I had a front-row seat to hate and was physically assaulted: The liberal-washing of white nationalism

An academic expert on Islamophobia attended a ‘free-speech’ conference in Toronto, where she was assaulted after challenging speakers for promoting hatred against Muslims. Shutterstock

I had a front-row seat to hate and was physically assaulted: The liberal-washing of white nationalism

The horror of the New Zealand terror attack that targeted two mosques during Friday congregational prayers and left 50 people dead has raised important questions about the kind of ideas that inspire this senseless violence. In Canada, the 2017 Québec mosque shooting that left six Muslim men dead also forced the question: what drives the hate that leads to white nationalist terror?

Recently I attended a “free speech” conference on the outskirts of Toronto. In attendance at the event were lawyers from prominent legal firms and other professionals. When I challenged one of the speakers for remarks I felt promoted hatred against Muslims, I was physically assaulted.

I have long been examining the question of what fuels white nationalist hatred by documenting and mapping the “Islamophobia industry” in Canada. The industry is a constellation of individuals, media outlets, think tanks, politicians and organizations that purvey racism and Islamophobia. These include white nationalist and “alt-right” groups that are proliferating and expanding their reach in Canada from upward of 100 groups in 2015 to nearly 300 by 2018.

While the alt-right, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups are the foot soldiers of the movement, there are other, more covert players that form the soft power of this widespread industry. These power brokers use cultural, political and economic ideas to influence, shape and inform white nationalist views. They help circulate bigotry by dressing it up as patriotism and purveying it through “respectable” channels.

I refer to this as the “liberal washing” of white nationalism, where politically camouflaged xenophobic, Islamophobic and racist notions are disguised under the veneer of liberal discourse such as “protecting democracy,” “freedom” and the “rule of law” from what are regarded as illiberal, anti-modern and anti-democratic minorities.

I had a front-row seat to liberal-washed hate messaging at the conference held by Canadians for the Rule of Law, a registered charity that seeks to challenge “political tribes” and “disruptors” who question the rule of law in Canada.

Teaching Islamophobic fear and bigotry

The idea that “Islamists” are infiltrating and imposing shariah law in Canada was a common narrative at this event and disturbingly echoed the views of the New Zealand shooter, whose manifesto spoke of Muslim “invaders” who were corrupting western civilization.

Protesters decrying hatred and racism converged around the U.S. after a white supremacist rally that spiraled into deadly violence in Virginia in the summer of 2017. (Anna Reed/Statesman-Journal/AP)

The vague deployment of the term “Islamist” at this conference reduced a broad political spectrum to a narrow epithet for the violent overthrow of democratic rule to install an Islamic State. The Islamist bogeyman became the dominant representation of Muslims. Fear-mongering about the infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood in Canada was used as a clarion call to warn of impending threats to Canada’s freedom and democracy from Muslim neighbours, organizations, politicians, Muslim Student Associations and Islamic schools.

Preserving Canadian “values” from the corruption of minorities seems far more reasonable than shouting racist slogans in the street — except this liberal-washing of hate is simply another way of echoing and dog-whistling white nationalist, xenophobic ideals by masquerading them through more “civil” and “polite” discourse.

One of the supporting organizations of the conference was Act For Canada, an offshoot of Act For America, one of the most prominent anti-Muslim groups in the United States. Their website outlines their goals:

“ACT! For Canada is a forum for citizens concerned about the triumphalist brand of Islam that seeks to erode our cherished western principles of free speech and equality with the goal of eventual Islamic supremacy in the West ….”

Other groups supporting the conference included conservative media outlet TAG TV, the Bangladeshi Minority Rights group, B’nai Brith and several pro-Zionist groups that equate criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic and “illegal.” The conference also received funding from Daniel Pipe’s Middle East Forum think tank that “protects western values from Middle Eastern threats” and “emphasizes the danger of lawful Islamism.”

A front row seat to hate

To set the tone for the day, conference organizers began with a condemnation of the New Zealand terror attack. Attendees were asked to rise for a moment of silence. It turns out the silence was not to commemorate the victims of this heinous hate crime, but rather to honour “free speech.”

I spent a long day of being a fly on the wall at this conference, hearing non-stop pro-Zionist rhetoric denying that Israel was oppressing Palestinians and consuming a steady diet of Islamophobic bigotry. Along with this came calls for preserving “Judeo-Christian democracy,” protecting against multiculturalism and the need to build a “coalition of the willing,” (the term used by George W. Bush to refer to countries who supported militarily or politically the 2003 U.S-led invasion of Iraq), to challenge “Islamists” and preserve the rule of law in Canada.

