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Could Blasphemy Laws Be a Real Discussion in Canada?

During my tenure with Centre For Inquiry Canada, I frequently faced questions from individuals regarding my deep resentment of Canada's blasphemous libel law.  The questions came in a variety of forms such as: Isn't this law dead?  Nobody could ever be charged right?  Don't you think other matters need more attention?

All of these questions have a common underlying sentiment: we don't need to think about blasphemy in Canada. 

So let's consider this news story from Daily Pakistan Globa l:

CALGARY - Police in Canada are investigating allegations of hate speech by a local cleric who called a publisher and its administration 'devil' and 'kaafir', and wants the publisher to be punished according to blasphemy laws.
The National Press Council and the Canadian Journalists Association has also expressed serious concerns over the threats made to the publisher.

Sources say the publisher, who enjoys a good reputation as a local community volunteer among the South Asian communities, had published a news report about a lecture on Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) delivered by a reputable local scholar Kazi Shoaib, an imam at the Al-Hedaya Islamic Centre, North East Calgary.

Naturally, I urge a full reading of the original story and a critical examination of the case and its implication.

I'm not in a position to know all the facts and details; I have no way of knowing whether the reporting is accurate and correct. I do however, think the case answers the question of whether Canada's blasphemous libel law needs to be repealed.

It may be reasonable to think that most Canadians are beyond giving serious consideration to Criminal Code Section 296 as a "serious law".  But not all Canadians have this view. Until it has been repealed, it is only sleeping and not dead.

Eric Adriaans

Andrew Bennett Criticizes Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion

CFIC's former NED responds to National Post article covering former Ambassador Andrew Bennett's perspectives.

On January 26, 2016  I sent a letter to Stephane Dion - at that time, newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs - expressing my view of the work of the Office of Religious Freedom (a letter which was copied to then-Ambassador Andrew Bennett).  I felt my view had a degree of significance given that I had been appointed to its External Advisory Committee....indeed I was the only non-religious appointee and therefore the sole voice for one of the largest interest-groups in the country.... non-religious Canadians.

Since then, Canadians have observed (or ignored) th e evolution of the Office of Religious Freedom into the Office of Human Rights, Freedom and Inclusion under Trudeau, Dion and the Liberals.  

I say the Office evolved because it adapted to 2016's conditions and environment.  It became a better and more appropriate response to the domestic and international problems we all  face (compared to the original Conservative party creation).  I think the Liberals got it right by continuing good work the office had started - but with a sharper sense of Canadian identity and values than existed in its earlier incarnation. And I won't be surprised (or disappointed) if the office essentially subsumes within a larger Global Affairs structure in coming months or years.

But for now, a few excerpts from my 2016 letter:

......Minister, I must first indicate my respect and appreciation for Ambassador Andrew Bennett's efforts to ensure that Canada's non-religious community had both voice and recognition by his office and in the OR F process.  It would have been a simple matter for the Ambassador to disregard this community through religious bigotry and privilege that is often present when matters of religious freedom are given significant attention. The Ambassador did not ignore the non-religious community and we found him courteous and responsive on a variety of matters, such as our recent concerns regarding atheist writers targeted for assassination in Bangladesh and the imprisonment and torture of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia.  This is to Ambassador Bennett's credit and we thank him for his respectful engagement and consideration.

Notwithstanding our satisfaction with Ambassador Bennett's engagement of the non-religious community, I would fail as a representative of CFIC and of the non-religious community if I did not acknowledge that many non-religious people deeply resented the formation of the Office of Religious Freedom.  I will not expand on perspectives of that resentment except to say that there remains in Canada a significant distance of opinion which can be summed-up in the sentiment that CFIC espouses: Secular Human Rights requires that people have both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. 

Over the past two years, CFIC has repeatedly expressed our concern that Canada continues to maintain a blasphemous libel law in our Criminal Code; we are concerned with what this indicates regarding our domestic and global policy regarding secular human rights, religious freedom and freedom from religion.  I was very pleased, therefore, to observe that Ambassador Bennett expressed interest to oppose blasphemy laws around the world on the principle that blasphemy laws are bad laws.  I was also very pleased to observe Ambassador Bennett's clear understanding that many desperate human rights problems around the world are very much connected, at a root-cause level, to issues of religion.

I wish to urge continued recognition that the fundamental and pervasive source of many secular human rights violations is faith-based bigotry and intolerance; also that the Federal Government oppose blasphemy laws, both in Canada and wherever they exist.  In light of the many shocking and grievous acts of religious bigotry and violence perpetrated by individuals, organized groups and even governments in recent years, Canadians are desperately in need of leadership and conviction on these issues.

