Menu Close
High school students hold up signs protesting against anti-Muslim hate.
High school students hold signs outside the London Muslim Mosque before a vigil for the victims of the deadly vehicle attack on five Muslim family members in London, Ont., in June 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Fifteen years ago we shrugged off anti-Muslim hate speech. Have we evolved?

In 2007, Macleans magazine published an excerpt from a book, America Alone, in which author Mark Steyn raised the alarm about what he described as the Muslim takeover of Europe.

This takeover, said Steyn, was occurring through high levels of immigration from Muslim countries and higher birth rates in Muslim families that had settled in the West.

Steyn argued that Muslims wanted to impose Sharia law on European countries and were prepared to use a variety of means to achieve this end, including violence. He claimed that we are at “the dawn of a new Dark Ages” in which much of Europe will be “re-primitivized” by Muslims.

Read more: Islamophobia in western media is based on false premises

Complaint made

Following the publication of Steyn’s piece, a complaint was made against Macleans under a provision of the British Columbia Human Rights Code that prohibits the publication of hate speech. The complaint argued that Macleans had exposed Muslims to hatred and contempt by publishing the piece.

Almost without exception, media commentators in Canada condemned the complaint and the laws that allowed it to be made. They saw the complaint as an attack on free speech and press freedom.

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal dismissed the complaint because, in its view, the tone of Steyn’s article was not hateful and so did not rise “to the level of detestation, calumny and vilification necessary to breach … the Code.” The tribunal also thought that the piece contributed to public discussion — while Steyn may have engaged in “exaggeration,” it said, he did so in order to rally public opinion.

The vitriolic tone of a particular instance of speech is relevant when determining whether it spreads hatred. But the tribunal’s focus on the article’s neutral tone created the mistaken impression that hate speech laws are intended to protect individuals from hurt feelings rather than from the spread of dangerous misinformation.

The central question that human rights tribunals must answer in these cases is whether false claims, such as those made in this case about Muslims, are so extreme that they’re likely to encourage hateful views and extreme action.

What role does hate speech play in violence?

Most of those who read Steyn’s words didn’t engage in anti-Muslim violence. When an individual, a so-called “lone wolf”, commits an act of violence after immersing himself in anti-Muslim speech, his action will often be attributed to his moral deficiency or mental illness.

Anders Breivik sits beside his lawyer in a courtroom in August 2012 after killing dozens of people, mostly teen members of the Labour Party Youth wing, during their island retreat. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Steyn was embarrassed by the references to his work in an anti-Muslim manifesto produced by Anders Breivik, who in 2011 murdered 69 young people in Norway. He sought to distance himself from Breivik, describing him as someone “lost in his own psychoses.”

But if a reader takes the claims of Steyn and other anti-Muslim writers, seriously what should they conclude? Steyn claimed in a mainstream publication that Muslims are an enemy within who are prepared to use violence to impose their faith on others. Breivik appears to have drawn the obvious conclusion from Steyn’s claims.

When Steyn’s piece was published, anti-Muslim speech seemed to be an accepted (although not yet common) part of public conversation, even by those who thought it was mistaken and unfair. Since the dismissal of the complaint against Macleans, anti-Muslim speech has grown dramatically, spreading freely and widely on the internet.

Fuelling intolerance

This speech has fuelled public intolerance. It has, almost certainly, contributed to discriminatory public action such as the requirement that individuals remove face coverings when taking the citizenship oath and the enactment of Québec’s Bill 21 that prohibits many provincial civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work.

Read more: Québec's Bill 21 may embolden religious bullying in schools

Despite the neutral framing of these actions, there can be little doubt that they are directed primarily at women who wear the hijab.

Women wait to enter a courtroom.
People wait to enter the courtroom for a hearing challenging Bill 21, July 9, 2019 in Montréal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Anti-Muslim speech has also inspired acts of violence against Canadian Muslims, ranging from assaults on the street to the murder of worshippers at a Québec mosque and, more recently, the murder of a Muslim family in London, Ont.

History or persecution

Speech that attributes dangerous or undesirable traits to a group that has in the past been the target of a campaign of violence is more likely to be regarded as hate speech that creates a risk of significant harm. We are more likely to discern a link between a particular instance of hateful speech and the spread of hatred or the occurrence of violence when there is a history of violence against the group.

Because phrases such as “the final solution” or symbols such as the swastika evoke the Holocaust, it’s easy to a attribute a violent anti-Semitic purpose to the people who use them.

A woman holds a sign that reads Muslim Lives Matter.
A woman attends a vigil for the victims of the London, Ont., attack in Calgary in June 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

But in the case of hateful statements made about an identifiable group that does not have the same history of frequent or organized violent persecution, it may be harder to discern a violent purpose. We are less likely to see speech as a call or prelude to violent action when violence seems remote.

The question now is whether recent acts of violence against Muslims in Canada will lead us to see what we should have seen earlier — that the anti-Muslim speech of Steyn and others is hate speech that encourages violence against Muslims and should fall outside the scope of free speech protection.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 182,000 academics and researchers from 4,940 institutions.

Register now