On January 30, 2017 the federal government tabled a response to an electronic Parliamentary petition (E-382) calling for the repeal of Canada’s blasphemous libel law (Criminal Code Section 296).
As Christmas approaches, there is one item on my wish list that requires a response from the federal government. Last December Ali Ehsassi sponsored a petition to repeal Section 296 of the criminal code, which allows prosecution for blasphemous libel. Although it has not recently been enforced and we have the Charter of Rights protecting freedom of expression, we need to set an example for countries that not only have these laws, but also enforce them.
All countries should respect religion, but should not have laws on their books that allow people to use religion to oppress different faiths or the absence of faith. In the United States there are laws on the books that make it illegal for an atheist to hold political office. They make no attempt to enforce them, but with the crazy direction they have taken in the last election, I’m not holding my breath for the future.
This year we opened our arms to Muslim refugees who were brutalized by religious zealotry on their way out and stigmatized as terrorists on the way in. Let us tell them that they can freely practice their faith in Canada because we value freedom of expression and modern civilization does not condone laws that penalize religious discussion.
This letter by CFIC member Russell Pangborn was recently published in the Toronto Star
UPDATE: See also Purging Criminal Code of defunct ‘zombie laws’ no simple task, which cites the anti-blasphemy law among a list of targets for legal reform.
It’s been a short and woefully chaotic year since the killing spree in Paris that resulted in the massacre of a group of cartoonists and French citizens, and despite the short-lived universality of “Je suis Charlie,” the world seems to have moved on.
Regardless of the newfound fame of the satirical magazine, the anniversary edition of Charlie Hebdo has been widely criticized, including by the Vatican’s periodical L’Osservatore Romano, which has denounced it for refusing to “recognize or respect believers’ faith in God, regardless of their religion.” Though slightly more reserved than the Pope’s statements last year — when Pope Francis went so far as likening the attacks to a justified act of retribution: “If my good friend…says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch…It’s normal. You cannot provoke” — this position is only slightly less repugnant.
And regrettably, apologists exist on both sides of the aisle. In his recent and rather infantile review of Charbonnier’s posthumously published Open Letter, John Semley describes the book as “deliberately [and] pointedly provocative,” and in the process contributes to the very culture that Hebdo and other satirical works reject. Semley fails to appreciate that a society that criticizes one’s beliefs – even in what might be considered an offensive manner — is far less sinister than one that politically or socially represses them.
Both of these positions fail to recognize the crucial distinction between respect for one’s ability to choose their own beliefs — a fundamental aspect of liberal society — and a forced respect for those beliefs themselves. In light of this common misconception, it is important to consider the role of blasphemy in contemporary society.
2015 was a year of blasphemy related religious violence; notably with the murderous campaign against secular bloggers in Bangladesh, the vicious killing of Farkhunda Malikzada in Afghanistan, clashes with Islamist gunmen in both Denmark and Texas, and the devastating November attack in Paris. It has also been a year of state-led persecution against blasphemers, notably in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and India. Because of this, now, perhaps more than ever, the notion of blasphemy in a secular society must be addressed. Is blasphemy intrinsically different, or any worse, than any other sort of criticism?
In the past year, scores of articles have been written recently that aim to defend our right to blaspheme as if it were somehow distinct from the usual set of freedoms that we maintain in a liberal society, such as those of speech or expression. However, this seems quite problematic. Obviously the main principle that these articles assert is absolutely correct – that the right to defend, critique, or insult any belief is a cornerstone of Western liberal society — but it is exactly because of this that the use of the term ‘blasphemy’ in this context is so counterproductive
Traditionally, the term has been used in the context of believers engaging in acts or utterances that are considered sacrilegious by the religious leaders or texts that the believers follow; however, to extend this term to incorporate the actions of nonbelievers is to suggest that even nonbelievers must show reverence to certain ideas, objects or people, simply because they’re considered sacred to a select group of individuals. While religious individuals are certainly free to believe what they will, they are not free to force others to do the same. This means that, while blasphemy may exist within the bounds of a religious community, whose members all adhere to the rules and beliefs of their specific sect, it cannot exist outside of this community — in society at large. After all, if an individual doesn’t adhere to the beliefs of a religious sect, then they cannot be held accountable or condemned for breaking the rules of this group, especially when they don’t believe in the existence or sanctity of what they are criticizing in the first place.
Differentiating the right to lambaste religious beliefs from our right to critique any other idea is problematic because, implicit within the use of the term ‘blasphemy’, is the notion that — even for nonbelievers — there are certain ideas that are more sacred than others. By continuing to refer to these acts as ‘blasphemous’ we afford religious reproach its very own category of criticism, we suggest that criticizing, satirizing, or even offending religious views is somehow worse than doing the same to secular values; this creates a hierarchy of ideas, thereby allowing some to be attacked while presenting others as immutable. Yet, a belief or custom is not worthy of respect merely because it has a long and established history, nor simply because it is held by the multitudes. It is crucial for a secular society to maintain that no idea is immune from rational reflection, no matter how many believe it to be sacred. In short, the separation of our right to blaspheme from freedom of expression in the traditional sense is useless, and also has the unfortunate result of perpetuating the antiquated belief that religions are innately more worthy of respect than certain other values.
Rather than fighting to protect our right to blaspheme, we should be emphasizing that in a secular society there is no such thing.
By Nicholas Chiasson
CFI Canada was very pleased to observe the Parliament of Iceland remove it’s antiquated blasphemy law on July 3, 2015. Our colleagues in Iceland were early and enthusiastic supporters of the International Coalition Against Blasphemy Laws when the coalition was formed following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. We are re-publishing here comments from the Sidmennt website on this historic advance of word secularism.
Iceland’s parliament agreed today to abolish the blasphemy provision of the Criminal Code. The Pirate Party’s parliamentarians submitted the proposal in January, which received broad support from all other political parties in Parliament and the matter was unanimously supported by the committee examining the proposal. Icelanders have now taken an important step in guaranteeing human rights and joined other nations which respect freedom of speech and expression.
There was also extensive support for the bill among the various organizations consulted by Parliament: in addition to Sidmennt (The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association), the bishop of Iceland, the Icelandic priesthood, the Association of Publishers, PEN Iceland, IMMI (The International Modern Media Institute) an Icelandic based international organization of information and freedom of expression and an atheist group called Vantrú.
The bill is a response to criticism by various international institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe which specifically concluded that countries should abolish the blasphemy provisions in their laws.
Sidmennt has always focused attention on abolishing the blasphemy provision in the Icelandic Criminal Code and has sent parliamentarians memoranda about this in our annual letter to them with suggestions about important issues which promote human rights. Sidmennt’s comments to Parliament on this bill included the following:
“Often, countries where there is a lack of democracy and freedom are criticized for punishing people for blasphemy even with death sentences. When those countries are criticized, their spokespeople frequently point out, correctly, that similar laws are in force in “Western” democracies. Therefore, it sends a vital message to the rest of the world if Iceland has repealed its blasphemy law. Nations which maintain blasphemy laws with serious consequences should not be able to point to Iceland and say that it has the same kind of law.”
Sidmennt celebrates the fact that parliamentarians from all parties have supported broadening human rights. It should be noted that there are provisions in the Icelandic Criminal Code against hate speech so that protection against that is still guaranteed.
Submitted by Hope Knutsson