By Doğan D. Akman*
Of late, our Prime Minister has been aggressively taken to task for putting limits on freedom of speech in the context of the recent decapitation of a French school teacher who showed his pupils caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. This murder is a follow up to the murders which were committed at Charlie Hebdo, the original publisher of the Muhammad caricatures in January 2015.
The position of the Prime Minister
Putting aside the barbarity of the crime which the Prime Minister condemned, he stated that free speech is not without limits and should not “arbitrarily and needlessly hurt” certain communities. He said: “We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily and unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet.”
The Prime Minister further pleaded for a careful use of free speech and went on to say ”In a pluralist, diverse and respectful society like ours, we owe it to ourselves to be aware of the impact of our words, of our actions on others, particularly these communities and populations who still experience a great deal of discrimination.” (Robert Spencer, Canada: Trudeau answers question about Muhammad cartoons by saying ‘freedom of expression is not without limits” Jihad Watch, www.jihadwatch.org › 2020/10 › canada-trudeau-answ...)
As a starting point, it must be recalled that the ugly caricatures of the Prophet aroused a great deal of anger across the Muslim communities in France and worldwide. This anger afforded the so-called Islamists with an excuse to engage in barbaric violence beginning with the killings at a the Charlie Hebdo office to punish the staff for publishing the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims continue to be deeply offended by the repeated circulation of the re-published cartoons and demand their suppression as a matter of respect for their religion and their Prophet.
For one thing, Islam unlike Christianity does not permit drawings of religious figures as art or ornaments in the mosques or elsewhere. Proceeding on this premise, it is perhaps understandable that they would take issue with someone belonging to a different faith publishing, not merely a historical drawing of the Prophet but ugly caricatures of Him, for popular amusement.
One might have expected that the teacher would have learned enough from the murders at Charlie Hebdo, not to engage in the foolishness of showing such caricatures to a class of students which included Muslims. This is absolutely not to blame him for becoming the victim, but reiterate the sensitivities and grievances, particularly religious ones, experienced by not only observant Muslims, but of strict adherents of all religions and sects regardless of their politics and ideologies, and, if nothing else, recognize the need for respect for ”legitimate” sensitivities.
About freedom of speech
Freedom of speech, along with other rights and freedoms, is held up as one of the hallmarks of a free and democratic society. It is the first amendment to the US constitution and considered sacred.
As one brought up in a conservative family, schooled by the Christian Brothers and as a member of the Jewish minority, I was subjected to antisemitic rants and exposed to ugly antisemitic cartoons in a Muslim country. Regretfully, I have also been harassed by antisemites in Canada . Accordingly, I have always wondered why the intelligent, the learned, the enlightened and those endowed with a healthy dose of common sense adopt, and even preach the virtues of this freedom.
The fact of the matter is that this is the freedom that also provides people with a licence to say, write and draw things that are nasty, offensive in the extreme, socially and politically destructive and which, needless to say, serve no socially or politically constructive, useful, helpful ends for the benefit of one or more communities, and more importantly for society as a whole.
Surely, every right and freedom must be exercised subject to a corresponding duty to exercise them responsibly and sensibly.
In this regard, I submit that the enumeration of the rights and freedoms in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms without a statement of the duty or set of duties corresponding to the enjoyment of each of these is a fundamental flaw of the Charter. And this flaw is compounded by the wording of the limitation to the exercise of these rights and freedoms set out in section 1 of the Charter which beg the questions rather than clarify or provide some further direction or guidelines about the nature and scope of the limitation.
The Supreme Court of Canada describes the Charter as “a living tree”. This being the case, the Court must then also consider the evolving composition of the soil that keeps feeding the tree. Towards this end, the Court must acquire a good grasp of the way in which various ingredients of the soil i.e. the diverse communities of the Canadian society, interact with and reach to one another or others of them, in order to insure that the tree continues to live and flourish.
As the matter at hand illustrates, in Canada as in the rest of the Western world, the soil has become a complex mosaic of different cultures, religions, belief systems, customs, practices and ideologies, a number of which far from being in harmony with one another, are seriously adversarial to one another or others of them.
Hence, it did not take long for the Canada based Imam Younus Kathrada to go on the attack to vent his anger and inform the public that, despite the repeated angry objections of the European Muslim communities to the ugly depictions of the Prophet, over the years, no one bothered to do anything about, and that enough has been enough for a long time.
He described the victim who showed the caricatures to his class as a “cursed individual”; an “evil spirited man”, and a “filthy excuse for a human being”.
He did not see anything wrong with the barbaric punishment administered by the killer.
This Imam went on to pray: ”Oh Allah, gives strength to Islam and Muslims, and humiliate the infidels and the polytheists. Oh Allah, destroy the enemies of Islam, and annihilate the heretics and the atheists…Oh Allah, support those who wage jihad for your same everywhere…Oh Allah, annihilate, all those who slandered Your Prophet Muhammad.”
It is likely that being considered an Islamic scholar would add additional weight and authority to the Imam’s supplications; and hence contribute to the radicalisation of some young and no so young susceptible minds, and give his advance blessings to those who might or would take his incitement to violence as an honourable marching order.
The net effect of such speeches is to anger certain segments of the Canadian society and possibly induce some of their members to engage in hostile and hateful behaviour against Muslims. In turn, such behaviour inevitably leads to accusations of “Islamophobia”. This hatred self-feeding circular process progressively damages the fabric of the Canadian society for all.
The fact of the matter is that Canada is no stranger to the kind of inflammatory religious teaching, preaching supplication and incitement during the tenure of the Prime Minister. To get an insight into such activities, I refer the reader to Tarek Fatah’s articles on the subject in the Toronto Sun as well as in the Middle East Forum. cf. www.meforum.org/author/Tarek+Fatah
Where all of this should have led the Prime Minister?
In the case at hand, the Prime Minister having stated clearly his reasoning concerning the kind of limitation that must be read into our freedom of speech, might be expected to apply the same reasoning in his own backyard and publicly
Denounce Imam Younus Kathrada for “arbitrarily and needlessly hurt[ing]”, in effect every Canadian citizen who is not a practicing Muslim, that is over some 30 million people;
Tell the Imam in no uncertain terms: “We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily and unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet.”, and
Demand that he make an unqualified public apology for his unacceptable behaviour.
The Prime Minister’s reasoning turned out to be a one way street. He did not call the Imam to task. Hence we are now worse off than we were before the Prime Minister spoke.
Doğan D. Akman is an independent researcher and commentator. He holds a B.Sc. in sociology, an M.A. in sociology/criminology and an LL.B in law. He held academic appointments in sociology, criminology and social policy; served as a Judge of the Provincial Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, and occupied the positions of Crown Counsel in criminal prosecutions and in civil litigation at the Federal Department of Justice. His academic work is published in peer-reviewed professional journals, while his opinion pieces and other writings are to be found in various publications and in blogs.