Star (Nov 7th, 2013): “When you’re yelled at, what could be better than simply being able to yell back?”[1] That is, if a charge is leveled against you in public, what’s better than a chance to publically face down your accusers?

The question touches on what is perhaps the most elusive, yet vital aspect of modern democracy: the ability to influence public opinion. The link between the Canadian media and Canadian democracy isn’t just the flow of information that keeps a population informed and engaged; it’s the manufacturing and shaping of that information for public consumption.

If there is an essential end to the freedom of speech and expression available to those who reside in liberal democracies, it is the ability to utilize such freedoms to assert one’s position in a pluralistic polity. This is true for both individuals and their communities.

Yelling and Yelling Back:

In his piece, Salutin laments the Canadian Muslim (“especially Arab,” he writes) community’s inability to respond effectively to a barrage of accusations and assertions leveled against it by several (relatively) prominent rightwing commentators and writers.

Canadian Muslims have had a hard time shaping how the public thinks and talks about issues related to their beliefs and way of life. They’re having a hard time yelling back. Regardless of the merits of their arguments and positions, Salutin’s general observation—that the Muslim Canadian voice is missing in mainstream public discourse—is worth examining.

And it’s not just that Muslims aren’t yelling back, but rather that no one seems to be noticing. There’s really no way for a group to function in the public sphere if the term “public” doesn’t seem to always apply to them. Salutin calls this overall lack of discourse the “parched vineyard” of Canadian public debate. [2]

Here one comes to a peculiar idiosyncrasy of modern, media-driven democracy. It’s not enough that a community or interest group yells, preferably in unison, what they want the public to hear. They must also yell in a way that allowed their message to reach those who are searching for ways to think about the issues at hand. In other words, they have to yell through a megaphone, and that megaphone is the mainstream media.

Be it print or broadcast, the media both reflects and forms public opinion. It is the prism through which information is refracted into multiple perspectives and opinions. If Canada is indeed the cultural, ethnic, and religious mosaic so many believe it to be, then the aggregate beliefs and perspectives should be equally heterogeneous. To convince, persuade, and influence, one has to first make ones voice heard—widely!

One doesn’t have to look far to the right in order to identify the questions and assertions regularly leveled at Canadian Muslims since 9/11. There are the obvious, blunt appraisals and warnings from commentators such as Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant, who see in their crystal balls impending disaster in the form of a Muslim takeover.[3]

But much less bellicose voices of Canadian centrism are also genuinely concerned that Islam lacks an easy “compatibility” with Canadian democracy and modernity—from religious scripture to religious dress. Before the Muslim community can run to formulate their arguments and positions in an attempt address these concerns, it must first learn to walk the line of media relations.

How issues are represented and mediated via mainstream print and broadcast outlets depend mostly on the structural characteristics of these outlets, as well as the decisions made by those who work inside them. The complex dynamic that dictates how issues are talked and written about is a result of the interplay between news-values, financial interests, journalistic practice, and various other factors.

The exposition of this dynamic makes for a fascinating essay topic all by itself (in fact, many, many sub-topics as well), but one thing is for certain: Muslim Canadians must insert themselves into the cyclical process of shaping public opinion. This not only means following in the footsteps of Haroon Siddiqui or Nazim Baksh, both veterans of Canadian journalism (and both Muslim), but also making community organizations more media friendly.

Going Legal

The combination of factors that have led to the Canadian Muslim community’s inability to “yell back” have also prompted certain segments of that community to cease yelling altogether. This is due to a feeling of being denied access to meaningful platforms. The point of arguing dissipates if one side doesn’t want to hear what the arguments are.

Some have opted to go the legal route and sue writers like Mark Steyn for the content of their arguments and provocations. (In)famous now are the complaints filed by the Canadian Islamic Council (CIC) to three separate human rights councils in Canada against Maclean’s magazine, to which Steyn and other like-minded writers have contributed.

The complaints were specifically in reference to 22 articles published (between 2005-2007) by the weekly news magazine on issues related to Islam and Muslims, which Mohamed Elmasry, then president of the CIC, thought to be in violation of Canadian hate speech laws. Mark Steyn’s now-infamous “The Future Belongs to Islam” is perhaps the most important of the 22 pieces, and certainly drew the most attention.[4]

The complaints were roundly dismissed, and Steyn has since then become something of a free-speech martyr, a man who risked public humiliation to defend the Enlightenment principle of free expression and speech.

In other words, the complaints filed by the offended ended up backfiring on the Muslims, who ended up with terrible collective PR. They’ve since then been portrayed as so thin-skinned as to want to shut down debate with lawsuits instead of answering challenges with their own arguments. And since people believe that the Muslims don’t want debate, then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that those same people probably don’t think the Muslims have much of an argument to make. Putting it another way: the Muslims are probably wrong, are aware of this, and are too embarrassed to admit it.

Now, it also should be made known that Maclean’s refused to make space for a proper rebuttal hugely exacerbated the situation and entrenched the Canadian Muslim community’s feelings of being denied access.[5] Still, the entire ordeal was bad for the image of Muslim Canadians, who no doubt still crave the ability to have public influence in Canadian democracy.

Even though one of the complainants, Khurum Awan, claimed that the major objective of driving up the magazine’s legal expenses (Awad claims that the magazine spent around two million dollars in defense)—and thereby discouraging any future anti-Muslim rhetoric—was achieved, one can hardly view the tactic as one that elevates the quality of public discourse and understanding.[6]

Speak badly about us and we’ll sue you is not a great way to resolve public conflict, nor is it a good strategy to dispel what some see as wide-spread myths about Islam and Muslims.

