On February 27, 2015, the Quebec French language television network TVA sent a Montreal news crew to pay an unannounced visit to the library of the Muslim Students’ Association at Concordia University. The small team arrived, hidden camera in tow, determined to report on several books in the library’s collection espousing radical and controversial views by Muslim writers. TVA was determined to obtain comment from the Muslim students they encountered who ran the library, and to hear them defend the books.
The threat of Islamic radicalization and terrorism is a national obsession these days. The federal government is preparing to pass its wide-sweeping and deeply flawed anti-terror legislation amid much fear-mongering and inflated rhetoric. We are fighting a war against an Islamic terrorist organization in Iraq, while at home those of us who are not Muslim have a growing fear, disdain, and distrust of those who are.
Although perhaps no place is as corrosive as the Conservative caucus, things are particularly troubling in Quebec. In the last month a judge has denied a woman access to the courts because she wore a hijab, the Bloc Québécois created an offensive ad aimed at women’s right to wear a niqab at citizenship ceremonies, and, as mentioned, Concordia’s Muslim Students Association library was bombarded by a news crew. And then there’s the case of Adil Charkaoui.
Until recently, Charkaoui ran an Arabic school at two Montreal CEGEPs (colleges), but had his contracts suspended after a young man who had twice attended the school travelled overseas to allegedly join ISIS. Despite the tenuous connection to the influence of the school, suspicions were raised because of Charkaoui, who in 2003 had his own run-in with anti-terror legislation. It is something the media consistently cites by way of explanation, yet consistently neglects to contextualize. Charkaoui was detained for two years without charge or trial, before being given over to another four and a half years of intense surveillance, as part of a security measure that has been criticized by human rights organizations like Amnesty (the Supreme Court of Canada ruled it unconstitutional in Charkaoui’s case in 2007, though the system remains). He has been exonerated, and yet we judge. His time within Canada’s Kafkaesque security apparatus continues to be used against him, to shroud him in scrutiny and guilt.
Why have we become so fearful? What, and who, has made us this way?
What was the motivation behind investigating the Muslim Students’ Association library? Let us be impartial for a moment and look at Concordia University’s own library, a quick glance at which turns up yet another list radical and controversial books. Lurking amid those seemingly innocuous shelves are three copies of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, for example—two of which were signed out and being read at the time of writing. And it’s not just Concordia. The province’s national library, the BAnQ, has four copies of Mein Kampf. And Toronto? That city’s public library system has fifteen copies! Are we teaching our children to be anti-Semitic fascists? Are we in favour of genocide?
Hitler’s words have a place in our libraries because we understand the historical significance and gravity of ideas, from the transformative to the downright vile. We understand that ideas and words have altered, and continue to alter, our world, and that it is vital to understand why and how. It is this conversation that keeps civilization rolling.
This is not to say that every idea should be given a platform on our library bookshelves; the idea is not to include every book written by a white supremacist. It is reasonable to judge a book based on its historical or cultural significance when deciding whether to grant it shelf space. It is also reasonable to assume that this process of curation is not only being done, but being done by those who are knowledgeable and invested in the area of study, indeed in the idea of study. An open mind is important, particularly in a university setting where the study and analysis of primary sources is a central and necessary activity. The rest of us have a role in keeping this curation process in check, sure, but surprise attacks by news crews packing hidden cameras is in no way how this should be done.
Speaking of Hitler and libraries, it is worth remembering the night of May 10, 1933, when nationalist university students in Berlin, aided by the Nazi party, burned 20,000 university library books. The event is by no means a perfect analogy (that particular bonfire destroyed books by Jewish writers as well as by such important thinkers as Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Karl Marx, and HG Wells), but the control and suppression of ideas, the attraction of censorship, is indeed most worthy of contemplation.
The thing about the politics of fear is that it is often so effective. After the TVA news report, the Muslim Students’ Association was called to meet with Concordia University’s dean of students, and agreed not only to remove a number of books from their library, but to allow Concordia library staff to review all of the books in their collection.
Professional review is good, and by all accounts the books in question deserved a sober second thought. But the climate in which this is all taking place is not one of collaboration, but of censorship. We must resist the urge to allow one ideology (that of fear) to suppress another (that of knowledge).
As for TVA, raising concern about the library’s collection is not so much my issue—it is the method of it all: the surprise visit, the hidden camera, the stealth. All of this points to an assumption of evil, of an urgency to root it out, to catch it in the act. It is apparently inconceivable in this frame of mind to, rather, simply pick up the phone or send an email—you know, to arrange for an interview. Like a normal journalist.
The assumption of evil cannot be our starting point. We have to put an end to this fever, to this epidemic of fear. Religious intolerance, assumption of evil, finger waving and inflated rhetoric, censorship—all this dances dangerously close to the darker decades of the 20th century, to places we should not want to go.