The relevant facts

Ottawa Citizen, Canada
April 1 2004

The relevant facts

The arrest this week of Ottawa resident Mohammad Momin Khawaja on
charges of aiding a terrorist group and facilitating a terrorist
activity brought the war on terror a little closer to Canada. It also
prompted considerable debate about whether it was right for the
media, including the Citizen, to identify Mr. Khawaja as a Muslim. We
believe it was.

Mr. Khawaja, 24, who lives in Orleans, is a Canadian by birth, a
software developer by profession and a Muslim by faith. All of those
facts were reported by the Citizen, but only the reference to his
religion has caused controversy. Of particular concern was the
Citizen’s front-page headline Tuesday: “Ottawa Muslims held in global
terror sweep,” which prompted several complaints to the paper and a
letter to the editor from Ed Broadbent and Warren Allmand, two former
presidents of the International Centre for Human Rights and
Democratic Development, calling the reference “the most offensive we
can recall.”

In normal circumstances, identifiers such as a person’s race,
religion, nationality, marital status or sexual orientation would not
be included in a news article unless it was, or could be, relevant to
the story. When diplomats from Turkey were attacked in Canada, the
nationality of their attackers was relevant, given a series of
similar attacks by groups seeking to avenge the mass killing of
Armenians in 1916. When terrorists blew up an Air India jet over the
Atlantic Ocean in 1985, the fact that the principal suspects were
Sikh was also relevant.

Today, in an era of Islamist terrorism that has killed thousands of
people in such diverse places as New York, Washington, Istanbul, Bali
and Madrid, it is legitimate for a news story on a police raid linked
to the global war on terror to indicate the religion of the person or
persons detained. Spaniards know this only too well after the March
11 attacks on three Madrid trains: Initially, suspicion fell on
Basque terrorists, but it quickly became clear that Osama bin Laden’s
al-Qaeda network was to blame.

Identifying a terrorism suspect’s religion is not to brand every
adherent of that religion a potential terrorist. Just as the majority
of Roman Catholics opposed the murderous ways of the Irish Republican
Army, so too the majority of the world’s Muslims reject and condemn
the violent intolerance preached in the name of Islam by such people
as Mr. bin Laden.

When a terrorist suspect is arrested, whether in Ottawa or elsewhere
in Canada, our readers have a right to know all of the relevant facts
to help them understand what has happened. In this case, Mr.
Khawaja’s background, where he worked, lived and travelled, and, yes,
his religious affiliation, are important elements of the story that
we have a duty to report.

As an editorial on this page explained yesterday, we understand and
empathize with the sensitivity and feelings of vulnerability
experienced by some members of Ottawa’s Muslim community. These
concerns are real and must be taken into account, not only by the
news media in reporting this story, but also by police and
prosecutors as the case moves through the justice system.