Fears and Smears:

Reporting and opinion writing now cannot help but be influenced, just like journalism in any era, by the political and social climate within which it exists.

It is likely that Canada is now governed by the most right-leaning administration in its history as a nation. The effect this has on democracy becomes ever more significant if one recognizes, correctly, that democratic practice does not begin and end with elections and voting. The democratic craft is practiced both inside and outside of Parliamant Hill (or Capitol Hill, or Westminster Abbey, etc.), most prominently in the form of persuasion by way of free expression.

If reporting is at least partly the relaying of messages and arguments (op-eds and columns are wholly for this purpose), then one can conclude that the media is indeed part of democracy. It is, perhaps even before its role as a monitor of power, an active conduit for the public exchange of ideas. It is how matters of state become unveiled and public.

If Canadians are, in 2013, still in many ways living in the shadows of 9/11, then the ideas generated in this era are undergirded by the politics of the post-9/11 climate. This, of course, is made even clearer when one remembers that the Harper administration has stressed national security, both internally and externally, as a primary focus of government.

This should make the need for effective public relations ever more important to the Canadian Muslim community. In an era of heightened paranoia and conservative political rhetoric, it’s more vital now than ever for Canadian Muslims to, in Salutin’s words, “play the game.”

The Canadian Arab Federation (CAF), a Toronto-based NGO that provides settlement services for new immigrants, was once a leading advocate for Arab and Muslim issues in the country. Its former leadership included Omar Alghabra, a former twice-elected MP from Mississauga, who, as President of the Federation, organized trips to Parliament Hill in hopes of familiarizing politicians with issues that concerns his community.

Years later, a newly elected, more bellicose leadership decided to rejuvenate CAF’s political advocacy wing and participate in direct anti-Harper campaigning. The central cause was the Israel/Palestine conflict, with direct condemnation the actions of the state of Israel (not Canada). Eschewing more moderate voices within the organization that called for a more measured response to the domestic and foreign policies of the Harper administration, the organization paid a price for its heavy-handed rhetoric.

CAF’s popular ESL program for new immigrants, funded wholly by Citizen and Immigration Canada, was discontinued in March 2009, depriving the organization of a huge chunk of its communal credibility and financial support. The CIC was led at the time by Minister Jason Kenney, who stated that although CAF’s “hateful” rhetoric is protected as free speech in Canada, the ministry didn’t have to fund an organization whose hallmark is anti-Israeli sentiment.[7]

CAF has since taken Kenney to court for his decision, and the verdict is still out. Regardless of which side is right, one can see here another case of an Arab/Muslim organization unable to recognize its own inability to do proper media relations, and resorting primarily to legal methods in an effort to protect its own credibility.

Cases like this one can be found by the handful in the past decade or so in Canada. “I cannot portray their frustration,” writes Salutin in his column of the countless Muslim and Arab Canadians he’s spoken to about this problem. “They accost you socially or at their hangdog conferences and plead less for redress than for a simple acknowledgment of how unfair it is.”[8]

Salutin points out the flip side to this coin, which is that journalists also have to try as hard as they can to seek out the most representative and articulate members of certain communities. Though in the age of the 24-hour news cycle (and shrinking newsrooms), putting the onus squarely on the shoulders of journalists is not the smartest move to make for Canadian Muslims.

Get to the Podium!:

Salutin concludes his column by recalling an incident in 1980 when an article in The Globe and Mail referred to him as a “doctrinaire Marxist.” Writing at the time for the doggedly progressive, but relatively marginal This Magazine, Salutin could have penned a rebuttal in his small journal.

Instead, recognizing the disparity in influence, he had a lawyer write The Globe and Mail regarding his objections to the labeling. To his surprise, the Globe issued a “retraction.” He was lucky to get one, unlike so many in the Canadian Muslim and Arab circles, who for one reason or another feel misrepresented by the media.

“But if I’d had anything like an equivalent podium,” writes Salutin, “it would never have occurred to me to go legal.”[9] Muslims and Arab Canadians ought to be thinking the same thing.

 


[1] Rick Salutin, “Who are the real free-speech warriors?” The Toronto Star, November 7, 2013, accessed November 8, 2013, http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/11/07/who_are_the_real_freespeech_warriors_salutin.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mark Steyn, “Sticks and Stones,” National Post, October 16, 2013, accessed October 18, 2013, http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/10/16/mark-steyn-sticks-and-stones/.

[4] Mark Steyn, “The Future Belongs to Islam,” Maclean’s, October 20, 2006, accessed October 13, 2013, http://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/article.jsp?content=20061023_134898_134898.

[5] “Commission statement concerning issues raised by complaints against Maclean’s Magazine,” Ontario Human Rights Commission, April 9, 2008, accessed October 2, 2013, http://www.ohrc.on.ca/it/node/8195#sthash.kWC1EPYs.dpuf.

[6] Robert Sibley, “Ezra Levant sued in ‘jihad chill’ case,” The Ottawa Citizen, January 26, 2010, accessed October 4, 2013, http://blogs.ottawacitizen.com/2010/01/26/ezra-levant-sued-in-jihad-chill-case/.

[7] “Kenney says some Canadian Arab groups express hatred toward Jews,” the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), February 17, 2009, accessed September 19, 2013, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kenney-says-some-canadian-arab-groups-express-hatred-toward-jews-1.819081.

[8] Salutin, ““Who are the real free-speech warriors?”

[9] Ibid.

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