The school board in Toronto fears that a book talk with peace prize winner Nadia Murad could create Islamophobia.
When Nadia Murad was 14 years old, her village in northern Iraq was attacked by the terrorist group IS. Most of her family were killed. She herself was captured and held as a slave. She was abused and raped.
When she managed to escape three months later, she became an important witness in the fight against the extremists. She spoke openly about how IS treated the Jesuit people, to which she belongs. Her voice became so central that she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.
Now she is gagged by a school board in Toronto, Canada’s largest city.
In February 2022, Murad was scheduled to attend a book talk with a group of teenage girls in the Canadian city.
The book talk is part of the series “A room of your own”, where the idea is for young girls to read a book which they can then discuss with the book’s author. The events take place in collaboration with the Toronto School Board, which encourages students to participate.
But this time the school board did not want to have anything to do with the book talk.
Had to explain the difference
Why? Because school superintendent Helen Fisher believed that the conversation with Nadia Murad could “promote Islamophobia”.
She told Tanya Lee, who arranges the book talk, according to the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.
Lee responded by sending Fisher an e-mail with factual information about IS.
“The Islamic State is a terrorist organization. It has nothing to do with ordinary Muslims. The school board should be aware of the difference, “Lee wrote.
But the school inspector stood his ground. In a new response to Lee, she attached a copy of the school board’s guidelines for what kind of reading material they wanted to promote.
And Nadia Murad’s autobiography, in which she tells of her own struggle against extreme Islamism, was not within these guidelines, according to the school board.
Fisher also drew support for another book talk, this time with lawyer Marie Henein. This was because Henein had been the defender of the TV celebrity Jian Ghomeshi. In 2014, he was accused of sexually abusing his ex-girlfriend, which he denied.
The school board’s decision to withdraw support for the two book talks has received a lot of attention both in Canada and abroad. After the case became known, the board also seems to have changed its mind.
“This is just a misunderstanding,” board spokesman Ryan Bird told The Globe and Mail.
But it is still unclear whether the school board will recommend sending rivers to the book talks. Marie Henein, who grew up with immigrant parents and has become a highly respected lawyer in Canada, is not impressed.
– There is a word for this, and it is not a “misunderstanding”, she says to The Globe and Mail.
Several commentators point out that both Henein and Murad seem to be punished by the school board because they can be associated with controversial topics – not because they have done something wrong themselves.
– This case with Marie Henein can perhaps be dismissed as little more than deeply clumsy. The case of Nadia Murad, on the other hand, deliberately combines ignorance with intense insult, writes commentator Rex Murphy in the Toronto newspaper National Post.
Destroy Asterix and Tintin
It is also not the first time a school board in the Canadian city has received attention because of how they weigh freedom of speech against the fear of offending someone.
In 2019, a Catholic, French-language school board in the state of Ontario decided to destroy 4,700 books because they could appear offensive to the country’s indigenous people.
Among them were comic books about Asterix, Tintin and Lucky Luke. 90 of them were burned to make ash that could be included in manure, according to Radio Canada.
Both authors and a number of other Canadians reacted strongly to books being banned and destroyed. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came on the scene.
– It is not up to the non-indigenous people to tell the indigenous people how they should feel. But on a personal level, I would never even agree to burn books, he said.