Behind the podium in a ballroom at the Four Seasons hotel on Avenue Road, Steven Emerson is holding court.The highly security-conscious U.S. journalist, who has devoted his career to exposing Muslim terrorists and their supporters in America, is delivering a barn-burner to a United Jewish Appeal dinner for its top donors.
"If you can do anything, it is to pay, and make yourself hurt when you give," he says to the rapt audience. "That is the very least. There but for the grace of God. Many people in this room could be living in a settlement or a kibbutz or in Jerusalem and having their kids blown up at night."
It almost doesn't have to be said in this community shaken by the horrors of suicide bombings. Still, the one-time CNN reporter with a reputation for obsessing over militant Islam isn't exactly a paragon of sensitivity as he sashays into multi-ethnic Toronto on May 29.
"Let me be very clear. I am not indicting all Muslims, and I make a distinction between militant Islam and Islam," he says in his speech. "But the fact of the matter is, Islam, absent a genuine religious reformation, does not have any separation of church and state. And absent that separation of church and state there is no central gravity for moderation within the Islamic hierarchy."
Try saying that in a room full of Toronto Muslims.
Certainly Emerson's been a constant headache for Arab-American political action groups. But Ibrahim Hooper of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations says he's stopped paying attention.
While Emerson says he deals in hard facts, his rhetoric is unsettling, as when he says in response to a question that the sign of an Islamic reformation is "when you start seeing a lot of Muslim comedians.
"Given their willingness and ability to indulge in self-criticism, that's when we'll start to see the emergence of a separate centre of gravity that engages in self-scrutiny and a willingness to say, "It's not Israel, it's not Jews, it's not the United States, but it's our own cultural handcuffs that have put us in this morass, that have kept us lower than anyone else in the world today and that prevented us from emerging as part of civilized society.'"
Emerson, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and author of a new book, American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, dismisses the suggestion that he's unfair to any one religion.
"(Arab groups) can say what they want, because what they want to do is tar everybody who criticizes militant Arabs or terrorism as somebody who's anti-Arab," he tells me later in a telephone interview. "I reject that."
In 1995 he ruffled some feathers when he said on CBS News after the Oklahoma City bombing that the attempt to inflict as many casualties as possible was a "Middle Eastern trait."
Later I ask the UJA's Howard English if getting Emerson's take is more pressing than the need for a local cross-cultural dialogue.
"We're not against dialogue with anyone, but one of our roles is to educate our donors on the course of the evil afflicting Israel and the rest of the world," says English. "Emerson is an ideal candidate to do that."