"Hospitality will be your first lesson," my diversity trainer told me with a smile. I had offered her a coffee before we sat down for our session, and as it turned out, I was mighty glad I did.
Many people do not, and that, she informed me, is a sign of cross-cultural insensitivity.
The coffee offered my instructor an opening to explain the value that different cultures place on hospitality and the differences between individualist cultures (ours) and collective cultures (lots of other ones).
This is the kind of thing they send you off to learn about when you screw up. And Jeffrey Rubin, apparently, screwed up.
Mr. Rubin is chief economist for the World Markets division of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Every month he issues a research report on world trends that is aimed at the bank's sophisticated investing clients. Monthly Indicators, as it's called, is distributed to a few thousand select readers, and is posted on the bank's website.
Despite the deadly dull title of the publication, Mr. Rubin is widely respected for his sharp mind, and his writing is unusually colourful for an economist. Perhaps too colourful for the times we live in now.
Because of a passing comment most people wouldn't pause to notice, Mr. Rubin was found guilty of insensitivity by his own employer, which issued a public apology for his misbehaviour. To signal its sincere contrition, the bank also instructed him to attend a training session in cross-cultural diversity, devised especially for him.
The bank's instant climb-down was a triumph for the offended pressure group, an increasingly powerful outfit called the Council on American Islamic Relations - Canada, or CAIR-CAN. And it was an embarrassing humiliation for one of its star employees, whom friends describe as a decent, thoughtful -- and, yes, sensitive -- man.
The offending passage appeared last April 5, in a report predicting that oil prices would keep rising: "The first two oil shocks were transitory, as political events encouraged oil producers to seize full sovereignty over their resources and temporarily restrict supply," Mr. Rubin wrote. "This time around there won't be any tap that some appeased mullah or sheik can suddenly turn back on."
A few days later, the bank received a letter from CAIR-CAN. The organization keeps a close watch on the media, as well as on government agencies, businesses, universities and other institutions, for signs of bias against Muslims. It says it received several calls complaining about the passage in Monthly Indicators.
"We are gravely concerned that Mr. Rubin is promoting stereotyp-ing of Muslims and Arabs in a CIBC publication," executive director Riad Saloojee wrote in a letter to the bank. "We request that Mr. Rubin and CIBC World Markets issue a letter of apology and undergo sensitization training regarding Muslims and Arabs."
The bank responded to CAIR-CAN's demands with remarkable alacrity. "Let me state that we take the concerns expressed in your letter very seriously," wrote Mr. Rubin's boss, Brian Shaw, who is the CEO of World Markets. "While the comments were in no way intentional or meant to offend anyone in the Muslim or Arab community, we agree that, in hindsight, the comments were insensitive."
He added, "We have taken immediate steps to address this issue. We have reviewed all aspects of the matter with Jeff Rubin and we will be providing him with training to ensure that this situation does not occur again in the future."
On April 20, CAIR-CAN proclaimed victory in a triumphal press release.
The bank says no one thought twice about the offending words at the time. But, according to a bank spokesman, it realized that "in hindsight this could be viewed by some as being insensitive." The decision to apologize was made at the senior executive level.
The bank would not say whether anyone raised the possibility that CAIR-CAN's concerns were overblown, or that many Muslims would find nothing wrong with Mr. Rubin's comments, or that it had an obligation to defend a valuable, talented and widely respected senior employee from frivolous attacks on his reputation.
It would not say whether anyone asked any hard questions about CAIR-CAN, or took the trouble to learn a bit about its aggressive tactics.
It would not say whether anyone raised the possibility that the language used by Mr. Rubin was, in fact, defensible.
The incident drew no further notice, until a Globe and Mail reporter ran across the press release on CAIR-CAN's website, under the headline, "CIBC apologizes to Canadian Muslims for 'insensitive' comments." The story made front-page news and was picked up by TV. Many people thought the bank had wildly overreacted. But other people heard only the TV news, which referred to Mr. Rubin's "gaffe."
