Freedom of Conscience

Rush to Outrage: The Case of Collin May

The Editors
July 22, 2022
A successful society depends on the contributions of many unelected civic-minded individuals who feel a duty to serve others. But who would put their name forward for such public service if they knew it was likely to unleash a torrent of politically-motivated abuse? Case in point: Collin May, recently appointed chief of the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Despite being eminently suited for the job, May was last week accused of “overt racism” and faced calls to resign because of a book review he wrote for C2C Journal 13 years ago. It’s an accusation built on a blatant misreading of the text and disregard for historical truth. The editors of C2C Journal examine the toxic implications of this “attack first, ask questions never” approach to public discourse.
Freedom of Conscience

Rush to Outrage: The Case of Collin May

The Editors
July 22, 2022
A successful society depends on the contributions of many unelected civic-minded individuals who feel a duty to serve others. But who would put their name forward for such public service if they knew it was likely to unleash a torrent of politically-motivated abuse? Case in point: Collin May, recently appointed chief of the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Despite being eminently suited for the job, May was last week accused of “overt racism” and faced calls to resign because of a book review he wrote for C2C Journal 13 years ago. It’s an accusation built on a blatant misreading of the text and disregard for historical truth. The editors of C2C Journal examine the toxic implications of this “attack first, ask questions never” approach to public discourse.
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“Have you read the whole article?”

“Have you watched the entire video?”

“Have you tried to understand the other person’s point?”

A great many social media furies and political tempests could be settled in amicable fashion – perhaps avoided altogether – if the folks who tend towards vein-popping outrage simply took the time to be able to answer “yes” to any of the above questions.

This month a past contributor to C2C Journal found himself the target of just such a frenzy. In this case, one concocted for an apparent political purpose. And despite all the heated accusations and apoplectic demands, it appears no one bothered to properly inform themselves about what was actually written in the article, published in 2009, or its context. Rather, the critics and complainers simply defaulted to the worst possible interpretation as a matter of course. This sort of behaviour has become outrageously common and is doing great damage to public discourse in Canada. It needs to stop.     

J’Accuse…!

The current contretemps concerns the appointment of lawyer Collin May as Chief of the Commission and Tribunals of the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC). The move was announced in the spring, but May took office only last week. He is exceptionally well-suited to the post, as he has accumulated a long history of advocacy on behalf of vulnerable people and served as an AHRC commissioner since 2019. In addition to his law degree, May also holds a Masters in Theological Studies from Harvard and a post-graduate degree from the esteemed ​Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris.  

The right man for the job: Collin May was recently appointed Chief of the Commission and Tribunals at the Alberta Human Rights Commission. He is the first openly gay man to hold the post and has impressive educational credentials plus a long record of public service.

Prior to his public service, May was also an occasional contributor to C2C Journal, writing several book reviews and political commentaries more than a decade ago. It is one of his old articles that has triggered the recent furor.

Earlier this month, the online advocacy outlet Progress Report, which often acts as the unofficial press organ for the Alberta NDP, dug up a book review from 2009 by May on Middle Eastern scholar Efraim Karsh’s book Islamic Imperialism: A History. This was quickly followed by a CBC hit job claiming May had written an “Islamophobic book review.” The CBC report included predictable reaction from Islamic organizations (“very shocking and hurtful”) as well as a de rigueur call from the NDP that May resign. (A candidate for the UCP leadership, Rajan Sawhney, has also called for an investigation into May’s appointment.)

Before anyone can claim to be shocked or hurt, however, it is necessary to read the whole C2C article, understand its purpose and consider its context. With none of the critics apparently having yet done so, it is up to us to provide this public service.  

The Purpose of a Book Review (Some People Need Reminding)

When it was first published, Karsh’s work was widely regarded as an important, if controversial, piece of scholarship. Karsh is no crank. He’s the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv (the centre is named in part for former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, a Muslim who was assassinated by Islamist radicals for making peace with Israel), and professor emeritus of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, London. Karsh’s book was published by Yale University Press, a top-tier academic publisher.

A kerfuffle 13-years in the making: May’s 2009 review of Middle Eastern scholar Efraim Karsh’s book Islamic Imperialism: A History for C2C Journal is now causing a political controversy.

Reaction to this work was generally positive, if wide-ranging. One academic reviewer called it “a book destined to become a seminal study on the history of radical Islam.” The book’s central thesis, as the title suggests, is that Islam has always been a religion with ambitions of empire, and that its history cannot be considered merely from a cultural perspective; at its essence, Karsh argues, Islam is both a cultural and political force. As for May’s review, it was erudite and thoughtful. We were pleased to publish it.

Today, however, the article is presented as evidence May is unfit to head the AHRC. In making this claim, the CBC cites a single passage from his book review. The Progress Report’s headline on this issue – “Chief of Alberta’s Human Rights Commission called Islam ‘not a peaceful religion’ and ‘one of the most militaristic religions known to man’ in 2009” – quotes from the same section. Here is the full quotation as provided by the CBC:  

“[Karsh] defies the multicultural illusion regarding pacific Islam and goes to the heart of the matter. Islam is not a peaceful religion misused by radicals. Rather, it is one of the most militaristic religions known to man, and it is precisely this militaristic heritage that informs the actions of radicals throughout the Muslim world.”

