by Hayy Yaqzan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 47, No. 11, Rabi' al-Thani, 1440)
A very unusual video emerged online on December 17, 2018. A straight-faced Hindu Nazi, Ranendra “Ron” Banerjee, sitting at a table facing a camera, read from a piece of paper. Here is some of what he said, “I said that in order to be permitted entry into the Paramount Fine Foods restaurant you gotta be a jihadist. I also said you need credentials, you have to have raped your wife a few times to be allowed in there. […] I have learned that it was wrong to attack Mr. Fakih because of his religion or where he is from. Such hate has no place in Canada and I will not make public statements of this nature in the future.”
What was unusual about this video was that this does not sound at all like the Ron Banerjee whose hateful rhetoric was described in detail in an article in last month’s Crescent International (December 2018). Rather, this was a humbled and humiliated Banerjee who had the full force of the law brought against him at the initiative of a Muslim, Mohamed Fakih, who chose to make a stand against Banerjee’s bigotry. This is an example of how effective it can be for Muslims to be aware of their rights and to use them as part of an organized effort to dismantle Islamophobia.
Banerjee did not have a change of heart — his apology was part of a legal settlement. On July 20, 2017, Banerjee and another virulent Islamophobe, Kevin Johnston, decided to join a protest outside the Paramount Fine Foods restaurant in Mississauga. The protest was organized by the Jewish Defence League (JDL) and was against the government’s settlement payment to former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr. Fakih had organized a fundraiser for the Liberal Party at his restaurant. Among the many attendees was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. While at the protest, Banerjee and Johnston recorded eight short videos, documenting their own bigotry.
In the series of videos, Banerjee says that “you gotta be a jihadist” and “you have to have raped your wife at least a few times to be allowed in there.” Johnston spews even more hate. Between July 23 and August 1, the videos were uploaded to Freedom Report, a website run by Johnston. It is unclear when, exactly, Fakih became aware of these videos, but it is clear that he acted fast, as the lawsuit had been initiated by August 13.
The key point to note here is that Fakih chose to take the Islamophobic attack seriously and use the resources at his disposal — the readily available evidence and, more importantly, his own money and connections as a successful entrepreneur — to take the case to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. He was almost certainly aware that he had the opportunity to set a precedent that could help the Muslim community as a whole push back against Islamophobia. Fakih’s lawyer noted to the Globe and Mail that “Kevin Johnston is a person who for whatever reason has made it a practice to harass people and for the most part has gotten away with it” but that, this time around, “he happens to have selected Mr. Fakih […] a man who is not prepared to be intimidated or vexed or defamed.”
The generally bold and arrogant Banerjee and Johnston were forced to play defense for the whole game. Just days after the protest, Johnston was charged with willfully promoting hatred toward the Muslim community in Peel, including Mississauga. Peel Regional Police did not clarify which of his generously hateful social media posts Johnston was being charged with. On top of this, Fakih sued him and Banerjee for defamation, seeking $2 million in general damages from both of them. Johnston tried to defend himself by saying that it was suspicious that Paramount had hired so many Syrian refugees and, somewhat ironically, he referred to Fakih’s lawsuit as a “bully tactic.”
For both sets of charges, Johnston’s trial is ongoing as of December 2018. A disturbing moment in his case was the October 22, 2018 municipal election in Mississauga, where he received 13.5% of the vote in his bid to be the city’s mayor — despite being on trial for his anti-Muslim bigotry.
The loud and proud Ron Banerjee cowered in response to the charges brought against him. He claimed that he had nothing to do with the videos posted by Freedom Report. He then claimed that what he had said related to a “matter of public interest” given that his remarks were made in the context of the government’s settlement with Omar Khadr. He tried to position himself as a martyr to freedom of speech. However, given Banerjee’s well-documented — and somewhat amusingly, usually self-documented — record of making unreasonable, hateful statements about Muslims, not to mention his clearly Islamophobic statements in the videos filmed outside of Paramount, all of Banerjee’s objections were overruled by June 2018.
The result? Banerjee opted for a settlement in which he issued his “unqualified apology” to Fakih, paid a confidential cash payment, and agreed to a “consent to judgement” requiring Banerjee to pay $100,000 to Fakih if the former ever makes similar comments about Fakih, his family, or Paramount Fine Foods again. In addition to what was already quoted, as part of his apology Banerjee also said, “I hope everyone seeing or reading this apology learns from my mistake.”
The video apology and news coverage of the settlement spread quickly online, with many Muslims and non-Muslims celebrating it as a victory against hate speech in general and Islamophobia in particular. Others, such as the stalwart Islamophobe Tarek Fatah, shared the story without comment, perhaps having learned from their comrade’s “mistake.” But it seemed that not a single person publicly voiced their support for the miserable Banerjee.
There are many lessons for Muslim communities in Canada, the US, and elsewhere in this story. As Muslims, we are committed to doing everything we can to improve the societies in which we live, an effort that involves not only fulfilling our responsibilities of citizenship but also fully exercising our rights and keeping bigots and hate-mongers on the defensive. This can take many forms, including supporting the efforts of organizations such as the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) or the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, which are making an effort to monitor and keep a record of the Islamophobic activities of loose cannons like Banerjee. Sooner or later, their ignorance will lead them into a situation where they can’t cry “freedom of expression,” and we, as a community, must learn to recognize those situations and, with our research done diligently in advance, respond confidently.
After receiving Banerjee’s apology, Mohamed Fakih donated $25,000 to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, skillfully drawing even more public attention to Banerjee’s predicament. This is a key investment into mapping Canada’s Islamophobia industry and developing an effective response, an effort that other wealthy and/or influential Muslims should also consider seriously. But the responsibility is that of the community as a whole, so every Muslim should think about what s/he can contribute to this cause. Like the khandaq from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), this is our trench to dig in defense of our community.