Maclean's Interview: Imam Syed Soharwardy

Imam Syed Soharwardy talks about being on the giving and receiving end of a human rights complaint' Human rights commissions are for questions of housing and employment — not for disputes about freedom of speech'

Syed Soharwardy, 53, has come a long way since he filed a human rights complaint in Alberta in 2006 against Ezra Levant, who published the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his magazine, the Western Standard. An engineer by trade and an imam by training, Soharwardy became the face of Muslim outrage as Levant was called before a commission staffer to explain his actions. He has since faced his own accusations of discrimination, and has undergone a conversion of sorts when it comes to human rights commissions. This summer, he joined other religious leaders in a multi-faith walk across Canada that began in Halifax. Maclean’s caught up to him near Thunder Bay, Ont.

Q: How are you doing — physically, I mean?

A: Well, when I first began, my legs and feet hurt a lot. I was having trouble getting through the day. But now I feel great. I actually feel bad if I’m not walking. We’re covering 40 kilometres a day. I’m getting 4.5 kilometres per hour in the mountains and between 5.5 and six kilometres per hour on the flat land.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish?

A: It’s about one thing: getting out the message that violence is wrong, whether we’re talking about war, domestic violence in the home, violence against women or terrorism. I’ll tell you, I’ve gotten more of an education on this walk than I have in all my years of school or university. I now know how blessed this country is, how powerful it is, how tolerant and educated its people are. People have welcomed me with open arms, regardless of whether I’m of their colour or language. I’ve walked through Quebec, where I’d read so much about how intolerant it could be. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. I met Quebec women with tears in their eyes telling me they support what we are doing.

Q: You came to Canada 13 years ago, having lived in the Middle East and the U.S. What made you choose this country?

A: Actually, it was the 1988 Winter Olympics. I was living in New Jersey at the time — East Orange, where I was attending university. I’d watch the Olympics every night on television and I was very captivated by Calgary. This is funny, but I actually prayed that I would one day come to live there. It looked like it would provide all the opportunities of living in a big city but all the benefits of living in a small one. And it was beautiful, of course. Just marvellous countryside. I already knew that Canada was an open and tolerant society, so when the opportunity came to take a position there, I leapt at it.

Q: You came to national prominence with your human rights complaint against Ezra Levant, which a lot of Canadians interpreted as an attack upon free expression. You later withdrew that complaint, saying its purpose had been misrepresented. Is it safe to say you miscalculated the public response?

A: It was not a miscalculation. I honestly believed at the time that, in Canada, if you felt offended by something that had been said about your religion or identity, this was the way you resolved the issue. I felt genuinely hurt by Mr. Levant’s decision to publish the cartoons, and I still feel he did it intentionally to offend my religion. Based on what I’d seen in the media and read on the Internet, I thought this was a process that brought the parties together to set things right. I had seen, for example, that other groups, including members of the homosexual community, had done it. And for the first year of this whole controversy, I was quite convinced I had done the right thing. I had no intention of controlling Mr. Levant’s speech.

Q: But you must have known, having read the law, that if you succeeded, that is exactly the effect your complaint would have.

A: Yes, but you must understand this is not what I set out to do. This whole controversy, and some of the other things that I’ve seen, have changed my view of the role of human rights commissions in Canadian society.

Q: How so?

A: Well, while all this was going on, I was on an interfaith committee with Bishop Fred Henry [of the Catholic diocese of Calgary], who told me he was facing complaints of his own at the human rights commission. He’d spoken out against same-sex marriage, and he was very upset that he’d been taken to the human rights panel, and that struck me as wrong. They were interfering with his religious freedom, and I don’t want religious freedom to be controlled. If freedom of speech is available to any other group then it is available to me too, to speak about religion. I think I use it responsibly, and I can only hope people will be able to recognize what is responsible use of freedom of speech and what is irresponsible use of it.

Q: Do you have strong views of your own about homosexuality?

A: I do. I mean, the law is the law, and we have to respect it. But it is not a lifestyle I agree with and I don’t believe in same-sex marriage. I should be able to state my beliefs without fear of sanction or interference.

Q: Was that the only thing that changed your view? I know, for instance, that a group of women filed their own human rights complaint last December about your mosque, claiming they were prevented from asking questions, denied participation and subjected to abusive language at a meeting there. A cynic might say that their complaint made you feel a whole lot differently about human rights panels.

