The Power of Words

The complainant, Concetta Principe, believed that in a discussion arising out of remarks made by Quebec Premier, Philippe Couillard, at the funeral of the victims of the Quebec City Mosque shooting, host Carole MacNeil left an erroneous impression about a central phrase in Islam. She thought the host had associated “Allahu Akbar” with acts of violence and failed to explain its true meaning and purpose. In context, that was not the case.


You were concerned about a statement made by Carole MacNeil, host of “Sunday Scrum” on CBC News Network. You said she misrepresented the use of the phrase “Allahu Akbar” when she “claimed” the significance of the phrase is that it is used by Islamic militants when carrying out bombing attacks. You said she questioned the use of the Quebec premier’s use of that phrase “for that reason.” The context was a discussion after the killings at a Quebec City mosque and the memorial services earlier that week attended by many Canadian political figures. You felt this created an erroneous impression, and that “this is especially pressing considering the impact we have seen of such unconscious and conscious ignorance about Islam this past week in Canada.” You added:

Either she is completely ignorant about the fact this statement is the beginning of every Call to Prayer and is used throughout prayers by Muslims around the world or she ignored this significance, leaving all viewers to associate “Allah-u-Akbar” (sic) with terrorism by groups claiming to be Muslims.

You noted that none of the panellists who participated in the discussion asked her to explain or clarify what she had said. You were concerned that even if there was proper context arising out of earlier parts of the discussion, not everyone hears the whole programme, and hearing her say this in isolation would create a very negative effect. You believe there should have been more of an explanation of the significance of the phrase, so that no one would have the impression it is associated with violent acts.


The Executive Producer of CBC News Network, Aubrey Silverberg, replied to your concern.

He told you that he carefully reviewed the broadcast from that Sunday morning. He agreed with you that neither Ms. MacNeil nor the panelists directly explained the phrase “Allahu Akbar” is also the call to prayer and not only used by militants, but is central to Islam. He said that when heard and viewed in the context of the segment it would not be necessary to do so, and did not indicate Ms. MacNeil’s ignorance. He explained that just before she made the comment, viewers saw footage of Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard addressing a service for the victims of the attack on the Quebec City mosque. He told you that through translation, “he listed a few Arabic phrases that are often associated with violence and terrorism, and he specifically spoke about how those phrases should really be associated with the entire Muslim community.” He said Ms. MacNeil was not questioning the premier’s use of the phrase, but was supplying another one he listed:

Carole then said " 'Allah - u - Akbar' (sic) was the other one that he said that is often associated with terrorists holding a bomb before they set it off. My impression was that she was adding it to the list of ones that should not only be associated with violence and terrorism.

He also noted that this exchange occurred about halfway through the segment, and that earlier there was a video showing people praying and chanting the phrase. He stated that Ms. MacNeil would have been one of the people who had chosen the footage for the segment and her decision to include it indicated that she fully understood its context and significance.


CBC journalistic policy asks journalists to “avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt.”

While you heard it in a way that led you to believe it was misleading, I do not think it is a reasonable conclusion.

The introduction to this segment provided a context for the conversation that ensued:


Okay, and well, I’m going to call time on the Conservative Debate because I want to talk about the conversation that we’re having in this country over the deaths of six Muslim men in Quebec and the concept of hate speech versus free speech. Inside Quebec, critics, including the Prime Minister, are calling out Quebec’s Trash radio for sowing the seeds of hate, plus Philippe Couillard’s (sic) speech with phrases like Allahu Akbar and how that put him in the national spotlight, could he emerge as a national figure, next on “The Sunday Scrum.”

It framed the discussion about the weeks and events and anticipated the Quebec premier’s reference to phrases that should be understood in a positive light, not a negative one. Given this opening, it was clearly not Ms. MacNeil’s intention to imply that the premier was wrong or that the phrase Allahu Akbar is to be associated with violence.

This is further reinforced in the context of the longer discussion. Leading into the comment you found offensive, this is what viewers heard:


So the general consensus is that words do matter so let’s listen to Philippe Couillard, the Premier of Quebec, as he tries to reclaim the Muslim words that, for different reasons, so many people associate with terrorism. This is from the funeral on Friday:

Video Clip: (Voice of Translator):

We heard hope expressed in our common language, French, but also in Arabic with words that were explained to us. May peace be with you, on behalf of our merciful God, God willing, in recognition of our God. Those words are often associated with violence and terrorism but we now know that those words are really associated with as well as for Muslim community. (Applause)


Allahu Akbar was the other one that he said that is often associated with terrorists holding a bomb before they set it off.

Ms. MacNeil is referring to what came directly before - Mr. Couillard pointing out the significance and peaceful meaning of various Arabic statements. She is adding that he also used that phrase, although it is not on the video clip. You made the point that if anyone had missed the earlier part of the broadcast and had turned on the TV at the moment she spoke the single sentence, they might misunderstand. That is an interesting point, and one to bear in mind. Live television moves at a quick pace, and it is a good reminder that remarks should be measured and clear. However, it would be unreasonable for participants in a live discussion to have to constantly reset the conversation to address the fact that viewers might tune in at any point in time. This segment was part of hours of coverage of the mosque shooting and its aftermath. There have been hours of programming devoted to Islamophobia. The phrasing and flow of this exchange was not perfect, but for anyone other than a person who tuned in at the precise moment Ms. MacNeil made reference to Mr. Couillard's remarks, it is clear she was reinforcing and adding to what the premier had been saying. I do not share your assumption that this one sentence would significantly alter people’s attitudes or lead them to believe the phrase is primarily linked to violence.


Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman