Media need more Muslim voices, lawyer says

Khurrum Awan speaks about suing Maclean’s magazine in 2008

Lawyer Khurrum Awan speaks to a crowd of about 30 in Biosciences Complex on Wednesday.
Lawyer Khurrum Awan speaks to a crowd of about 30 in Biosciences Complex on Wednesday.
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Khurrum Awan may not have won his human rights complaints against Maclean’s magazine, but said he’s happy people are still talking about its effects two years later.

“It was to raise awareness on the issue of media defamation, the exclusion of Muslim voices and the lack of oversight of media,” he said.

On Wednesday, Awan spoke to about 30 people in Biosciences Complex about his experience filing three highly-publicized complaints against Maclean’s in December 2007.

Awan and three other students who attended York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School launched cases with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal and the Ontario Human Rights Commission for news content they said was Islamophobic.

An article published in Maclean’s in October 2006 called “The Future Belongs to Islam,” by Mark Steyn, was the basis of the complaints.

Steyn wrote that the demographics in predominantly Muslim countries suggest the Muslim population will rise to overtake European populations, creating a breeding ground for more jihadist activity.

This view paints a monolithic picture of Islamic communities that doesn’t account for differences within them, Awan said, adding that the term “jihad” was also misused.

There were 21 other articles Maclean’s published between January 2005 and July 2007 that were also mentioned in the complaints, he said.

Maclean’s published another story by Steyn in April 2006 where he cited the Quran out of context and called Muslims “sheep-shaggers,” Awan said.

They filed the cases as a last resort because they weren’t given an opportunity to respond to the controversial pieces, he said.

He said he arranged a meeting with the Maclean’s editors to ask if he could write an article in response to the published pieces.

“I think many of the things Mark Steyn wrote and the false assertions would crumble if we were allowed to respond to that,” he said. “We were told that Maclean’s would rather bankrupt their magazine than run it.”

Although the Ontario Human Rights Commission condemned Steyn’s article as Islamophobic, it ruled in April 2008 it didn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the complaint.

The British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission subsequently dismissed the complaints.

Awan said he became interested in the issue of media defamation of Arabs and Muslims after learning about post-9/11 anti-terror legislation that he said unfairly targets people in those groups.

“The public at large believes these are necessary and you see that the media has a direct role in that,” he said. “You see the link to that kind of rhetoric and that animosity is reflected in our laws.”

Awan, who’s of Pakistani background, said he was also motivated to act by his personal experiences.

“As a Muslim, you feel it yourself, you see how the media tone has changed since 9/11,” he said. “I felt obliged to do something about it.”

He’s received threats for his involvement with the cases, he said.

“I’ve been referred to as a terrorist who has hijacked Maclean’s.”

Awan said he hopes the attention generated by the complaints puts pressure on media to give Muslims and Arabs more opportunities to have their voices heard on issues related to them.

“It’s also community empowerment,” he said. “There are a lot of us who are so used to picking up a newspaper and being slandered.”

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