A: To the best of my understanding, there never was an official complaint. There was a letter that Mr. Levant posted on his website, which made some statements that were very damaging to me. But it did change my view about the commissions in another way. When I contacted the Canadian Human Rights Commission to ask whether there was a complaint against me, they refused to confirm one way or the other. By then, I already felt I’d been defamed; Mr. Levant and other blogs had said there was a complaint against me and posted the letter. There was a lot of garbage about me in that letter, and I wanted to tell people it was not true. I felt like a victim of the human rights process. I mean, they still haven’t notified me as to whether there is a complaint against me.

Q: So if the process can be misused against others, it could be misused against you?

A: Precisely. And during the investigation phase of Mr. Levant’s case, I began to have reservations about how they handled these issues. Basically, it’s a bunch of bureaucrats; some of them are lawyers, but for the most part these are people without a great deal of legal training. They have neither the ability or the means to deal with these sorts of issues.

Q: These cases have brought you to the centre of a difficult debate in Canada — the limit of free expression as it relates to religion. My idea of satire might be your idea of blasphemy; you might publish ideas in the name of faith that I deem to be anti-gay or anti-feminist. So how should we resolve that tension?

A: I am now quite certain that the best way is for the parties to have dialogue, to be able to discuss them. We need to be able to listen to each other. But I wish to state quite stronglythat a human rights commission isn’t a place where we can resolve these kinds of issues. Human rights commissions should be there, but they are for questions of housing and employment and access to the workplace — not for disputes that are about freedom of speech. I’ve seen it both ways. I’ve filed a complaint against someone, and I found out the process has serious flaws. Then there was a hoax complaint against me that was published in the media. So I have a unique experience from the receiving and giving end.

Q: So if a case such as the Danish cartoons arose again, you would not file a rights complaint?

A: I would not. If I feel someone has spoken against my religion, I can fight back with words. I can write something, I can say something. There are other legal routes, such as the criminal justice system, which protects us from hate crime, or the civil courts. In fact, that is a path I took. When this whole letter thing popped up, I went to civil court. We filed a claim against these kinds of defamations, and it’s going through the court now.

Q: I must say, what you’ve said is a direct echo of the arguments of Tarek Fatah, the founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress. He’s endured some harsh criticism from Canadian Muslims for those views.

A: I haven’t seen what Tarek Fatah has said about these issues. But these are my views and I believe them strongly.

Q: It would put you at odds with a lot of Muslims abroad. There’s a group of Islamic countries, for instance, pushing for UN resolutions against “religious defamation” that call on Western countries to curb expression deemed discriminatory. Some of these are countries that punish blasphemy with stoning. How do you feel about their initiative?

A: Okay, this is a completely different issue, because we’re talking about expression outside the Canadian context. In a lot of these countries, the population is undereducated and exploited by their own leadership. Their response to something they see that offends them, like the cartoons, is irrational and there will be civil unrest. So what these governments are trying to avoid and the only way they can do so is to ask the Western governments to stop people from doing it. I went to Pakistan not long after the cartoons had been published. I was in Karachi, at a conference on the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that was started by my father. I addressed a crowd of 10,000 that day, and I told those people that Canadians were watching TV pictures of them lighting fires, destroying property and killing each other — in their own country. There was silence. They had nothing to say.

Q: But surely under-education and political demagoguery in another countryshouldn’t result in my rights being curtailed in Canada.

A: Absolutely not, and listen, I’m not defending these leaders. Many of them are dictators. I hate them. But that’s the world we’re living in now, with global communication. There is definitely a problem. There has to be a balance between freedom of speech and sensitivity about material that is offensive to other religions. This needs to be debated, and not just between religious communities. We need to sit down and talk about it at the international level. We should come to consensus about what is legitimate free speech and what is abuse of free speech.

Q: Back to your cross-Canada walk. With so many faiths represented, I’m thinking it must be pretty confusing come prayer time.

A: [Laughing] Yes, well, we all are here. There are Anglicans, United Church, Unitarians, Catholics, Jewish, Buddhists, Shia and Sunni Muslims. One man approached us in Ottawa asking if he could come along for a while. ‘I don’t belong to any church,’ he said. ‘I’m a pagan, but I support you.’

Q: Do you stop frequently to pray?

A: We [Muslims] get to pray five times a day. Everyone prays after lunch, and when we’re in a bigger city or town, we’ll gather in circle and pray together. The word “God” is understood by everyone.