Wednesday, December 29, 2004

EXPORTING FREEDOM, IMPORTING INTOLERANCE

by George Jonas
National Post


The author of Behzti (the Punjabi word meaning dishonour or shame) is in hiding. News agencies reported last week that Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti had fled
her home on the advice of the police. The law's counsel came after a
theatre that was to present Ms. Bhatti's black comedy had abandoned further performances, following an attempt on Dec. 18 by
hundreds of violent Sikh protesters to storm the building.

The riot caused considerable property damage. Five police officers were
hurt and 600 patrons had to be evacuated. Later, a spokesman from the Guru Nanak Gurdwara temple, Mohan Singh, was quoted welcoming the theatre's decision to cancel the production, regretting only that the management had not considered Sikh concerns about the play when they were expressed
earlier.

Readers who might think this happened somewhere on the Indian subcontinent
would be wrong. It happened in central England. It was the Birmingham Repertory Theatre that cancelled further performances of Ms. Bhatti's play and the Birmingham constabulary that advised the author to flee.

None of this should surprise Canadians. After all, it was in Montreal, not
somewhere in the Levant, that the authorities at Concordia University were intimidated into cancelling two scheduled speakers, former Israeli prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. And it wasn't in Falluja but in
Toronto, at York University, where those who came to hear American scholar
Daniel Pipes had to have their venue shifted from a campus pub to a curtained-off corner of a basketball court for their own security.

In England, the intimidation came from Sikhs who felt offended by a stage
play. In Canada, it came from supporters of the Palestinian side in the Middle East conflict, who not only felt offended by whatever Messrs. Netanyahu, Barak or Pipes might say, but believed this entitled them to prevent others from hearing it.

People who feel entitled to keep others from hearing whatever offends them
are a relatively small problem. The big problem occurs when the authorities give in to them. Over the years, we've built up a climate that yields to rioting Sikhs in Birmingham or to York University's Middle Eastern Students Association and their soulmates at Concordia. It excuses and validates bullies.

Last year, Dr. Pipes described how, after being smuggled through back doors
into a gym at York to avoid confronting those who wanted to silence him, he had to listen to a lecture by a detective in the Hate Crime Unit of the Toronto Police before being allowed to speak. Det. James Hogan cautioned the
visiting scholar that advocating genocide and promoting hatred of a
specific group were offences under Canada's Criminal Code.

Dr. Pipes wasn't about to advocate genocide, needless to say, but by 2003
the authorities in Canada saw fit to read the riot act not to people who tried to prevent free speech but to those who tried to exercise it. The police's warning to Dr. Pipes was, in a sense, worse than Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa on
the novelist Salman Rushdie. The Ayatollah had launched a frontal attack on
free expression. The hate-crime police threatened to stab it in the back.

Attempts to spread Western values around the world haven't been entirely
unsuccessful. The Evil Empire is gone. Former tyrannies toddle toward the rule of law and are learning the alphabet of individual freedoms. But the exportation of our values has been sporadic and slow, while our importation of alien values is rapid and steady. We're picking up the habits of intolerant, interventionist or theocratic societies -- the very societies we've out-competed or defeated. Far from
assimilating newcomers or trading partners into Western ways of freedom
under the law, we'recontinually redefining our traditions to accommodate the touchy moods of Eastern despotisms that combine lawlessness with religious and political sensitivity.

In the realm of values, the balance of trade hasn't favoured the West, in
other words. We haven't exported tolerance nearly as often as we've imported intolerance. We haven't strengthened individual liberties in other regions nearly as much as we've reduced them at home. Today, we're less free to
speak, associate, do business, choose pastimes or lifestyles than we were
50 ago (except in matters having to do with promiscuity or sexual preference). To use Paul Martin's latest travel destination as an example, while Tripoli is no closer to Ottawa than it was in 1950, Ottawa is getting closer to Tripoli.

"The French would have called out the army to defend the theatre," wrote
the London-based novelist Stephen Vizinczey in a letter to the editor of The Daily Telegraph last week, "while our government, so keen to promote democracy the world over, does nothing to defend our freedoms at home."

Whatever the French would have done, there's little doubt the British seem
keener to spread Western values abroad than to preserve them in Britain. We in Canada do neither. We're content to blabber about the virtues of diversity to shield folk who couldn't care less about it. The result is Concordia at
best. At worst there's the bombing of Air-India. The multicultural chickens
are coming home to roost.

© National Post 2004

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