This, according to the CBC, shows May promoting Islamophobia “under the guise of analysis.” Such a claim is, in our opinion, journalistic malpractice. The entire passage is simply a recitation of the book’s argument. “Not a peaceful religion” and “one of the most militaristic religions” summarize Karsh’s views, not May’s. Indeed, the sentence immediately preceding the passage above refers to Karsh’s own thought process. Conflating the subject matter of a book with a reviewers’ own opinions misconstrues both this passage and the overall purpose of any competent book review.

Whether a reviewer agrees or disagrees with an author’s position, he or she has a duty to convey the book’s thesis in good faith, both out of fairness to the author and so that readers can make up their own minds. A reviewer who accurately summarizes a book cannot be held liable for the content conveyed any more than a court reporter can be accused of sympathizing with criminals for faithfully recording their statements made in court.


Book review outrage: The original Progress Report article (top) and CBC follow-up (bottom) conflate May’s own opinions with his explication of Karsh’s book, which deals with Islam’s political empires through the ages. 

Of course, an accomplished book reviewer can and should express their own opinions about the book in question. And in addition to explaining what Karsh says, May developed his own gloss on the topic, namely that the problematic radical strain of Islam as exemplified by Osama Bin Laden and more recently the Islamic State has, ironically enough, been deeply influenced by the Western Marxist tradition. This novel scholarly addition was argued with confidence and perspective, reflecting May’s education in Islamic thought; at Harvard May studied with the late Muhsin Mahdi, one of the modern era’s top Arabic scholars.
His own gloss: May’s original contribution to the Karsh book review is that modern-day radical Islam, as represented by Osama Bin Laden (left) and more recently the Islamic State (right), has been deeply influenced by western Marxist thinking; none of May’s critics mentioned this. (Sources of photos: (left) AP Photo/ Mazhar Ali Khan, (right) washingtoninstitute.org)

It is certainly not difficult to discern which parts of the review are May’s thoughts and which are Karsh’s. In some areas he certainly agrees with Karsh; in others he does not. Consider not only the line immediately preceding but the one following the CBC’s selection quoted above: “We have to be cautious here. Karsh is not attacking Islam…” Elsewhere in the review, May’s own contributions are similarly easily spotted. “While I agree with Karsh…” he says at one point, “I would argue it is also important to understand…” Another time he says, “One difficulty as concerns Karsh’s book.” It is in these passages that a reader might legitimately claim to have spotted May’s own beliefs and raise issues about them. Yet these aren’t the parts that anger his foes.

All My Opponents are Racists

That the substance of May’s writing is irrelevant to his critics should not come as a big surprise. The whole point of this kerfuffle is not to judge May’s fitness for his new post. If it was, there would be mention of the many ways in which he is not only a suitable but arguably the ideal candidate. May is the first openly gay man to head the provincial body, a fact mentioned nowhere in any of the accusations made against him. Further, his decisions as a commissioner since 2019 reveal a strong commitment to the AHRC’s core mission of protecting all Albertans from discrimination. Plus, there is May’s own expansive education in religions, including Islamic history and politics. In an AHRC statement responding to the initial complaint from Progress Report, May commits to continuing this lengthy learning process.

Rather than assess May fairly, however, the game here is evidently to score cheap political points. With the CBC acting as useful idiot, the provincial NDP and Progress Report each lobbed a shell at an individual in the apparent hope that the resulting shrapnel would wound the UCP government. “The statements published by Collin May in 2009 are overtly racist and Islamophobic,” tweeted NDP MLA Irfan Sabir immediately after the Progress Report story came out.

“Far to the left of the NDP”: Progress Report’s Duncan Kinney, who apparently dug up the 2009 book review by May, is a political activist and campaigner with ties to various left-wing institutions. (Source of photo: @duncankinney/ Twitter)

Bringing down May would be a small victory for the NDP cause, as well as for Progress Report. The original Progress Report article was written by Duncan Kinney, the executive director of Progress Alberta, which Kinney’s website biography describes as “a multi-issue, independent, non-profit communications and campaigning organization dedicated to building a more progressive Alberta.” (Emphasis added.) Kinney is also a “Broadbent Fellow” at the Broadbent Institute, a national left-wing political activist organization named after former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent. As for Progress Report’s own political stance, it describes itself as “far to the left of the Alberta NDP.”

