Extremism and the Dark Side of Facebook

Today the Globe and Mail ran an interesting story about a Canadian MP who received a threat over Facebook (pasted below).

"The vile message was posted, of all places, on Facebook. While this was new, the sentiments, sadly, were not. Once again, MP Ujjal Dosanjh had been targeted for a threat to his physical safety.

An e-mail sent late last week to the Vancouver MP's Facebook site said that he should be beaten "just like they did before," a chilling reference to the near-fatal beating Mr. Dosanjh received in 1985 after speaking out against violence within the Sikh community. It was the second reference to violence against the federal Liberals' foreign affairs critic and one-time NDP premier in recent months.

An editorial in an Ontario Sikh newspaper last May referred to the brutal attack on Mr. Dosanjh as a time when "some guru's loved one beat him well" and left it as an open question for readers to decide whether the beating was deserved or not.

Yesterday, an undeterred Mr. Dosanjh said the time has come for politicians of all stripes to wake up to the dangers such threats pose to the fabric of free speech in the country. "We like to believe these things can't happen in Canada. That's naive. They can happen here," Mr. Dosanjh said. "I've never been afraid in my life and I don't intend to be afraid. But the fact is, there are always dangers lurking out there and people need to speak out. We can't allow these hate-mongers to stifle the free expression of those they don't agree with."

The most recent threats against Mr. Dosanjh follow his call for police to investigate a huge Sikh parade this spring that featured a float extolling Talwinder Singh Parmar as a martyr. Mr. Parmar, named in the Air India judgment as ringleader of the 1985 terrorist bombing plot that claimed 331 lives, was subsequently killed by police in India.

The Facebook e-mail that urged Mr. Dosanjh's beating referred to the veteran politician as "the biggest disgrace to the Sikh panth [community]. "It's disgusting to know that a person like you calls themselves a Sikh. ... you support those moderates." The sender's Facebook site contained pictures of some elderly Sikhs and the Sikh Golden Temple of Amritsar. The sender identified himself as Jag Singh.

Mr. Dosanjh, who has turned both recent threats over to the RCMP, said he is taking the Facebook warning far more seriously than the provocative editorial. "I hope it is a harmless crank. Nothing would make me happier. But this is a strong threat. More direct. You just never know. One has to be concerned," said Mr. Dosanjh, for years a consistent, outspoken opponent of Sikh extremism. "The fact that there have been two of these so close together tells me that there is a systematic campaign going on out there to intimidate and silence anyone who has the courage to speak out."

In 1998, Surrey, B.C., newspaper publisher Tara Singh Hayer, who wrote numerous scathing editorials against Sikh extremists and their sometimes violent quest for an independent Sikh homeland, was assassinated. Mr. Hayer's son David, a member of the provincial legislature, joined Mr. Dosanjh yesterday in urging politicians of all parties to begin speaking out more forcefully against groups who support such terrorism. David Hayer said that he, too, receives threats when he condemns supporters of Sikh violence. "All politicians have to stand up and say clearly that terrorism is wrong, and societies that promote terrorism are not acceptable," he said. "If we close our minds to it, then these kinds of threats will just continue."

Mr. Dosanjh, 59, said the many threats he has weathered over the years have taken a toll. "My kids were young in the 1980s when I used to receive dozens of threats. They've grown up with it," he said. "They're always worried about their father, and their father's always worried about them."
But neither the savage beating he received more than 20 years ago, nor the fire-bombing of his office in the 1990s, nor any of the numerous verbal threats have weakened his will to speak his mind. "I've lived through this stuff for years. If anything, it always makes me more determined to exercise my right to free speech," Mr. Dosanjh said."