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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Haroon Siddiqui: Battle brewing over freedom of religion vs. speech

A Somali Canadian mosque in Toronto is being condemned, rightly so, for carrying anti-Semitic and anti-Western messages on its website. This, though, does invite a question: Where are the free-speech advocates defending the right of this group to say whatever the heck it wants?

There aren't any, rightly so. But we can be certain that if some other group was saying similar vile things about Muslims and Islam, free speechers would be out in droves defending it.

This double standard is at the heart of the recurring controversies bedevilling relations between the Western and Muslim worlds, from the Danish cartoon episode to Maclean's magazine being dragged, unsuccessfully, before three human rights commissions in Canada.

The issue is not going away. In fact, it is coming to a head.

When Pope Benedict held a historic dialogue with Muslims in Rome recently, the final communiqué said this of religious minorities: "Their founding figures and the symbols they consider sacred should not be subjected to any form of mockery or ridicule."

The Catholics and Muslims present have jointly challenged a fundamental tenet of free speech, that religion is not above ridicule.


Freedom of speech has limits in Canada and Europe (but not in the U.S.) I am agnostic on the subject. But so long as anti-hate laws exist, critics cannot pretend that they don't. And invoking them selectively only devalues their currency and discredits our democracies.

There is also self-restraint. We – the media, especially – exercise it every day. But we often abandon such constraints with Muslims and Islam. That's the real issue.

People of principle ought to get out of the dark alley of double standards and hypocrisy if they are to defend free speech properly and not add to the dangerous levels of animosity in the world.


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