Doug Todd: It’s dangerous to bring modern-day blasphemy laws to West

Opinion: Some lawmakers are trying to ban the ridicule of religion, but this free-expression issue demands extreme caution.

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Canadian senators have recommended it. An Australian state has already done it. And some Danish politicians are preparing for it.

They are all pushing new laws that would, in different ways, make it a criminal offence to mock a religion. Some now call it “religious vilification” — even while it used to be known as “blasphemy.” The subject is in the air more than ever this fall because of hot-blooded enmities arising in the wake of the Hamas-Israel war.

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Canadian Sen. Salma Ataullahjan this month said she wants legislation to combat “mischaracterization of religious Islamic concepts.” Chris Minns, premier of New South Wales in Australia, just brought in a fine of up to $100,000 for anyone who “severely ridicules” a religious belief. Denmark votes in December on whether to ban “improper treatment of scriptures,” particularly Quran burnings.

As much as I personally oppose the ridiculing of religious beliefs or symbols, I also believe legislators need to approach this crucial issue of free expression with extreme caution. It is dangerous for any society to forbid people from casting profane aspersions, however offensive, on that which others consider sacred.

Do we jail attention-seeking singer Madonna for dressing up, as she did again this year, as Jesus Christ for a Vanity Fair shoot? Do we fine the American artist who created “Piss Christ” by displaying a crucifix in a bottle of urine? Do we criminally punish the Canadian who on YouTube flushed communion wafers down the toilet?

These would not be theoretical questions in much of the world. Such iconoclastic antics would lead to incarceration, whipping or even execution in some of the 79 countries, mostly authoritarian, that have anti-blasphemy laws, which Pew Research defines as “speech or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or of people or objects considered sacred.”

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While the few blasphemy rules that remain on the books in the West are virtually ignored, the most strict laws are in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Such restrictions saturate societies with fear, conformity and the potential for sometimes horrific mob vigilantism.

In 2015 a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad led to the massacre of 12 staff members at France’s Charlie Hebdo magazine. Anti-blasphemy laws in Iran also led to the fatwa on author Salman Rushdie, who lost an eye last year after he was stabbed by someone who thought he was doing his duty for the Ayatollah.

Criminal bans on “religious vilification” may be the ultimate slippery slope.

The line is blurry between ridiculing a religion and simply criticizing it, which has been fair game in the West since the Christian Reformation in the 16th century. Showing blatant disrespect, including making fun of, any religion is not helpful or funny. But, despite the posturing by politicians, it has to be an accepted part of secular culture in the democratic West, where anti-hate laws generally already exist.

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We are expected in the ostensibly secular West to put up with award-winning American actress Susan Sarandon saying American Jews frightened by rising antisemitism were “getting a taste of what it feels like to be a Muslim in this country.”

And also with Sarandon being chastised by Muslim American journalist Asra Nomani, who told her, “Please don’t minimize the experience of Jewish Americans by sanitizing the hell that it is for Muslims living in Muslim countries. … Go, live like a Muslim woman in a Muslim country. You will come back to America and kiss the land beneath your feet.”

Muslim-American journalist Asra Nomani. She has written for the Washington Post, New York Times and Time magazine, and has covered the war in Afghanistan for jpg

B.C.’s higher education minister, Selina Robinson, must also have the ongoing right to express her opinion about the religion-based antisemitism of Hamas and some pro-Palestinian protesters, even if it led to organized online vilification of her for being allegedly, among other things, Islamophobic.

That is what happened when Robinson quoted a columnist who wrote, “If you’re a woman, or a girl, or LGBTQ, or a believer in free speech, or just someone who has a faith that is different from theirs — well, (Hamas) doesn’t want you. And, in some cases, they will kill you, too.”

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On the other side of the faith ledger, freedom-oriented societies will have to tolerate those who condemn the Torah-based Zionism of some Orthodox Jews who adamantly believe the land of Israel was granted to them by divine decree.

For that matter, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus also have to allow their beliefs to undergo sometimes harsh public scrutiny.

It’s true: There is unfortunately a lot of religious antagonism in the world, according to pollsters at Pew Research. But that doesn’t mean the solution is silencing critics, either atheist or religious, who sometimes target spiritual beliefs or symbols.

As much as a majority of Danish politicians intend to ban Quran burnings, albeit mainly to reduce the risk of Islamic terrorist attacks, and politicians in Canada and Australia raise the cause of “multiculturalism” to criminalize public scolding of faith groups, we have to tolerate most of it.

We especially don’t want politicians censoring for the sake of shoring up the vote of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, or whoever. There is little doubt, for instance, U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are anxious these days about holding onto their appeal among various religious cohorts, particularly the Muslim population, which in Canada is five times larger than the Jewish population.

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But too many politicians are today barking up the wrong tree by pushing for sweeping new anti-blasphemy legislation. However imperfect, anti-hate laws already exist to protect religious people in Canada and many other places.

Just as importantly, most of us are still committed to the strong cultural value of showing each other respect.

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