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‘You should be ashamed’: Conservative MP lashes out at Muslim witness during hearing on online hate

Conservative MP Michael Cooper rises during question period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper rises during question period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Conservative MP Michael Cooper told a Muslim witness at a parliamentary committee on online hate that he “should be ashamed” for linking conservative and alt-right commentators to Quebec mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette and the terror attacks in New Zealand.

Cooper made the remarks during Tuesday’s committee hearing and quickly drew the ire of fellow Liberal and NDP MPs, which led to the hearing being temporarily suspended.

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Faisal Khan Suri, the president of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, said that Bissonnette’s online history showed he repeatedly sought out “alt-right and conservative commentators” and that more efforts should be made to study online hate.

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“The evidence from Bissonette’s computer showed he repeatedly sought content about anti-immigrant, alt-right and conservative commentators, mass murderers, U.S. President Donald Trump, and about Muslims, immigrants living in Quebec,” Suri said.

Bissonnette was sentenced to life in prison in February for shooting six people dead in a Quebec City mosque in January 2017. During his trial, Crown attorneys revealed that he obsessively visited the Twitter accounts of David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan; Ben Shapiro, alt-right commentator, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones; and Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, among others.

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Suri also said that the suspect, Brenton Tarrant — accused of killing 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, N.Z. — and the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooter were motivated by online hate coming from “alt-right online networks.”

“An attack, again, that appears to have been motivated by anti-Semitism and inspired by his extensive involvement in white supremacy and alt-right networks,” Suri said, speaking about Robert Bowers —alleged to have killed 11 people in the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October.

“There are so many more examples that we could provide that show the accessibility of online hate and how it’s affecting the real-life hate that we are witnessing today,” he said. “I think it is absolutely critical, if not fundamental, to embark on such studies and to look into this issue a lot further with a deep thought process in place.”

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The Conservative MP called Suri’s remarks “defamatory” for making the connection. An audio version of the interaction can be found here.

“I take great umbrage with your defamatory comments to try to link conservatism with violent and extremist attacks. They have no foundation. They are defamatory. And they diminish your credibility as a witness,” Cooper said.

Cooper at one point read from Tarrant’s 74-page manifesto, in which the terror suspect is quoted as rejecting “conservatism.”

He also mentioned the 2017 shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise who was wounded, along with four others, by James T. Hodgkinson, a Bernie Sanders supporter. Hodgkinson was killed in a shootout with police.

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“I certainly wouldn’t attempt to link Bernie Sanders to the individual who shot up Republican members of Congress and nearly fatally killed Congressman Scalise,” Cooper said. “So you should be ashamed.”

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MPs quickly objected to Cooper’s comments, and the hearing was temporarily suspended.

“Mr. Chair, you cannot have a member of this committee calling for witnesses to be ashamed. That is unacceptable,” said NDP MP Tracey Ramsey.

Cooper later retracted his comment that Suri should be “ashamed” but doubled down on his statements that the testimony was “deeply offensive.” He did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Global News.

“While I certainly find the comments made by Mr. Suri to be deeply offensive and objectionable and vehemently disagree with them, I will withdraw saying that he should be ashamed,” Cooper said. “In the spirit of moving forward, I withdraw those specific comments, but certainly not the rest of what I said.”

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Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor at Carleton University and former national security analyst, said that connection between media consumption patterns and possible radicalization isn’t always a clearly defined equation.

“We have to be really careful. We can’t say in all cases it’s ‘x,’ because there is more than one way people radicalize,” she said.

In the cases of the Quebec shooting and Christchurch, there is a consistent pattern of the attackers consuming far-right content online, Carvin said.

“We still have a lot to learn about media consumption habits of individuals who mobilize to violence,” Carvin said. “But certainly, we have seen this before in other cases that have affected Canada, in particular, the Bissonnette case.”

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