Concordia University’s administration recently announced that it was going to offer professional support to its Muslims Students’ Association (MSA) to review books in the association’s library after the news network, TVA, made allegations against the student-run library and the inappropriate content in some of its books. After the TVA pointed out the questionable texts in the library’s collection, the MSA sought help from the administration to cull its collection. This incident renewed a recent political debate taking place in Montreal regarding the balance between vigilance and openness in combating extremism, and highlighted a breach of power by the MSA and the Concordia administration who are willing to censor the content of the student-run library.
According to the MSA’s official statement, the organization came to the university for help, a fact that the administration has not ceased to stress. The targeted texts included some written by authors who have made statements in support of wife beating, female genital mutilation, and the death penalty. According to the administration, the books removed “would be those that are not meeting the users’ need.” Such statements have weakened the administration’s defence that it is only providing an advisory opinion, not imposing censorship. Nevertheless, critics have denounced these measures as censorship, and rightfully so. The administration’s comments strangely echo Mayor Denis Coderre’s words about finding a balance between “vigilance and openness” in the face of religious extremism. Books that “cross the line,” or are “radical and too extreme,” and hence not in line with society’s values, could be permanently removed from the shelves.
This review brought many issues under the spotlight. First of all, Muslims and books written by Muslim authors, specifically, are the ones under scrutiny. The fact that this potential censure is targeted at Muslims, a group that has been scapegoated recently by the Quebec government, is especially worrisome. Many have expressed their concerns and questioned why the attention has been limited to writings from Muslim authors and the MSA, and not other radical books or libraries. Notably, the example of Hitler’s Mein Kampf has been used repeatedly to highlight the fact books promoting radicalism and violence are not uncommon in university libraries.
But what is more disturbing than the spotlight on the Muslim community is the fact that Concordia’s review is overstepping the boundary between vigilance and censorship. On one hand, at a time of growing instability and extremism, and with the brutality of radical groups commonplace in the news, there is certainly a need to be careful about the spread of radical discourse. On the other hand, openness implies that society should have sensible discussions about current issues, and a university is the perfect place for both free speech and mutual respect. However, given the co-optation of discussion in favor of vigilance on campus, it is questionable whether the university is the right place to seek to control this discourse.
According to Concordia University President Alan Shepard, the university is built on three essential pillars: Academic freedom, free speech, and mutual respect. But suddenly it seems as though two of these values are not worth defending in the face of growing extremism for the Concordia administration and the MSA. Indeed, a university has to balance between the rights of students to have access to academic books and its obligations promote a healthy and safe environment for debate. But for students at the university level to debate such ideas, they need to have books for both sides of the controversy. Isn’t the university a place where the community can and should have debates about radicalization and extremism?
As the source for academic research, the university library needs to have a variety of books that includes both sides of a historical struggle or a contemporary debate. It is then up to the students to think critically about these works, and up to the public to understand that the most controversial books are not necessarily representative of the administration’s beliefs.