Battle Brewing Over Freedom of Religion v. Speech

Posted: November 18, 2008 in Uncategorized

From TheStar.com (Canada):

(Full text)

November 16, 2008


A Somali Canadian mosque in Toronto is being condemned, rightly so, for carrying anti-Semitic and anti-Western messages on its website. This, though, does invite a question: Where are the free-speech advocates defending the right of this group to say whatever the heck it wants?

There aren’t any, rightly so. But we can be certain that if some other group was saying similar vile things about Muslims and Islam, free speechers would be out in droves defending it.

This double standard is at the heart of the recurring controversies bedevilling relations between the Western and Muslim worlds, from the Danish cartoon episode to Maclean’s magazine being dragged, unsuccessfully, before three human rights commissions in Canada.

The issue is not going away. In fact, it is coming to a head.

When Pope Benedict held a historic dialogue with Muslims in Rome recently, the final communiqué said this of religious minorities: “Their founding figures and the symbols they consider sacred should not be subjected to any form of mockery or ridicule.”

The Catholics and Muslims present have jointly challenged a fundamental tenet of free speech, that religion is not above ridicule.

At the just-ended special multifaith session of the United Nations, 80 nations derided the “serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, expressions of hatred and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths.”

The meeting was held at the behest of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (backed by the U.S. and Israel, as an antidote to Iran).

The theme was picked up Thursday by Pakistani President Asif Zardari: “Hate speech aimed at inciting people against any religion must be unacceptable.”

This has been the stance of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 57 nations with majority or significant Muslim populations. And the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council has passed resolutions calling for “combating defamation of religion.”

All this has been challenged. The human rights council is dismissed, rightly, as the playground of states that routinely violate human rights at home.

Abdullah’s outreach is seen as a smokescreen to hide the severe restrictions on non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia.

The campaign to curb post-9/11 Islamophobia in North America and Europe is described as a tool autocrats use to prosecute domestic dissidents, mostly Muslims, on trumped up charges of blasphemy.

Meanwhile, Canada, the U.S., the European Union and free speech groups have been campaigning against any limits on free speech.

All of the above represents one side of the ledger. On the other is the reality of the systematic vilification of Muslims, particularly the linking of Islam to violence (ignoring that people of all faiths – Christians, in particular – have shed a lot of blood invoking their gods).

Islamophobia “tends to dehumanize an entire faith, portraying it as fundamentally alien and attributing to its followers an inherent, essential set of negative traits, such as irrationality, intolerance and violence,” notes the U.S. media watch group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. “Not unlike the charges made in the classical document of anti-Semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, some of Islamophobia’s more virulent expressions include evocations of Islamic plots to dominate the West.”

Free speech advocates need to separate themselves from such racism. Otherwise, they will continue to be seen as defending only those mocking Muslims and Islam.

Freedom of speech has limits in Canada and Europe (but not in the U.S.) I am agnostic on the subject. But so long as anti-hate laws exist, critics cannot pretend that they don’t. And invoking them selectively only devalues their currency and discredits our democracies.

There is also self-restraint. We – the media, especially – exercise it every day. But we often abandon such constraints with Muslims and Islam. That’s the real issue.

People of principle ought to get out of the dark alley of double standards and hypocrisy if they are to defend free speech properly and not add to the dangerous levels of animosity in the world.
Haroon Siddiqui’s column appears Thursday and Sunday.

hsiddiq@thestar.ca.

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