Interfaith panel on freedom of speech expresses hope

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 17, 2010

I mentioned a few columns ago that I was to be a panelist in an interfaith discussion of the topic “Freedom of Expression and Respect for Religious Sanctities.”

The discussion was hosted this past Sunday by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community at their Baitun Nur Mosque in northeast Calgary. The panelists spoke from Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh perspectives. I was the Christian member of the panel.

The topic was timely. Increasing tensions in many parts of the world can be traced to acts of perceived blasphemy against one religion or another. In response, murderous mobs, mischief and mayhem have become the norm in many places; some countries have imposed severe legal restrictions on what can be said.

Blasphemy, sometimes referred to as “defamation of religion,” refers broadly to words and actions that are deemed disrespectful of that which is held to be sacred (deity, books, persons, etc.).

Offensive art, cartoons, words, e-mails and book-burnings often trigger violence. Even just identifying oneself as a member of an out-of-favour religion or sharing its teachings can result in death, imprisonment, the destruction of one’s home and place of worship, or severe restrictions on one’s education and employment opportunities.

Some member states of the United Nations have attempted to have that body pass legally binding resolutions outlawing defamation of religion. (My own take, and that of many, is that such resolutions are less for the benefit of religion in itself, and more for the benefit of ideologies that have hijacked religion for their own purposes.)

“Such resolutions provide international support for domestic laws against blasphemy and ‘injury to religious feelings’, which are often abused by governments to punish the peaceful expression of disfavored political or religious beliefs and ideas,” noted a common statement signed by a hundred faith and humanist organizations last year in opposition to a proposed U.N. resolution.

“It is vitally important for governments to combat violence motivated by bias and hatred and to encourage respectful speech and civil dialogue, while at the same time affirming that freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion are integral to the health of free societies and the dignity of the human person.”

Which brings me back to Sunday’s panel discussion at the Baitun Nur Mosque.

All five panelists were in agreement about appropriate respect for the sacred, but all agreed also that denial of freedom of speech is problematic, and in particular, coercion and violence have no place in good religion.

“Freedom of speech and expression is vital to the spread of a message as well as to restore the dignity of man,” said Edmonton scholar Mohyuddin Mirza, the Ahmadiyya Muslim panelist. “It is impossible for a religion like Islam to deny freedom of speech and expression, simply because it needs that freedom to explain and prove itself.”

However, such freedom must have limits, he added. “Recently, the concept of freedom is so misconceived and misapplied that the beauty of the cherished principle of freedom of speech gets transformed into the ugliness of freedom to abuse, hurl insults and blaspheme.”

Nevertheless, he said, there is no authority extended from the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, for anyone to exact punishment on blasphemers. This view is shared by the worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, in a speech he delivered on the topic four years ago:

“The Holy Qur’an explains that no matter what the circumstances, you are not to abandon tolerance. Irrespective of the cruelties inflicted on you, you are not to act other than with justice and take revenge by being just as cruel. . . . If you can forgive, then forgive, that is better.”

This line of thinking resonated well with my own remarks as a Christian. Not only are certain individuals and books sacred, I said, but all humanity is sacred by virtue of having been created “in the image of God.” Therefore, acting unjustly toward other human beings is itself an act of blasphemy.

In contrast to reacting vengefully to the hurtful words and actions of others against us and our beliefs, I noted a passage from the Christian Scriptures (1 Peter 2:21–23) about Jesus’ example:

“‘Christ . . . committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”

In the spirit of those words, then, I said, for our part a higher principle applies: “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page