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New head of Canadian Human Rights Commission investigated over allegations of antisemitism

Before being appointed leader of the human rights Commission, Birju Dattani shared a stage with a member of an Islamic fundamentalist group and called for boycotting Israel

By National Post

June 26, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

The federal government announced it is opening up an investigation of Birju Dattani, the newly appointed head of the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), after allegations of anti-Israel activism.

“We have become aware of potentially troubling statements attributed to Mr. Dattani as well as events he participated in while he was a graduate student in London, England a decade ago,” Chantalle Aubertin, a spokesperson for federal Attorney General and Justice Minister Arif Virani, told National Post in a statement. “It is critical for the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission to maintain the confidence of all Canadians and to be seen as an impartial and fair judge of matters before them.”

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“We are carefully reviewing these statements and discussing them with Mr. Dattani, as well as relevant stakeholders.”

Shortly after Dattani was appointed to lead the CHRC in mid-June, National Post learned that in 2015 he had shared the stage with a member of an Islamic fundamentalist group and repeatedly lectured during “Israel Apartheid Week” at British universities about the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. According to a Government of Canada factsheet, attempts to boycott and sanction Israel are one of its six core examples of antisemitism.

Shimon Fogel, the long-standing president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), told the Post that the organization is “deeply concerned” about Dattani’s appointment given that he “has directly associated with individuals and groups affiliated with listed terror entities and has a history of making highly troubling antisemitic statements.” Fogel saw Dattani’s ascension to head the CHRC as underscoring “a crisis of confidence” with the body that “undermines our confidence in the Commission’s ability to adjudicate issues of hate and discrimination.”

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Fogel said the controversy calls into question the justice ministry’s vetting process.

“CIJA has been in discussions with the Federal government not only about the revelations about Dattani but also about the failures in the vetting process. The government has expressed concerns and has committed to continuing that consultation over the coming days.”

The CHRC stood by Dattani and said in a statement that the organization is looking forward to him starting his new role on Aug. 8.

“Mr. Dattani was independently appointment by the Minister of Justice and the Commission is preparing to welcome him,” the statement said. “We trust that Mr. Dattani’s experience and expertise in human rights will serve him well when he assumes the role of Chief Commissioner.”

Dattani said nothing in his past disqualifies him from his new role at the CHRC. He denied he supports the BDS movement and said he does not share the views of everyone he has spoken alongside.

“I have never held the views put to me in your question,” he told the Post in an emailed statement. “With respect to the panels you cited, I spoke on many panels as a graduate student with people holding a range of views. This does not mean I shared or agreed with the views of other panellists.”

Dattani said that the conversations he previously had about boycotting Israel were “one of my scholarly interests” and an area he previously published on. He disagreed that his participation in such forums equated with endorsing such views.

“As an academic, I have discussed, often in great detail, the BDS movement. That being said, I have not personally or publicly endorsed the BDS movement. My current and previous roles require that I impartially defend the human rights of Canadians from all walks of life, backgrounds and lived experiences in line with Canadian law,” he wrote.

“It is not a question of ‘still endorsing’ these views as I never held nor endorsed these views. I do not think the views that I actually hold or my past activities … are disqualifying or contrary to the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition on antisemitism. My tenure at both the Alberta and Yukon Commissions included broad support for their anti-racism policies, which include the IHRA definition.

“I am wholly committed to combating anti-Semitism.”

Dattani’s earlier activities are difficult to trace because he went by his middle name, Mujahid, during his academic years. However, he acknowledged to the Post: “I did, and sometimes still do, go by the middle name Mujahid, or by my full name, first, middle and last.”

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In 2012, Dattani protested outside the Israeli embassy in London as crowds reportedly chanted, “Zionism is terrorism” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The protest was organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign — a group he spoke to three years later during its Israel Apartheid Week. At the 2012 protest, a Marxist outlet covering the event reported he said that the “recent act of aggression by the state of Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory is what brought me here tonight” and that he said he would like to see the “international community act upon the innumerable (UN) Security Council resolutions that Israel has trampled upon with impunity.”

“Workers should boycott Israel and Israeli goods,” the paper quoted him as saying.

Dattani said the author “attributes to me quotes I’ve never said, bar one,” pointing to the following statement, which was published in the original piece between the above quotations: “This picket demonstrates the unequivocal need to show the state of Israel that people who respect human rights and the rule of law will express their outrage.”

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In 2015, while a teaching assistant at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the United Kingdom, Dattani participated in an event hosted by the university’s Muslim Students’ Association that featured Adnan Khan as a fellow panellist. “The Middle East and the Muslim World have been the subject of political intrigue, having faced the downfall of the Caliphate followed by the imposition of Colonialism and Imperialism,” the event description explained.

Adnan is a member of Hizb Ut Tahrir, the “Party of Liberation,” a group that advocates for the re-establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Hizb Ut Tahrir cancelled an event in Ontario earlier this year after it was designated a terror group in the U.K. The British government cited its “history of praising and celebrating attacks against Israel and attacks against Jews more widely.” It is also banned in Germany, Indonesia, China and Russia, as well as several Arab states.

Adnan’s writings were found amongst Osama Bin Laden’s papers by American special forces following their raid on his Pakistani compound in 2011. “Apostasy is a question of what kind of person would openly and publicly abandon Islam with full knowledge that they will be killed for it, rather than either keeping it to themselves or leave the Khilafah. Hence, the death penalty only applies on those who in the Khilafah openly leave Islam, and choose to remain in the state despite knowing the law,” Adnan wrote in Islamic reformation: The Battle for Hearts and Minds, one of his books found at Bin Laden’s compound.

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During the 2014 and 2015 academic years, Dattani lectured at several Israel Apartheid Week events, including at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics (LSE). At the former event – “Reality, Legality and Resistance” – Dattani shared the stage with Ben White, an activist who previously defended Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” A decade before, White wrote an article explaining why he could “understand” people who held antisemitic views.

“I was somewhat startled by this, since I do not consider myself an anti-Semite, yet I can also understand why some are. There are, in fact, a number of reasons. One is the state of Israel, its ideology of racial supremacy and its subsequent crimes committed against the Palestinians,” he wrote in 2002. “It is because Zionists have always sought to equate their colonial project with Judaism that some misguidedly respond to what they see on their televisions with attacks on Jews or Jewish property.”

In 2014, Dattani spoke on a panel at a Turkish university with Osama Qashoo, a member of the Mavi Marmara flotilla who was arrested four years earlier for trying to breach Israel’s naval cordon of the Gaza Strip. The CHRC head told the Post he was not aware of Qashoo’s previous activism until the request for comment. 

“Mujahid Dattani gives an informational speech about the BDS movement,” the university’s Islamic studies club tweeted at the time.

When Dattani’s appointment was announced, the attorney general said his background made him perfect for a role fighting racism.

“He brings a wealth of both professional and personal lived experience to this role. Our government remains committed to the protection of all human rights in Canada, including the fight against racism, and to strengthening our country’s role within the international human rights system,” Virani said in a statement on June 14.

Fogel said that Dattani had reached out to CIJA “to meet” following the Post’s initial inquiry. “If and when Mr. Dattani repudiates his past, CIJA would be willing to engage with him,” the president said.

“Dattani must denounce his past positions and affiliations and make clear that his current perspective aligns with Canadian values and policy, including acceptance of the IHRA definition of antisemitism — a position adopted by the Government of Canada and most provinces, but which Mr. Dattani has opposed,” he said.


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