The CIBC is scarcely the only high-profile institution running scared these days. Corporations, universities and public institutions everywhere have become hypersensitive to accusations of bias or racism. Nowhere is this sensitivity greater than on issues of diversity, to which all organizations are obliged to be loudly and proudly committed. And because image and reputation are so crucially important, big organizations are vulnerable to small interest groups with loud voices.
No CEO wants his shareholders, his employees, his customers and his board of directors to pick up a newspaper and see a headline proclaiming that somebody is boycotting his company for being anti-Muslim.
The CIBC is running especially scared. Its headlines have been just awful -- the shocking $2.8-billion settlement over the Enron scandal, accompanied by an admission of criminal behaviour; the collapse of Global Crossing; the mutual-funds market-timing scandal; the errant faxes containing personal customer information that wound up in a West Virginia scrap yard. The bank's reputation is in tatters, and it would be understandable if its PR department were suffering from shellshock.
Perhaps this helps explain why it is so eager to head off more bad news. Recently, the bank even had a major ad campaign altered in midstream. The ad depicted a pregnant woman and her husband, who was shown painting a room in anticipation of the new arrival. When somebody complained that it was irresponsible to show a pregnant woman exposed to deadly paint, the bank deleted the paint cans.
I was curious to learn more about the re-education of Mr. Rubin, who did, indeed, undergo his sensitization training a few weeks ago. (He wouldn't comment for this article and hasn't commented publicly on the incident.) So I called the bank to ask for details. Even better, I asked, could I take the training myself?
Politely, the bank said no. A spokesperson informed me that the training had been conducted internally and wasn't available to outsiders. This turned out to be untrue. Mr. Rubin's lesson in diversity, I learned, was conducted by a pleasant woman named Laraine Kaminsky, who is a principal with a firm called Graybridge Malkam, based in Ottawa. Ms. Kaminsky told me that she would be pleased to take me through the same session.
Two days later, she met me at The Globe. She told me that Mr. Rubin hadn't offered to get her coffee, and had showed up with one, just for himself.
I asked if it was possible that Mr. Rubin had simply felt hostile. She said no. She told me that he was eager to learn. This isn't always the case with clients she calls "prisoners" -- i.e., involuntary ones. Her upbeat presentation method is designed to draw them in so that they don't feel punished.
"My objective is to put a positive spin on cultural curiosity," said Ms. Kaminsky, who came equipped with a PowerPoint presentation and a briefing book called "Building Cross Cultural Awareness and Competence." She also came with a 15-question Culture Quiz about Islam. The first question was: Can you name the Pillars of Islam?
To my embarrassment, I couldn't. I did better on most of the other ones -- how many times a day is a Muslim required to pray? What is Eid? What is a harem? What is the difference between a burqa and hijab?
It was fun. I think I did better than Mr. Rubin. But I still tripped up on the differences between an imam, a mullah, a shah, a sheik and a caliph.
Ms. Kaminsky told me that Muslims are highly diverse, with many different sects and ethnic groups. No one body speaks for them or for Islam.
"So what about CAIR?" I asked.
She allowed that CAIR is just one Muslim spokesgroup among many -- even though it positions itself as the voice of Canadian Muslims.
I asked if she, personally, believed that what Mr. Rubin had written was offensive or incorrect. Yes, she told me firmly, although he didn't do it on purpose.
At one point, we got into a discussion about sheiks, and the fact that most of the oil states of the Middle East, most notably Saudi Arabia, are run by men who actually call themselves sheiks, as does everybody else; and that Iran, an OPEC member nation, is in fact run by religious leaders, such as Mullah Khatami, who are widely known as mullahs.
Ms. Kaminsky conceded these points. So where, I asked, did Mr. Rubin err?
"He was misinformed," she said. She described him as "bright, and a loose cannon."
