Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Words have a mighty impact

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When we were kids, some of us would yell, "Sticks and stones will break our bones, but names will never hurt us."

But names did hurt. And they still do.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper usually doesn't engage in name calling. But once in a while he stands tall on the rampart of goodness and hurls thunderbolts at the lesser beings below him. He berated Maritimers for staying on welfare; he publicly attacked China's human rights record (until it became our second-biggest export market) and he said Alberta should build a firewall to keep out the incursions of Ottawa.

In his most recent salvo, he said the "major threat (to Canada) is still Islamicism." An interesting group including aboriginals, Muslims, Jews and Japanese-Canadians almost immediately returned fire in a half-page newspaper ad.

"There is a huge difference," said the group, "between the anti-western terrorist creed of hate and Islam, the faith that is practised by close to a million Canadian Muslims."

Harper's words "will scar the entire Muslim population across our land," said the group. "This cannot be allowed to happen. We must stand against the use of language and labels that would identify and isolate a social minority according to their race, colour, or faith."

I don't even like the words "Islamist terrorist," which is used fairly often. The phrase suggests there is a connection between the Islamic religion and terrorism. My studies in the Islamic religion indicate this is not true. The Koran does not say adherents should run around blowing up innocent civilians.

What if I wrote: "A Christian held up a local grocery store at gunpoint." You'd probably conclude that the use of the word Christian was irrelevant. The person's gunslinging had nothing to do with Christianity. To suggest otherwise is simply a slur on the Christian religion.

I'm sorry to say that when I was a young reporter I used to write stories about aboriginals being involved in various nefarious activities. Newspapers don't do that anymore. The word aboriginal is only used now if it's important on a list of physical attributes necessary for purposes of identification.

The group that returned fire with Harper talked about the harm caused by "careless and reckless language."

But carelessness is not our only problem. Some people hate Muslims, and they will slash them orally anytime they can. So there's the question: Is Islam a religion that promotes violence against Christians and others? The experts I've met say no.

Tom Graham, a Winnipeg university professor and student of Islam, told my study group that Islam, like many of the world's major religions, can be looked at this way: a large group trying to do the right thing helped by their God; a small percentage of fundamentalists and a very small percentage who are terrorists.

Fundamentalists are found in many of the world's religions. They have two characteristics: They are certain their holy book is the word of their God and cannot be open to interpretation. And some think everybody must follow their religious beliefs.

St. Paul is not so sure. In his letter to the Galatians, he says the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." Most of the world's major religions, including Islam, have similar injunctions.

There are other reasons for not slanging Islam. The Pew Research Centre's Global Attitudes Project found some suspicion, mistrust and ugly stereotypes persist among Westerners and Muslims. But there are moderates, even in Iran, who are more positive. Every time a Western leader attacks Islam unfairly it makes the moderates' job of reconciliation that much more difficult.

A recent study in New York shows that a decade of police harassment and spying has discouraged Muslims from going directly to the police with their concerns about terrorism. Without the help of moderates, police security campaigns go nowhere.

Finally, in the field of realpolitik, the Arab Spring is bringing more Islamists to power in the Middle East, a crucially important region rich in oil.

In short, Harper should watch what he says about others.

Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 21, 2011 A10

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