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OTTAWA (Reuters) - An Islamic group's demand that a Canadian magazine publish its response to an article that said Muslims were set to swamp the West has sparked warnings of government-imposed restrictions on freedom of expression.
The Canadian Islamic Congress, one of Canada's largest Muslim groups, says Maclean's, a popular Canadian weekly news magazine, subjected Muslims to hate speech with an article in October 2006 by best-selling author Mark Steyn that said a high Muslim birthrate, combined with Muslims "hot for jihad," could conquer a West that is unwilling to stand up for its civilization.
The Islamic group has asked a government body to step in to guarantee it the right to an equal-length rebuttal to the article, which was an excerpt from Steyn's September 2006 book "America Alone."
"This article completely misrepresents Canadian Muslims' values, their community, and their religion," said Canadian Islamic Congress lawyer Faisal Joseph.
Maclean's says it has already run 27 letters from readers, many opposed to Steyn's piece, and is ready to consider a further response. But it said the CIC wanted to direct the art work for the rebuttal and to run it on the cover.
Publisher Kenneth Whyte said he would rather go bankrupt than have the CIC set the terms for what the magazine publishes.
The Canadian and British Columbia human rights commissions have agreed to investigate the complaints, and the Muslim group has the high-profile backing of the Ontario Federation of Labour.
"We need to make sure that folks are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of who it is , whether it's Maclean's or anybody," said the union federation's executive vice president, Terry Downey, formerly a human rights investigator.
"People have a right to freedom of expression but that has some restrictions on it. You just can't offend people based on their religion or color or things like that."
The Canadian commission could order the two sides to reconciliation, or forward the case to a tribunal that would have the power to order Maclean's to publish the group's response, or face legal sanctions.
The idea a magazine should have to defend its writings to a government body has some critics warning of Soviet-style thought police and urging the commissions to get out of the business of regulating speech and expression.
Alan Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said he fought to create human rights commissions "to deal with "discriminatory deeds ... not discriminatory words."
"Nobody thought it would be used to censure freedom of expression," he said.
The Canadian human rights commission would not comment on the case but said it was authorized by Parliament to investigate what it calls hate speech.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed in Canada's constitution, but laws have been enacted that restrict hate speech. In December, an Alberta human rights panel ruled that a local pastor broke a human rights law by writing letters to the editor urging citizens to stand up against what he described as militant homosexuality.
CBC commentator Rex Murphy said Maclean's should not have to defend itself for starting debate and stirring thought.
"Is every touchy, or agenda-driven sensibility now free to call upon the offices of the state and ... embroil them in 'justifying' their right to write and broadcast as they see fit?" he asked on CBC's flagship news program, The National.
Steyn said the CIC and law students acting on its behalf aimed to shut down debate by making it more trouble than it's worth for editors to run pieces on controversial topics.
But he added, "In using quasi-judicial coercion to squash debate, they make one of the central points of my argument -- that a proportion of Islam is inimical to Western traditions of freedom -- more eloquently than I ever could."
Editing by Janet Guttsman and Jackie Frank