Author cleared of slander for saying Muslim school’s teachings go against Quebec values | National Post
2016/12/15 Leave a comment
While I find such aggressive language unnecessary (there are other ways to make the same points), the judge appears to have made the right call based upon the facts as reported:
The criticism Djemila Benhabib leveled against a private Muslim school during a 2012 radio interview was harsh. The school was providing small children indoctrination worthy of a military camp in Afghanistan, she said. It was grooming “fundamental activists.” It offered as a model a society “where men are probably going to commit honour crimes against their sisters.”
But in what her lawyer called an important victory for free speech, a judge cleared Benhabib of slander Tuesday, ruling her comments were neither erroneous nor made in bad faith.
“Certainly, these remarks are severe and could have been hurtful,” Superior Court Justice Carole Hallée wrote. “However they have a place in a democratic society like ours.”
Benhabib, an author and outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism, had begun looking into the Muslim School of Montreal after seeing a brochure in which the female students all wore hijabs. She learned on the school’s web site that children were memorizing Qur’anic passages that spoke of beautiful virgins awaiting male believers in the afterlife, while non-believers endured the fires of hell.
She told radio host Benoît Dutrizac of 98.5FM that the school was instituting a “sexual apartheid” and that it was “very far from the values of our society.”The school sued for defamation, seeking $95,000 in damages from Benhabib. It claimed the interview had led students to fear for their safety, necessitating additional security measures and provoking a drop in enrollment.
At the trial last September, Benhabib insisted her criticism was justified. “The school’s societal model is not the Quebec societal model. It is not Quebec values,” she said.
Ahmed Khebir, president of the school’s board of directors, said her interview, linking its curriculum to military camps, sparked fears within the school that it would be targeted by anti-Muslim fanatics.
“I was devastated, appalled, horrified, insulted and worried,” he testified. “How was it possible that someone who had never set foot inside our school could make such damaging and insulting statements?”
In her ruling, Hallée questioned Khebir’s credibility and said the school had presented no evidence that its reputation suffered as a result of the interview. She accepted Benhabib’s testimony that when she spoke of military camps she was not referring to terrorist-training camps but simply to a rigid military mindset.
Hallée found that enrollment figures did not support the claim of a drop, and it seems more likely that security improvements made in 2015 were the result of terror attacks in Paris, not an interview three years earlier.
More importantly, she ruled that Benhabib had not slandered the school or its students. The issues she was raising – the wearing of the hijab and memorization of religious passages in school – were matters of public interest.
“Everyone must be allowed to express themselves as freely as possible on these questions,” Hallée wrote.
Benhabib’s remarks, she continued, “are at the heart of freedom of expression’s raison d’être, that is to favour active participation in debates on subjects of public interest.”
If criticism like Benhabib’s were silenced, the judge wrote, society would suffer.
“If this protection is not given to freedom of expression in the context of a debate of interest to the public, it is society that will suffer enormous harm in that many debates will no longer be moved forward, many subjects will no longer be raised and, in the end, everyone will stop talking about it,” she wrote.