The diversity industry is a direct descendant of the employment-equity industry of the 1980s and 1990s. Today, organizations need to concern themselves with building welcoming cultures not only for women, members of visible minorities and the disabled, but for gays and lesbians, the transgendered, the chemically sensitive, Sikhs who balk at wearing hardhats, kids who wear ceremonial daggers to school and, soon, elderly workers who need time off to get their pacemakers adjusted.
Investing in diversity has become an unavoidable cost of doing business. Ms. Kaminsky's firm has worked with a long list of Canada's top companies in technology, manufacturing and banking, as well as dozens of branches of the federal government.
Some of this simply makes good sense. An increasingly multicultural work force and customer base create a bigger demand for cross-cultural understanding and accommodation. Organizations that pay attention to diversity can build a competitive advantage. At the very least, they'll have something to brag about in their news releases. On the same day this week that the CIBC posted a record third-quarter loss on account of the Enron debacle -- $1.9-billion -- it made room in its news release to remind people that in June, it celebrated Diversity Month for the 13th year.
There can also be a high cost -- legal, political and in reputation -- if you blow it. In the United States, where laws are strict and juries tough, companies that lose discrimination suits in court can be forced to pay out millions. "Better to call me first than call the lawyer later," Ms. Kaminsky said with a smile.
Some of her work consists of troubleshooting. What should you do when your Somali workers need to pray in the middle of the day? What do you do when they splash water all over the bathroom during their ablutions? What happens when your hijab-wearing engineering student needs to take her muharem with her on a business trip? What the heck is a muharem? Ms. Kaminsky knows.
And some of Ms. Kaminsky's work, like her session with Mr. Rubin, is corrective. That, too, has legalistic aspects. This little piece of remediation is now formally documented in his personnel file, which gets the bank off the hook if anyone feels like suing later on, or invoking some hate law, or complaining to a human-rights commission. Did the CIBC take corrective action with its offending employee? Is the CIBC truly sensitive to diversity issues? Yessirree!
The bank, in other words, took the path of least resistance. It found a quick and dirty way to make the problem go away. The bill for Mr. Rubin's two-hour session with Ms. Kamkinsky was around $5,000 -- an astonishing fee, to be sure, but to the bank it would have been cheap at twice the price. My session was discounted to $1,500 (paid by The Globe and Mail), because she used the same material.
In spite of Ms. Kaminsky's corrective efforts, I still couldn't figure out what was so offensive about Mr. Rubin's words. So I called up Riad Saloojee, the charming and articulate executive director of CAIR-CAN.
"There were a number of concerns," he said. "One was that 'mullahs' is a religious term. It's also pejorative, in the sense that most of the discourse around who is a mullah tends to be caricatured."
He went on, "In most of the Arabic world, mullahs don't control the oil. And the name 'sheik,' as well, has a distinctly religious connotation. So the suggestion that religious leaders turn on and off the oil is wrong on the facts of it.
"And secondly, the language was insensitive. I think there would be a lot more accurate and probably clearheaded ways of saying that, without resorting to words that are most often used pejoratively and in this case inaccurately."
He acknowledged that the word sheik also has a secular dimension, and is used by people who are tribal leaders. The word that seemed to be the real problem was the word mullah. "Mr. Rubin wasn't speaking about Iran. It was a blanket generalization and one that the bank recognized."
He was very pleased, he said, with the bank's quick and courteous response.
But not all Muslims are as offended as Mr. Saloojee by Mr. Rubin's use of the terms sheik and mullah.
"That's kind of ironic," says Pamela Taylor, making my exact point, "because that's what they call themselves."
Ms. Taylor is co-chair of the New York-based Progressive Muslim Union of North America, and was also the first woman to lead prayers in a Toronto mosque.
"Sometimes I feel their tactics are aimed at the wrong people," she says of CAIR-CAN. "There needs to be a balance. Some of the talk-show hosts go overboard, but sometimes the critics can go overboard too."
Salim Mansur, a professor at the University of Western Ontario and a leading critic of Islamic fundamentalism, is sharply critical of CAIR-CAN. "They create a precedent, which then becomes a measure by which they can silence people like you and me."
