Even in Canada, not-so-veiled threats (National Post, February 22, 2006)

Far from the riots, vandalism, church burnings and murders by Muslim mobs in the wake of the Danish cartoons, Canada has so far played the role of concerned onlooker. Like the proverbial country mouse, we peacefully nibble a secure crust in our rural granary, watching with wide-eyed incredulity as the city mice of Europe, the Middle East and Africa snatch bites of Camembert between anxious dashes to safety behind their barricaded mouse holes.

That's to say, while real churches burn and real people die abroad in anti-Western hate acts, here in Canada we have enjoyed the luxury of calm, civilized debates over the limits of free speech, or the line between respect for sacred icons and appeasement of intolerant bullies.

It's all been very hypothetical so far, because for a variety of stated reasons our national media declined to republish the cartoons. Then the Western Standard magazine bucked the trend and printed them. I was particularly struck by publisher Ezra Levant's open admission that while he believes exposing the seminal news item of the story was the right thing to do, he fears for his personal safety as a result of his decision.

Levant spoke of hiring protection against physical assault. He threw it out in a casual aside ("You get security ... you deal with it"), and in Europe or the Middle East it wouldn't cause a ripple of reflection. But for me it was a defining Canadian moment. To paraphrase an ignominious Liberal campaign ad: "A magazine publisher feels he needs security against possible acts of Muslim revenge for re-publishing political cartoons. Fear of violence by fellow citizens against his person. For exercising free speech. In Canada. I am not making this up."

Ironically, while the original military ad I have just mocked quite rightly provoked a national chorus of indignation for its hyperbolic and baseless fear-mongering, I doubt my little parody will arouse righteous anger or laughter or anything but introspection, at least amongst media professionals. A physical coward myself, Ezra's remark made me conscious of the fact that I tend to avoid commenting on any news story with Islamic "hot buttons" at its core -- and when I do, as follows, I weigh and scrutinize every word and nuance of tone in a way I don't when critiquing, say, feminists or Liberals. From a Western point of view, this is not a great compliment to Islam's modern reputation, but there it is.

Mainstream Canadian Muslim organizations have publicly and explicitly repudiated the legitimacy of violence as a form of protest, a helpful and encouraging response to the tension. But other voices are being raised with more worrying views. On Sunday, 3,000 Muslims gathered in Toronto to protest the Danish cartoons, to call for bans against further similar material and to predict economic implosion in Denmark. One protester's sign spoke of a "countdown to justice" for the cartoonist.

He said "justice" meant only a jail sentence, not death. Call me a cynic, but I am skeptical.

Then there's Khalid Qasim, a protest organizer, who said of the cartoons, "This is a continuing process of humiliating Muslims and we cannot take this humiliation any more." "Cannot take"? "Any more"? Call me paranoid, but I hear a threat.

Most disquieting of all, Sheik Ahmad Shehab, a Toronto imam, said to a cheering crowd: "We will watch the oppressors burn their economy down. We will watch them drown in their own blood ... The oppressors will see what type of a turn their affairs will take. It will take a terrible turn."

Call me a pessimist, but when I hear the words "burn," "drown in their own blood" and "terrible turn" bandied around by the spokesman of a protest, and cheering ensues, I don't assume it's just rhetoric, and I worry that in a supportive crowd of 3,000, at least one listener may decide, perhaps because of the Western Standard's republication of the offending cartoons, that Canadians are also "the oppressors."

Like the mouse in the fable who chose the boredom and peace of the country over the excitement and danger at the heart of the action, our national media tried to distance themselves from the fray by withholding news evidence. Whether you think Levant acted from folly or courage, his choice to republish the cartoons may have erased the distinction between the "city mice" over there and the "country mice" here by awakening, amongst thousands of other gentle domestic tabbies with a live-and-let-live philosophy toward mice, the one feral, mouse-hating cat that is too dangerous to bell.

© National Post 2006