The Syrian civil war has “spilled over” into... Canada. Now you might say that the land Generals Wolfe and Montcalm died for on the Plains of Abraham doesn’t have a lot in common with the Arab world. Canada, like America, is a land of the free and a refuge, indeed, for Arabs fleeing their dictators. This may be one of the reasons why ailing, 85-year-old Paula Coulton was ready to hear me speak in her Ontario town – itself frozen in -18C this winter – during a 10-city lecture tour. But Canada, alas, is also the land of political correctness and, I suspect, a certain amount of fear.
I should have guessed this when I was told that a group of Arab Muslim residents of Ottawa, Montreal and London, Ontario, objected to my reports of the Syrian civil war; so enraged were they that one faction in Ottawa sent an extraordinary, imperishable email to the organisers of my lectures. “If you believe in free speech,” it said, “please cancel Robert Fisk’s tour.” Bravo!
At one venue I was due to speak in a mosque about the Arab Awakening – and the gents and ladies of this particular Muslim clique managed to persuade their brothers and sisters that it might be a good idea if I did not speak there. The town’s volunteers, a fine bunch of folk with years of sterling work behind them in promoting debates on the real Middle East, felt they had no option but to step back from the mosque venue. And no other hall was available for my talk that night.
Of course, I’ve a pretty good idea why they didn’t want me to speak in Canada. While The Independent scrupulously covers both sides in the Syrian conflict – among my first reports, two years ago, was a description of Syrian militia cruelty in a Sunni village near the northern Lebanese border – opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s vicious regime did not like the fact my last reports came from the Syrian government side of the civil war front lines. They included interviews with Syrian army officers and details of the killing of civilians by armed rebels, as well as by the regime.
Nothing new in this. In the Lebanese civil war and in Northern Ireland, Christians, Palestinians, the IRA and the British Army variously accused me of being pro-terrorist, pro-Zionist, pro-British and pro-IRA. But these Muslim lads and lassies had gone a stage further. They were adopting precisely the same tactics as ruthless regimes used in the past against myself and other foreign correspondents. Two decades ago, I was banned from Bahrain because I reported on secret police torture, carried out – believe it or not – in an institution run by a former British Special Branch officer. Mubarak’s goons harassed me in Cairo when I reported on government torture – fellow prisoners were forced to rape each other – at the Tora jail complex. The Bahrain press cartooned me as a rabid dog. The Egyptian press claimed I was “a black crow pecking at the corpse of Egypt”.
Even more shocking was that the Muslim group was also copying exactly the methods used by lobbyists claiming to represent Israel several years ago. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prevented from speaking at Concordia University in Montreal – quite shamefully, of course – a supposedly pro-Israeli organisation published a series of bright-red posters claiming that if I was allowed to speak in Concordia the following week, anti-Semitism on the campus would increase. I challenged this nonsense by tearing down their libellous placards in front of a television crew, spoke to a full house at the university and received a standing ovation.
Not so now in one Canadian town. There these same pressures worked for the Arab Muslims who wanted to prevent me speaking. The venue was changed to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where I spoke to a far larger audience – and in a Catholic college. Another victory for Islam. Along with the fact that Mrs Coulton – in the words of her sister – was too sick to travel to hear me speak in Toronto after my earlier talk was cancelled.
All the other lectures I delivered on time – and in the scheduled venues – but I have to say that this doesn’t particularly matter. Fisk is no Edward Said or Noam Chomsky and doesn’t pretend to be. But it was an instructive lesson to find that Muslim Arabs living in Canada, resident in Canada and, I’m sure, in many cases citizens of Canada, forgot the basic freedoms of the land in which they have chosen to be. Once anger overcame them, they preferred the suppression tactics of the dictators they hate.