York Regional Police’s hate crimes unit is looking into allegations of an assault against a Muslim professor at a recent conference on free speech and the rule of law.
Jasmin Zine, a sociology and Muslim studies professor at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., claims her arm was twisted and that she was thrown out of the conference organized by Canadians for the Rule of Law (CFTLR), after she asked questions of a panelist.
York Regional Police spokesperson Const. Andy Pattenden told The CJN that the case has “a specially trained hate crime investigator as the lead.” He added that, “We cannot provide any investigative updates at this time.”
Zine told The CJN that she consulted a physician and a chiropractor for a “slight sprain” in her right wrist, after her arm was twisted by a man at the conference.
She said that after the incident, she was escorted out of the hall by a security gaurd and then called police.
Held March 17, the conference explored “The new taboo: Respect for the rule of law.” It had a large Jewish presence: sponsoring groups included B’nai Brith Canada, the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, Hasbara Fellowships, Shurat HaDin and Canadians for Israel’s Legal Rights. Kashrut was observed at the event.
Other groups and speakers represented Canada Christian College, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem and the Lawfare Project.
The day-long affair examined hate speech, sham charities, media misinformation and taking action against the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.
Zine, who has researched the effects of Islamophobia on Muslim youth, said that she and some of her graduate students paid $80 each to register for the conference. She said she did not plan on speaking.
“I went really just to hear the viewpoints that were being expressed and the kind of arguments that were being made to support them,” she said.
In an article she wrote for the online publication The Conversation, Zine said she spent “a long day of being a fly on the wall at this conference, hearing non-stop pro-Zionist rhetoric denying that Israel was oppressing Palestinians and consuming a steady diet of Islamophobic bigotry.”
According to Zine, the trouble began during an afternoon session on terrorism and public safety, when she “finally decided to intervene” by posing a question to panelist Christine Douglass-Williams.
Zine said she asked about a speech Douglass-Williams gave in Iceland in 2017 alongside U.S. author and blogger Robert Spencer*, in which she warned Icelanders about allowing an “Islamic supremacist incursion into your country.” Zine said she asked whether Douglass-Williams had similar warnings for Canadians.
Douglass-Williams became “defensive” and the session’s moderator became “angry and told me I couldn’t speak anymore. He told me to leave,” wrote Zine.
Zine said she was trying “to exercise my free speech rights, which this conference purported to uphold. The moderator … informed me I was now trespassing and had to leave.”
Zine acknowledged that the organizers had the right to ask her to leave. She said she rose to leave, “as instructed by the moderator,” but she made one final comment: “I said their thinly veiled white supremacist views and Islamophobic fear-mongering is the kind of rhetoric that inspires white nationalist terror.”
A man from the audience then “grabbed me and pulled me from the room, twisting my arm with force. I shouted to the silent onlookers: ‘This man is hurting me! He has no right to touch me!’ ”
She said a man in the audience shouted, “You’re lucky to even be in this country!”
Zine told The CJN that as someone who was brought to Canada from Pakistan as a child, “that’s something I grew up hearing. Comments like that are hurtful.” She said her statement, even if provocative, “was not a justification for being assaulted.”
Zine said there is no video of the incident because conference participants had to surrender their cellphones. She said she described her assailant to police, who told her that he had left the area.
The conference had been scheduled to take place at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto, but the congregation backed out last December, citing “security and police concerns.” That decision came a day after journalist Michael Coren alleged in an article in Toronto’s NOW Magazine that some of the groups and speakers at the event have a “disturbing” history of anti-Muslim and anti-gay rhetoric, and support for far-right causes.
The event moved to a banquet hall in Vaughan, Ont., a location that was disclosed only to those who registered.
The CFTRL’s website promised the event would “expose those who are working to undermine the civil rights of minority groups and using radical extreme views to justify it. It will educate people on how to uphold their basic rights to free speech and assembly. The teach-in will specifically address the range of challenges posed to the rule of law by the radical left, radical Islamists and the radical right.”
The CJN was unable to reach Douglass-Williams for comment.
David Nitkin, who was listed on the conference’s schedule as the moderator of the session in question and is described on the CFTLR’s website as the group’s secretary and as a “professional ethicist,” did not return his messages. Neither did Donald Carr, the organization’s president (and an honorary director of The CJN).
Carr did, however, respond to The Conversation. Asked why Zine was forcibly removed, Carr replied in an email to the publication that she “did not conform to clearly stated rules relating to asking questions of the panelists.”
Carr said Zine was asked to surrender the microphone after asking her question and that conference organizers then considered her to be a “trespasser on private property” and asked the conference’s private security firm to escort her out.
Carr told The Conversation that an “unknown individual from the audience seized the professor to take her out, but on request, released her,” and a security officer escorted Zine to the lobby of the building.
Carr said a police officer subsequently interviewed several people and told conference staff that there “had been no illegal action.”
Indeed, in an email to Zine shortly after her complaint, the investigating officer who appeared at the scene said that moderator of the session in question “was aware of the situation and advised me he did not know the identity of the suspect, (who) was selling books in between each session, but his name was not revealed in the event program.”
The officer said that those he interviewed regarding the incident “were not very forthcoming with information on the suspect,” adding that he was “sorry I could not find the suspect and give you any more closure in this upsetting matter.”
Zine, however, pressed police to re-examine the matter, before it was transferred to the hate crimes unit.
*CORRECTION: This story has been changed to correct an earlier description of Robert Spencer as a “white nationalist.” The CJN regrets the error.