Thursday, November 20, 2008

Religion versus free speech versus the faithful versus free speech

Our good Islamic apologist, Haroon Siddiqui, has penned an ambiguous column in the Toronto Star about free speech versus religion. He says he is agnostic, not in the sense of a person who claims that he does not know whether God exists or not, but in the meaning that he is undecided about whether free speech trumps the sacred when it comes to religion; i.e., whether religion should be off-limits for critical analysis.

He lives in a secular state that nominally stands for free speech. He is most concerned with alleged Islamophobia, being cognizant that free speech advocates are very vocal and visible when it is Islamists that try to shut down free speech, but invisible when it is others attacking Islam.

In the normal course, one would expect this where the majority religion, as in this country, is Christian and the minority religion, by a long shot, is Islam. But he is right on the scales of fairness and justice, this is not right. What is sauce for the goose must also apply to the gander.

What is convoluting the problem, in my view, is that many people (and I think Mr. Siddiqui is one of them) fail to distinguish between a religion and the people who adhere to the religion. Islam is the religion and Muslims are the people who follow the religion.

In our society, you are perfectly free to be a Muslim (however you define Muslimism). Nobody is entitled to criticize you for your choice of belief system, and would be considered a bigot if they did so. But that is not the same as saying that your religion is exempt from scrutiny. I can say anything I like about Islam and you, as a Muslim, have nothing to complain about (at least in Canada). I don’t think that Muslims understand that because it is an axiom of Islam that the religion is beyond criticism.

Likewise, you can criticize religions such as Christianity and Judaism, but you cannot criticize Christians and Jews; i.e., the people who have chosen their paths of belief. This is the problem that the Khalid mosque experienced; it did not criticize Judaism, it attacked Jews.

This is a free country, and that is what it means – you can believe any nonsense that strikes your fancy. It doesn’t mean that the fancy that strikes you is beyond analysis and criticism.

Here is the difficulty: if you say a religion is nuts, then you are, by implication, however unintended, saying a person who believes the dogma of that religion is nuts. The belief system and its tenets are wrapped up in the psyche of the individual believer. They cannot distinguish between an intellectual dissection of their belief system and their own self-worth.

This is the underpinning of the problem with section 13 of the Canada Human Rights Act. Muslims have taken the language that protects them from criticism and attempted to stop criticism of Islam. Neo-Nazis rain contempt on Jews, not on Judaism. Mark Steyn criticizes the political aspect of Islam and its political activists, not Muslims as a whole – there is a difference.

In a rational society dedicated to reason and skeptical argument it should be perfectly acceptable to question a belief system without personalizing it for those who accept it.

We seem to be a long way from being a rational society. But we should not make the mistake that is implicit in the resolutions of the United Nations to make the scrutiny of religion off-limits. I don’t how Mr. Siddiqui could be ambivalent about that.

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