Regarding Sabir’s claims of racism, it bears mention that it is definitely not racist to criticize Islam. And the reason bolsters the very point May was making in his 13-year-old book review. As a universalist religion that explicitly calls on adherents to spread the word of Allah to all parts of the world, it is by definition a religion open to all races. As such, there is no specific racial component to Islam that could support claims that criticism of Islam is racist. Sabir’s immediate default to such an outrageous accusation is yet another example of how the political left smears all its opponents with the same nasty epithet, regardless of evidence or meaning.
Tweet by Irfan Sabir calling Collin May's book review racist and Islamophobic
Criticism of Islam is not racist: Alberta NDP Justice Critic Irfan Sabir blindly accuses May of being racist for his 2009 book review; in fact, Islam counts members of all races as adherents. (Source of bottom photo: Tom Levy/ kalw.org)

This overt act of political bullying is why it is becoming harder and harder to have a reasoned and fact-based debate across a large range of topics in Canada (and other Western countries) covering religion, gender, reproductive rights, poverty, addiction, native policy, climate, immigration and even Canadian history, without the conservative perspective being routinely accused of racism or some other hateful characteristic. But these are the topics society most needs to confront, precisely because they cause so much disagreement.

Karsh was certainly not the first to make a point about the imperialist dimension of Islam and the violence that attends it. The work of British historian Bernard Lewis, as well as American political scientist Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, covered similar ground in the 1990s. The political component of Islam and its conflict with the West is one of the Big Topics of our time, and was especially relevant in the wake of 9/11. Wrestling with this concept, as May did, can be difficult. Some may consider it offensive. But it is also extremely important. Whether Karsh, Lewis or Huntington are ultimately proven correct or not in their assertions, it is necessary that society grapple with their ideas so that we can come to a fuller understanding. Indeed, in a free society, it is everyone’s right to do so. And the media plays a crucial role in this process by putting controversial topics in front of the public for consideration. In was in this service that May wrote his book review.

One of the Big Topics of our age: Inquiry into the nature of the conflict between Islam and the West predates Karsh’s work; earlier books by British historian Bernard Lewis and American political scientist Samuel Huntington also grappled with this issue and came to similar conclusions.

Unfortunately, the habit of picking through old and often obscure utterances of public or semi-public figures with the singular goal of finding something that might be considered problematic today, and with which they and/or their employers can be humiliated, damaged or even destroyed, is today running rampant. And it is likely discouraging many able and qualified people from participating in public debates, for fear they will face future bullying. This is all the more difficult for someone like May who, as the new head of a quasi-judicial body, is prohibited from publicly defending himself. Again, the quality and quantity of political discourse are being seriously harmed.  

A Worrying Pattern

The elemental components of L’Affaire May – misreading of past public statements, immediate default to nasty insults and complete lack of constructive engagement – have become a depressing pattern throughout North American politics and deserving of greater attention and disapprobation.  

In another example of this phenomenon, U.S. Republican Representative Debbie Lesko recently gave a speech on gun control in which she said she would do anything to protect her grandchildren, “including, as a last resort, shooting them.” Whom did she mean by “them”? In a previous version of her speech, Lesko said she would shoot “the killer.” In an interview with Reuters, she said “them” stood for “violent criminals.” Indeed, it is the only reading of her text that makes any sense.

In a depressing sign of the times, U.S. Republican Representative Debbie Lesko was attacked by political opponents who absurdly misinterpreted her public statements. (Source of left photo: Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

But that didn’t stop her political opponents from latching onto a ludicrously literal reading of her speech – claiming that she intended to kill her grandkids. Democrat pundit Brian Tyler Cohen paraphrased Lesko as saying “she would shoot her own grandchildren to oppose a gun safety reform bill.” Another Twitter moron said Lesko “would like America to know she loves her grandchildren so much she would shoot them if necessary.” It blew up on social media in the same manner as a recent debate that wondered if Anne Frank had “white privilege.”

Claiming Lesko planned to shoot her own grandchildren is evidence of “bad-faith readings,” opined Grayson Quay in Spectator USA. Behaving in this way, writes Quay, “is to exchange commitment to truth for a few cheap political points. It makes communications across party lines literally impossible.”

The necessity of debate: The freedom to engage in good faith discussions on controversial topics without risking personal destruction is crucial to a successful and open society.

Politics at its core is a complicated series of discussions, debates, proposals and agreements among people with differing views. If the only point of civic interaction is to damage political opponents, as Quay points out, then meaningful discourse becomes impossible. There can be no coherent interaction if one’s political adversaries habitually default to the least-charitable and least-logical interpretation of your every statement – if necessary, going back decades to find something they can use against you. Such a situation is not a recipe for success for any side. It merely frustrates all hope of progress.

It is part of the mission of C2C Journal to resist this tendency wherever and whenever we can. Our perspective “is in favour of free markets, democratic governance and individual liberty,” as our website declares. Individual liberty rests on freedom of conscience, which includes the freedom to analyze and criticize religion – any religion. Unlike certain other outlets, we make no attempt to shut down those who hold opposing views. We would rather engage with them in the forum of ideas. Where there is a public interest in delving into controversial material, we will continue to do so. Society is depending on it.

George Koch, Editor-in-Chief. Peter Shawn Taylor, Senior Features Editor.

Source of main image: Walter Wanger Productions.

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