Tarek Fatah’s journalistic courage reminds us how seldom we celebrate the trade’s true heroes
In case you haven’t yet had a chance to catch up on today’s Indian news, a second arrest has been made in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Canadian writer Tarek Fatah. According to India Today, the suspect is a career criminal described as “Naseem” (aka “Rizwan”) who is “an exceptionally good shooter,” and allegedly a henchman for a lieutenant of Indian mob boss Dawood Ibrahim. “Fatah’s outspoken [criticism of militant] Islam and Sharia have apparently offended Dawood Ibrahim’s close aide, Chhota Shakeel,” India Today reports. “Shakeel thus wanted to kill Tarek Fatah and has hired men to do the job for him.” (For reasons unknown to me, these reports go back and forth between spelling Tarek’s name as “Fatah” and “Fateh.”)
The fact that people might be trying to kill Fatah is not surprising to me. The Pakistani-born Toronto Sun writer has been getting threats for decades. A few weeks ago, when he tagged me on one of his Facebook posts about NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, I casually scrolled through the comments and was shocked by the insane levels of hate — stuff that would make any white Canadian journalist burn their computer, quit their job, and head to grad school. But for Fatah, “die heretic scum” is just another day at the office.
Tarek is not an easy guy to get along with. And his (understandable) persecution complex clearly has unhinged him to a certain extent. About a decade ago, we appeared on a media panel together at the University of Toronto. I was talking about some work I’d done in Israel, and I used the term “fixer” to describe someone who’d helped me get access to Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah. Fatah freaked out, claiming the term was racist. We all patiently heard him out as he talked about the horrible prejudice his family had endured as Pakistani immigrants to Saudi Arabia, and then he stormed out of the proceedings. At the time, I thought it was weird. But then again, I’m not sure how I’d react if I spent every day of my life watching my back for assassins. (Oh, and the guy’s been battling cancer for many years, too.)
The white Canadian journalistic establishment never tires of congratulating itself for all the “fearless” and “courageous” investigations we do. Usually this means filing Access to Information requests, finding victims, and writing stories about sexism, racism and government scandals. These stories often have real and important consequences. And we are right to celebrate them. But notwithstanding the deluge of social-media hate we sometimes get (especially women), the risk we endure to report even the biggest blockbusters is orders of magnitude lower than what Fatah endures every day. It’s great that we know about the gas-plants scandal. But to my knowledge, Kathleen Wynne never put out a hit on anybody.
Fatah’s columns about Jagmeet Singh typify his very real courage: It is not enough that Fatah is treated as a public enemy by half the world’s Jihadis. By calling out Singh’s silence about Flight 182, he’s also willing to take on militant Sikhs — not to mention hard-left white Twitter trolls and NDP apologists, who cynically (or naïvely) cast any mention of this issue as some kind of racist dog whistle. In 20 years in Canadian journalism, I seriously have never met anyone with fewer fucks to give about political correctness than Fatah. He’s maddening, and mercurial, and often signs on to theories and accusations about his opponents that are flat out weird. But in his willingness to speak his mind about mainstream issues, he’s an inspiration.
Here’s a thought for my fellow Torontonian journalists. Every year, we dress up in fancy outfits and attend variously acronymed galas to honour all the brave souls in our trade. Sometimes, we honour true heroes — like journalists in Africa and the Middle East who defy death to perform their trade, or Quebec journalist Michel Auger, who took five bullets after dishing on the Mob. But it would be nice if we heard a lot more about Tara Singh Hayer — the founder of the Indo-Canadian Times in the 1970s, and the only journalist ever to be killed in this country on account of the content of his journalism.
Hayer was a courageous (the term applies only too well) Sikh journalist who had the guts to call out Sikh extremists at a time when their movement was still strong in Canada. Assassins tried to get him twice. The first time, they put him in a wheelchair. The second time, in 1998, they finished the job as their paraplegic victim was getting out of his car. Unlike the case of Flight 182, this crime remains unsolved. Hayer is a true martyr in the annals of Canadian journalism. Yet his name remains obscure, and I often get quizzical looks when I mention it to colleagues. (Addendum: It’s important to note that Hayer has been honoured by the Canadian Journalists For Free Expression with a named award in his honour.)
Perhaps the next time we’re all at the Royal York Hotel, high-fiving our journalistic awesomeness as a CBC host thanks all the gala sponsors, we might like to talk more about Hayer and Fatah — even if calling out deadly extremism isn’t as fashionable a journalistic theme in this country as some might wish it to be.