But CAIR-CAN has increasing clout. It was CAIR-CAN that engineered the much-praised fatwa against terrorism signed by a group of Canadian imams, and Mr. Saloojee who was at the Prime Minister's side when he met with them.
CAIR-CAN has ready access to senior government officials. Mr. Saloojee's op-ed pieces appear frequently in major newspapers, and CAIR-CAN's chair, Sheema Khan, writes an occasional column for this newspaper. (So does Mr. Rubin.)
CAIR-CAN's stated mission is to build bridges. But to some people, it's a bully that makes exaggerated claims about mistreatment of Muslims, and stifles speech it doesn't like. "Remember when anyone who said anything about Israel was accused of being an anti-Semite?" Salim Mansur says. "They've learned from these people."
One way of stifling speech is through libel chill. CAIR-CAN is currently suing both National Post columnist David Frum and former CSIS agent David Harris, an anti-terrorism expert, for raising questions about the links of its American parent to terrorist groups such as Hamas.
Since 9/11, CAIR-CAN has been especially mindful of its reputation. Its American counterpart has come under fire. Three CAIR associates in the U.S. have been indicted on terrorism-related charges. Democratic senator Chuck Schumer, on the Senate's anti-terrorism subcommittee, has charged that American CAIR members have "intimate links to Hamas." The American CAIR has also received substantial funding from the Saudis.
The senator was not talking about CAIR-CAN or its members -- no one at CAIR-CAN has ever been connected with terrorist activity. CAIR-CAN says it has "close but distinct" relations with its U.S. parent, although it was originally based in Washington, and its current chair once sat on the board of CAIR-CAN.
When it comes to anti-bias campaigns, the two groups operate in a similar style, issuing "action alerts" to rally members to the latest cause. This week, Washington, D.C., talk-radio host Michael Graham was fired after CAIR lobbied against him. He had repeatedly called Islam "a terrorist organization" on the air, and refused to apologize.
In Canada, CAIR-CAN recently issued a report alleging that RCMP and CSIS agents use bully tactics to try to coerce Muslims to inform on other Muslims. It demanded that the federal government launch an investigation. Speaking to the Hamilton Spectator, Mr. Harris called the report "scaremongering."
CAIR-CAN has also accused McGill University of discrimination for closing down a prayer room used by Muslim students. McGill long ago served notice that it needed the space for another purpose.
CAIR-CAN claims there are either 2,000, 2,500, or 2,700 Muslim students at McGill (the number keeps on changing), although there's no way of knowing, as McGill doesn't ask its students for their religious affiliation or background. University officials point out that there are many quiet areas available where students can study, sleep or pray.
"McGill is a secular institution and does not provide permanent prayer space for any religious group or activity," spokeswoman Jennifer Robinson says.
CAIR-CAN has threatened to take its demand to the Quebec Human Rights Commission, and is now calling for an investigation into "harassment" of Muslim students by McGill security guards. McGill is standing tough.
As for myself, I'm not sure I'm much more culturally sensitive than I was before my afternoon with Ms. Kaminsky. (Some people would argue that I am, in any event, a hopeless case.) The information I picked up was a combination of the anodyne, the obvious and the interesting. I now know that a muharem is a close male relative who acts as a chaperone, and why some Muslim men won't shake my hand.
These are good things to know. What I don't know is how you resolve deep and serious clashes of cultural values. In the real world, unlike the world of diversity training, not every dilemma has a happy ending.
I don't know what Mr. Rubin learned, other than to avoid the words "sheik" and "mullah." His story is a cautionary tale, one with unpleasant lessons for all of us. His real offence was to have offended a particularly strident interest group that is ever on the lookout for bias.
But in an age where big institutions are terrified of bad publicity, and are hounded on all sides by interest groups, his humiliating fate is not really a surprise.
As part of the deal, Mr. Rubin was made to revise the offending passage of his forecast. It now reads: "This time around, with suppliers already running full tilt, there's no tap that can suddenly be turned back on."