Most egregiously, in one session I attended, panellists repeatedly referred to the Al Noor mosque in New Zealand where the terror attack occurred as a “known site of radicalization” without citing any evidence. They complained the media was not publicizing this information. Despite their caution to say this was not a justification for the shootings, I was concerned their salacious and unfounded claim against the Al Noor mosque created further fear and hatred against Muslims.

Mourners pay their respects at a makeshift memorial near the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 16, 2019, after a 28-year-old white supremacist was accused in mass shootings at the mosque that left 50 people dead. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

I finally decided to intervene.

One of the panellists was Christine Douglass-Williams, who in 2017 was removed from the Canadian Race Relations Foundation for remarks described by non-profit organizations as Islamophobic.

I asked her about a speech she made in Iceland in which she warned Icelanders about the “Islamicist supremacist incursion into their country:

“Islamic supremacists will smile at you and invite you to their gatherings, make you feel loved and welcomed but they do it to deceive you and take over you, your land, and your freedoms …Many friendly, seemingly ‘moderate’ Muslims are deceiving you …”

I asked her what her warning was for Canadians, given that’s what she told Icelanders.

Not so free speech

Douglass-Williams became defensive and said she was misquoted. I was paraphrasing, but I told her I took the information directly from an article she wrote. The moderator became angry and told me I couldn’t speak anymore. He told me to leave.

I protested and said I was trying to engage in a dialogue, to exercise my free speech rights, which this conference purported to uphold. The moderator, who is an “ethicist,” informed me I was now trespassing and had to leave.

Did I breach conference decorum by being unwilling to be silenced? Yes. Did they have a right to ask me to leave because I spoke after being told to be quiet? Technically, yes. I did not plan to interrupt the far-right echo chamber, but when I did intervene in the discussion, I realized it was likely I’d be asked to leave because of my views. And I was willing to do so peacefully. But I was not prepared for what happened next.

I stood up voluntarily to leave as instructed by the moderator. But I made one final comment: I said their thinly veiled white supremacist views and Islamophobic fear-mongering is the kind of rhetoric that inspires white nationalist terror.

That comment caused a commotion.

A man from the audience grabbed me and pulled me from the room, twisting my arm with force. I shouted to the silent onlookers: “This man is hurting me! He has no right to touch me!”

A man in the audience shouted back: “You are lucky to even be in this country!”

During this incident, not one person said or did anything. All cellphones, by order of the conference, were surrendered so no one took videos of the incident. I had to wait to call the police until afterwards.

As the man was physically accosting me, I looked over my shoulder to the crowd in the room. They did not look like Proud Boys wearing Doc Martens; they were mainly white seniors that included a retired school psychologist, a teacher and lawyers dressed in suits and ties. Others wore leisurewear, the kind worn on a winter cruise.

One of the people in the room was a former Toronto police officer and “security expert.” I thought he might see the danger in the situation and stop it, so I appealed to him: “You are a former police officer and I’m telling you this man is assaulting and hurting me!”

He stared at me and said nothing. Ironically, all of this occurred during a panel about public safety and upholding “the rule of law.” No amount of “liberal washing” will clean this dirty laundry.

Editor’s Note: Prior to publishing this article, The Conversation Canada asked the organizer of the conference, Canadians for the Rule of Law, why Jasmin Zine was forcibly removed from the event she attended. Donald Carr, president of Canadians for the Rule of Law, replied in an email that Zine “did not conform to clearly stated ‘rules’ relating to asking questions of the panellists.” Carr said Zine was asked to surrender the microphone after asking her question and that conference organizers then considered her to be a “trespasser on private property” and asked the conference’s private security firm to escort her out. Carr admitted an “unknown individual from the audience seized the professor to take her out, but on request, released her” and a security officer escorted Zine to the lobby of the building. Carr said a police officer subsequently interviewed several people and told conference staff that there “had been no illegal action.” Zine has since received an email from the investigating officer from York Regional Police who indicated that people at the conference he spoke to “were not very forthcoming with information about the suspect.” The officer said conference organizers told him the suspect was selling books at the conference, but they didn’t have any contact information for him. “I’m sorry I could not find the suspect and give you anymore closure in this upsetting matter,” the officer concluded.