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Todd: How religion can fuel anti-Jewishness

Opinion: Will Bill C-63 help deal with the fiery accusations coming from imams in B.C. and Quebec? Or is their rhetoric protected by a “religious exemption?”

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Canadian Jewish groups are applauding Ottawa’s proposed new bill combating online hate propaganda.

They maintain it’s designed, in part, to lead to fewer attacks on Jews, as well as on Muslims and Christians, whose places of worship have in recent years frequently been vandalized or burned to the ground.

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But Ottawa is sidestepping questions about whether Bill C-63 will provide an exemption to harmful online speech justified in the name of religion. The Criminal Code already provides a defence for hate speech “if in good faith” a person expresses a potentially harmful opinion on the basis of a belief in a religious text.

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Richard Marceau, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, is among the many wondering where that exemption leaves police when it comes to two fiery Canadian imams.

The two — one based in Quebec, the other in B.C. – have long been publicly condemning Zionists and Jews, but especially since the Hamas terrorist group’s slaughter of more than 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7, leading to the Israel-Hamas war.

Marceau believes religious faith is generally a force for good, including among Jews, Christians and Muslims. And scholars say most wars start because of competitions over power, land and prestige. But sometimes religious beliefs, say Marceau and others, contribute to suspicions and conflicts.

Since the Holocaust, in which Nazis murdered about six million Jews in the Second World War, most denominations of the 2.4-billion-member Christian church have probed their religion to see how some past beliefs may have contributed to anti-Jewishness.

Less known is research into how some texts and customs in the Muslim world also contain ideas and sentiments that some followers have interpreted over the years to justify expressing contempt towards Jews and others.

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Before examining fraught aspects of Christian and Muslim tradition, the question has to be asked why notorious Montreal Imam Adil Charkaoui, an activist on behalf of Palestinians, has not been prosecuted for hate speech?

That’s despite saying in an October speech: “Allah, take care of these Zionist aggressors. Allah, take care of the enemies of the people of Gaza. Allah, identify them all, then exterminate them. And don’t spare any of them!”

Bloc Quebec Party Leader Yves-François Blanchet is among those appalled. He maintains the Montreal imam has escaped jail because of the religious exemption in Canada’s hate speech laws. His party has launched Bill 367 to remove it. And two thirds of Canadians appear to agree, according to a February Leger poll.

Marceau is among the many expressing similar worries about the speech of longtime Victoria Imam Younous Kathrada, whose online sermons have for years denounced Jews, as well as Christians and atheists, as “wrongdoing people” who Muslims should never view as allies.

The South-African-trained B.C. imam has urged followers to “destroy the enemies of Islam, and annihilate the heretics and the atheists.” He has told members to not vote for “filthy” and “evil” political candidates who support homosexuality or Zionism.

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Despite such inflammatory rhetoric, Kathrada, the organization that runs his centre has received a $5,000 grant from the city of Victoria, according to Global News, and Kathrada has never been charged with hate speech nor been publicly criticized by an elected B.C. official.

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“Every religion has problematic words in their books,” says Richard Marceau, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

How can religion provide the fodder for such vitriol?

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are distinct faiths, even while they’re all rooted in the so-called Abrahamic tradition, set down in the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament.

Throughout the religions’ intertwined histories, there have been many periods of tolerance and co-operation. But there has also been doubt and fear, some linked to religious texts.

Harry Maier, professor of New Testament at the Vancouver School of Theology, says the ancient Jews have long been targeted, including by Roman emperors, because they were outsiders who believed in one God.

And when Christianity eventually became a dominant religion, he says, some leaders blamed Jewish people for advocating the Crucifixion of Jesus and not converting to Christianity.

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During their complex pasts, relations between Christians and Jews have often depended, he says, on regional royal or political leadership. But things went horribly wrong in the 20th century, Maier said, when the Nazis twisted the meanings of some Christian texts to justify their all-out assault on Jews.

The legacy of antisemitism in parts of the Muslim world is less discussed, but still real, says Marceau, who maintains Jews have tended not to persecute or defame other religions because they’ve almost always been a minority in society.

German scholar Gudrun Kramer, co-author of The Encyclopedia of Islam, says there is a strong tradition within the religion, which has 1.8 billion adherents, that non-Muslims be protected through a social contract known as dhimma.

However, Kramer says the Muslim world also contains “grey” references toward non-Muslims, whether polytheists, Jews or Christians. Some are characterized as sinners in the Qur’an. Recognizing it is a sensitive topic, Kramer laments how approaches have grown more harsh in light of the Arab-Israeli conflict over Palestine.

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A number of Middle Eastern Muslims, including those who wrote the 1988 charter of Hamas, imported antisemitic tropes from Europe, Kramer says. That includes from the century-old Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian conspiracy document alleging a Jewish plot to take over the world.

Marceau, who took part last week in Justice Minister Arif Virani’s announcement of the online harms bill, says the inter-religious history of Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity, has often involved co-operation. And it’s unwise to exaggerate conflicts.

He understands why Canada’s Criminal Code offers an exemption for potentially harmful speech that is rooted in religious texts, since it’s an attempt to protect freedom of expression. Even though many might not like it, the code allows a religious person to, for example, maintain their scriptures consider homosexuality to be sinful, without them being charged.

Still, Marceau would prefer to see the end of the religious exemption in the Criminal Code. And he’s aware that Canada’s justice minister has said he will be reviewing the debate over whether to get rid of it.

“I think religion can be, and mostly is, a source of good in society,” Marceau said.

“But you can always use a quote from a holy book in a bad manner. Every religion has problematic words in their books. And there are always some bad actors who want to distort them to promote discrimination or even violence.”

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