“This is totally crazy. Are we going to go back to the dark ages and start burning books now?” – Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, as quoted in the Montreal Gazette
On Friday Feb. 27, the Quebecor media empire’s flagship television network TVA reported on a visit it had made, hidden camera in tow, to the library maintained by Concordia University’s Muslim Students’ Association.
The unannounced raid encountered women wearing headscarves and a number of confused students unable to immediately defend the entire catalogue of a library built over a decade and a half. But worse yet, TVA reported, some of the authors whose work was in the library had made offensive statements on other occasions.
Got that? We’re not talking about the content of the books in the library, according to TVA, but the remarks made by some authors in other writings or interviews. It’s an important distinction, at least so long as we continue to venerate great authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, who did really horrible things like marrying his 13-year-old cousin.
For Quebecor, owned by soon-to-be leader of the Parti Québécois Pierre-Karl Peladeau, this type of Muslim-baiting reportage is grist for its Fox News-style outrage factory. It withdrew from the Quebec Press Council in 2010, which adjudicates complaints of journalistic malpractice, and in early 2014 was caught publishing falsified statements from the Montreal police to confirm its theory that a woman killed in the metro was pulled to her death by her hijab. (A coroner’s inquest confirmed she wasn’t, and full disclosure, I wrote the story).
Despite being exposed as fraudulent in a National Post exposé, Quebecor issued no retraction, and the original unaltered article remains online to this day.
Privately, journalists at competing outlets tell similar stories about their frustrations when trying to follow up on many Quebecor stories. Disappearing sources, disavowed quotes and stories torqued to feed the appetites of those who distrust Muslims are all too common.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Quebecor, which owns over 40 per cent of the media consumed in Quebec, is acting out a political agenda. Its outlets stoke the fires of religious intolerance for the political benefit of those who aim to profit from division.
The question is, why is Concordia University going along with this race-baiting nonsense?
In a December 2014 statement opposing a student-initiated referendum on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions towards Israel, Concordia University President Alan Shepard opened with a short but eloquent summation of the role of higher education.
“Universities have significant modern roots in academic freedom, free speech, and mutual respect. The university's mission depends on these essential pillars, as they make possible our very purpose — to test ideas, to test society, to test ourselves. These values are never more crucial than when we are tackling an idea that is complex, controversial and emotional.”
Shepard concluded, “All members of our community have an obligation to uphold the principles of academic freedom, free speech and mutual respect. I wish to affirm strongly my commitment to these values. These are not hollow placeholders but essential values.” Scarcely three months later, and those essential values are starting to look more and more like hollow placeholders.
Library, purge thyself
On Mar. 4 the Montreal Gazette reported that Concordia’s dean of students, Andrew Woodall, had called for a meeting with the Muslim Students’ Association to discuss the TVA report and that in the meantime the students had agreed to remove a number of books from their library.
University spokesperson Chris Mota was quoted in the article expressing concern over “potentially illegal or inappropriate content” in a student library.
A follow-up the next day reported that the dean and Muslim Students’ Association had agreed to have Concordia library staff conduct a review of all books in the collection to ensure the contents “reflect the law and reflect the values of the institution and our society.”
Despite repeated requests from multiple media outlets, no member of the university administration has been able to provide any insight into the criteria that will be used to purge the library of books deemed guilty of what George Orwell might have described as “thought crime.”
“It's blowing my mind that the MSA [Muslim Students’ Association] is actually having to remove books in response to this,” said alumni and former Concordia Student Union executive Gonzo Nieto. “And that it's okay for the university to refer to this literature as ‘potentially illegal or inappropriate content.’ Sorry, what's illegal about writing? Why is the university not coming to the defence of the MSA and criticizing TVA for unfair and sensationalistic coverage?”
‘Concordia is not a place where books are censored’
Concordia released the following statement on Mar. 6, in response to critical coverage in the Gazette and elsewhere.
In response to a series of emailed questions from Ricochet, Mota clarified that the university believes there is no law in Canada that would make a book illegal, contrary to earlier statements to the Gazette about “potentially illegal or inappropriate content.”
