Collin May, attorney and former director of the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, spoke to a May 5th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Dexter Van Zile, managing editor of the Middle East Forum's Focus on Western Islamism (FWI). May discussed his ouster from the AHRC in 2022 after being accused of "Islamophobia." The following is a summary of May's comments:
Because May wrote a positive review of a book they deemed "Islamophobic" thirteen years earlier, the provincial government in Alberta terminated his employment. May has filed a wrongful dismissal suit against the Alberta government and a notice of defamation on media outlets. May attended Harvard University, where he studied Islamic philosophy. His book review of Efraim Karsh's Islamic Imperialism was published while he attended law school. In the book, Karsh, former editor of the Middle East Forum's Middle East Quarterly, addressed the "political dynamics" of Muslim majority countries by covering the "imperial background" of different caliphates in Islam's history.
In May 2022, the AHRC appointed May its chief. Two months later, a blogger affiliated with Alberta's New Democratic Party (NDP), the leading party of the Opposition, wrote a piece about May's book review. May said the blogger's piece "misrepresented" his book review by portraying it as an "Islamophobic, racist" attack that endangered "black Muslim women in Canada." The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), a lobbying group, soon injected itself into the fray and demanded an apology.
In an attempt to allay concerns, May issued a public statement, but "once you've been accused, you're finished really." The government, with its own "political interests to defend," decided to respond to the Muslim community and removed May "on the basis of 'Islamophobia.'"
The allegation against May was initially made by NDP officials and their allies, not by the Muslim community. Irfan Sabir, a Muslim and NDP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), led the charge against May. Sabir also referred to Karsh's book as Islamophobic — an accusation unsupported by other experts. Karsh's book makes no reference to Muslim minorities in the West.
During May's three-year stint as AHRC's part-time commissioner prior to his appointment as director, Rachel Notley, the Premier head of the NDP, had a good working relationship with May. In 2019, both Notley and May attended a birthday party for Sabir. Notley had never expressed concerns about May.
Further complicating the issue, Canada's House of Commons issued a "non-binding statement" years ago opposing "Islamophobia" following murders at a mosque.
Some objected out of concern that "legitimate criticism of Islam as a doctrine, or even Muslim leaders of Middle Eastern countries, could be stifled by stating that such criticism "specifically... is all 'Islamophobia.'" The concerns were minimized with claims that such a broad approach would not occur. May's case challenges the short-sighted dismissal of concerns over the weaponization of "Islamophobia" in an "obvious political manner."
At the beginning of May's ordeal, some members of the NDP in Alberta tried to stop their leaders from proceeding against May, but many "pulled back" while Sabir pushed ahead. At that point, the NCCM ratcheted up the pressure, condemning May for not prioritizing meetings with the Muslim community. Unbeknownst to the NCCM, May had met with Muslim community members, but since "advanc[ing] their agenda with the government" is NCCM's priority, removing May would be a way to flex their muscle by reinforcing their portrayal as "arbiter of all things Muslim."
During his brief time as the AHRC's director, May investigated "significant" management problems between staffers. Just prior to this webinar, May learned that the "former head of my predecessor," who had been appointed by the NDP, is currently under investigation at his new job for "bullying and mistreatment of staff." Moreover, "there does seem to be a rise in some hate crimes against Muslims in Canada, and we can't discount that."
In light of this information, May is convinced he was targeted with the charge of "Islamophobia" to "silence me for a political purpose." May's position as the AHRC chief was akin to being a judge. Notley and Sabir, both lawyers, knew that as chief, May would not be able to defend himself. Had he done so, he would have risked being seen as biased and intent on undermining the AHRC standard.
Although typically the modus operandi in cases where accusations of "Islamophobia" are leveled is to "do your mea culpa" to the offended party, it "rarely produces a good result." May's "spotless" reputation and ability to earn a livelihood in the legal and academic community have been damaged. Even though May harbors no hostility towards the Alberta government and the current governing party, his response is to "fight back" by bringing his lawsuit against the AHRC. May's case is not only a "freedom of speech issue," but also one of "academic freedom."
Remarkably, in May's dismissal papers, the AHRC did not identify which specific policy he violated. The official version is that he was "let go without cause." Had he not been let go, May would have been the first chief of the Alberta Human Rights Commission with a "broad knowledge of Islam." Given that recent attacks against Canadian Muslims have increased, May would have been "useful" had he remained in his position. AHRC's "political ploy" could well backfire by making it more difficult to successfully defend against actual hostile incitement towards Canadian Muslims in the future. AHRC's "improper use of language" in their accusation attempted to exploit "the whole intersectionality approach." Linking May's book review of more than a decade ago to a specious misrepresentation by portraying it as "violence against black Muslim women" was a brazen attempt to use "the most oppressed-looking person they could find" against May.
Resolving matters through mediation is being replaced by "aggressive accusations" that will help neither the Muslims nor the women cited as victims in the misrepresentation of May's book review. Unfortunately, the prevailing model in Canada is changing the traditional meaning of "multiculturalism" valued by Canadians. The distorted meaning of the term now is to "put our fences up around certain communities" and promote group identity instead of individual rights and freedoms. A professor at Wilfrid Laurier University recently secured a government grant to assemble a list of people who are part of the "Islamophobia industry" — a move May condemns as devoid of any academic benefit. Although May's case is still in "early litigation phase," he hopes it will cause Canadians to take a closer look at the worrisome trend of "turning things into a war of one group against another group."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.