Canada: Religions on freedom of expression at World Religions Conference


“Blasphemy is like spitting on the moon. You can do it as much as you want but it will not affect the moon, it will just come back at you.”

Over 120 people were at the Ranchehouse on Thursday to attend Cochrane’s seventh World Religions Conference, which looked at Freedom of Expression from the perspective of Native Spirituality, Christianity, Ahmadiyya Islam and Bahai, an offshoot of Islam founded in Iran before become a religion in its own right.

“The excess of liberty is a problem, said Joan Young, Bahai’s representative, who believes freedom of expression is not disciplined in today’s world, adding that free speech must but moderated with dignity and respect for the betterment of society.

Young referenced the protests that followed the murders of 10 Charilie Hebdo employees and two police officers by self-proclaimed jihadists, saying she was shocked to see people coming out in support of the freedom to insult, which takes freedom of expression to a point where it no longer serves to improve the community as it is malicious rather than creative.

“I find that troubling because they don’t equate at all,” said Young when comparing the freedom to express oneself to the willingness to insult another. “Is what we are saying contributing to spirit of unity and goodwill or insulting and belittling?”

Kevin Peacock, professor of the Old Testament, took a different approach and focused on freedom of expression as it pertains to what is believed to be the truth.

Nothing that America’s Bill of Rights and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms both protect the freedom of religion, thought, association and press, Peacock talked about the history of Christian persecution for expressing their beliefs, primarily in terms of his own Baptist faith and how King James would punish and oppress them for believing differently.

“No one can force someone into a choice,” said Peacock, adding that as we live in a pluralistic society it is necessary that we avoid imposition and laissez faire approaches to faith and instead focus of persuasion.

“We believe we have the truth so we don’t fear the beliefs of others,” said Peacock, who finds that everyone has the right to share the truth, which was a distinction he made in reference to the harmful actions of anti-vaccers and some of the ill informed opinions regarding what genetically modified organisms are. “That’s how Christians live in a pluralistic society.”

Salman Khalid echoed Peacock sentiments in his own presentation as he looked at what freedom of expression means to Ahmadiyya Islam and the religion in general.

Being based on the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who Ahmadiyya Muslims view as the Messiah and preached the use of dialogue while condemning violence, Khalid talked about what it means when the political right to one’s own opinion is taken to the extreme.

“While we may have freedom, on the other side we have the opposite,” said Khalid, pointing out that while disagreement is accepted and encouraged when constructive, speech that denigrates to blasphemy, hate speech and bullying must be avoided.

Khalid argued that authentic Islamic teachings do not use compulsion in matters of religion and that when it comes to blasphemy the Quran states that one should simply walk away until the mocking party is willing to listen and have a dialogue.

“Blasphemy is like spitting on the moon. You can do it as much as you want but it will not affect the moon, it will just come back at you,” said Khalid, adding the messengers of God are always mocked but give people a chance to reconsider and change their beliefs and that blasphemy is a matter between an individual and God.

The problem, as Khalid sees it, is when blasphemy, or any kind of prejudice, turns to hate speech that encourages and violence and oppressive actions. These he said must be dealt with through legal means and while everyone must be vigilant in the matter of bullying only the authorities should deal with the matter. No one should ever take it upon themselves to use violence or attempt to subjugate another.

“Muslims need to be the guardians and protectors of other people’s rights,” said Khalid, maintaining that the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack were not true Muslims. “They had no right to even touch them.”

In the end, the speakers all agreed that abuse of one’s religion is no reason to respond with violence and it is up to the government to enforce laws that protect ideas while ensuring that actions that do harm are made illegal and punished accordingly.