“‘Inappropriate’ books in this context,” wrote Mota, “would be those that are not meeting the users' needs.”
In response to a question about the criteria that will be used during the “review” of the Muslim Students’ Association’s collection, Mota reiterated that the administration is simply offering advice and expertise. “We may propose things, but they will make the decisions,” she said.
Asked if she could identify any examples of objectionable content in any of the books held in the library, Mota replied, “We don't have any examples.”
“We were quite disturbed on a number of levels,” added Mota about the TVA report. “We felt the MSA was unfairly targeted. We also felt the way TVA went about producing their report was aggressive and unprofessional. We felt the students deserved the university’s support so we reached out to them immediately and have been in constant communication since then. When they decided to review the contents of their collection we offered our professional support.”
Mota acknowledged that this is the first time the university has publicly criticized the TVA report, which aired on Feb. 27.
Speaking to Ricochet, Mota was at pains to emphasize that the Muslim Students’ Association came to the administration for help, and they are merely trying to support the association.
This seems to be at least somewhat at odds with the facts as reported by the Gazette, but frankly it doesn’t matter.
A bunch of scared university students who are already members of one of the most socially isolated and vulnerable segments of society have been singled out and attacked by the largest media outlet in the province, over books that have been in the library since long before their time and which I doubt they have ever read.
I don’t expect them to stand on principle. I expect them to dive for the nearest foxhole and do anything they can to make the attacks stop. The damnable thing here is that the educational institution charged with keeping these students safe dove for cover itself rather than stand up for academic freedom and the importance of libraries, in the process throwing its students under the bus.
“There is no discrepancy,” Mota replied to a question about why Hitler’s Mein Kampf was acceptable in the school library, while books in the Muslim Students’ Association’s library were being targeted for removal. “Your question assumes that recommendations will be made to remove books from the MSA library. That may not happen. Let’s wait to see what comes out of the review.”
Mota was adamant that the university would not be “assisting in the culling or censorship of books.” Be that as it may, it’s hard to discern a meaningful difference between an administration review of the library to ensure its contents are “appropriate” — and presumably remove titles that are not — and the culling and censorship of books.
This review is being conducted in response to a report that the university agrees unfairly targeted Muslim students. The administration is compounding that harm by targeting the Muslim Students’ Association’s library for a review to which no other library on campus is subject.
Members of the administration had a chance to do their job with distinction: to protect their students, to model opposition to religious intolerance, and to show courage in the face of media manipulation. They never tried.
Concordia students deserve better
"Purging libraries is not a thing we do in free and fair societies,” says Patrice Blais, professor of business law and ethics and vice-president of Concordia’s part-time faculty association. “It’s certainly not an action universities, the grand repositories of human knowledge, are supposed to cheer on. And yet here we have our university, whose own library carries copies of Mein Kampf, leading a review for content deemed ‘inappropriate.’ There is definitely some explaining to do.”
And let’s remember, no one has alleged that any of the books in the library contain inappropriate content, only that their authors have said or written inappropriate things elsewhere. The university is entertaining a hunt for books, regardless of their content, whose authors have offended our sensibilities.
Quebecor’s sensationalism is no surprise, given its long and well-documented history of fear-mongering when it comes to Muslims. But we should expect better from a public educational institution. If the university administration is unable to muster the intestinal fortitude to stand up to Quebecor and defend the basic rights of students, then perhaps it is time to pass on the reins to someone who will.
No matter what happens next, the black eye on the reputation of the university will remain. The administration has messed the bed here, and the stink will linger. But it can limit the damage by immediately apologizing to the Muslim Students’ Association and cancelling the scheduled “review” of the library.
Anything less and Alan Shepard should be polishing his resume.
UPDATE Mar. 7 3:42 EST:
UPDATE Mar. 9 6:09 EST: Concordia spokesperson Chris Mota sent the following clarifications:
Points one and two refer to elements of this report which were sourced from the Gazette reports and Mota tells me she has taken her concerns up with them.
On point four I asked Mota how she reconciled this statement: "The university will not be calling for the removal of any book from the MSA library" with her own quotes above about how the administration might propose books to be removed.