Minister, I agreed to serve on the Office of Religious Freedom's External Advisory Committee on principle that the non-religious community must be heard - even if the process is not one we would have design ed.  Whether the Department of Global Affairs continues in the funding of the ORF is of lesser import than advancing leadership which strengthens Secular Human Rights.  We must emphasize the content of this work and not the form of its administration.  People must have freedom of religion and freedom from religion.   Blasphemy laws must be opposed and repealed wherever they exist.  We must recognize that religious bigotry and persecution is a root cause of human rights violations and atrocities around the world - even in Canada.  Whether through a renewed Office of Religious Freedom or through some other structure, these initiatives and the engagement of the non-religious community which Ambassador Bennett has led must be continued as important priorities and approaches.
Though a year has passed since I drafted that letter, my perspectives and values have not changed.  The views currently being communicated by the former ambassador - ensconced as he is in a religious think tank - confirm for me that CFIC got it right: some of the ORF work needed to continue but from a different well of values - a more Canadian (and yes, more secular)  well of values.

In his criticism of the new office, Bennett seems to feel that inclusion is an "ill-defined and thoroughly vague" concept.  I don't think that's quite right and here's why: when meeting with Bennett between 2014 and 2016, he was always clear to separate his foreign policy priorities from matters here in Canada.  When approached with the blasphemy law in Canada, we were advised that this was a "domestic issue"...though he was very happy to oppose blasphemy laws elsewhere - and particularly where Christians were suffering.  Dr. Bennett acted inclusively domestically but appears to reject inclusion now that it is set on a secular human rights footing rather than a religious freedom footing. 

If, as Bennett implies, "Allies" are mystified by the shift from religious freedom to human rights, they need only look at Canadian values.  Is the former Ambassador seriously suggesting that Canadian policy should be based on the values and views of "Allies" rather than of Canadians?

Above: Human Rights, Freedom and Inclusion at work: Eric Adriaans, Seanna Watson, Kevin Smith, Raihan Abir, UNHCR's Furio De Angelis, Andrew Bennett

As regards Bennett's comment that prioritizing religious freedom ahead of other human rights does not diminish attention to other human rights...that's poppycock.  Setting priorities absolutely diminishes attention to things at the bottom of the list.  That's how priorities work. Bennett is smart enough to know that.

It is my observation that the committee has evolved and become more inclusive (I observed this for myself in their December 2016 consultation meetings, where I no longer felt like an isolated secular voice).  As for Dr. Bennett - with comments such as "Freedom of religion is a foundational freedom because without it, concepts like freedom of speech and assembly become meaningless".... it seems his world-view has narrowed (source).

I applaud the words of Richard Arbeiter who was quoted in the article as saying, "Canada's only credible abroad if we can point to what we're doing at home to address our own long-standing and emerging issues."  The current Office seeks to connect what we espouse here in Canada with what we promote to others around the globe - it seeks to avoid hypocrisy

I look forward to an end to Canada's blasphemous libel law - such a move would be a significant move to fulfill Arbeiter's words.  Unlike Dr. Bennett, I do not think the solutions to tomorrow's problems will be found in religiously-sourced doctrines, as has happened too frequently in the past.   I recommend at least a few words from Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies (actually the whole book is worth a read):

Historicism...can be well illustrated by one of the simplest and oldest of its forms, the doctrine of the chosen people.  This doctrine is one of the attempts to make history understandable by a theistic interpretation, i.e. by recognizing God as the author of the play performed on  the Historical Stage....there is no doubt that the doctrine of the chosen people grew out of the tribal form of social life.  Tribalism - the emphasis on the supreme importance of the tribe without which the individual is nothing at all - is an element which we shall find in many forms of historicist theories.

Here in 2017, staring down the recent US inauguration of Trump and Republicans as we all must - it is interesting to note that Popper was responding to hideous fascism and racialism of his day.   How far is Dr. Bennett's claim that freedom of expression means nothing without freedom of religion from a historicist claim that the individual is nothing without the tribe (the chosen people)? How far are we from staring down hideous "isms" today?

Eric Adriaans


E-petition 382, calling for the repeal of Criminal Code Section 296, was presented by MP Ali Ehsassi to the government on December 9, 2016.

This is an historic event in the opposition to Canada's blasphemous libel law.  The federal government has 45 calendar days (of which 3 remain) to respond to the petition.

CFIC has led Canadian opposition to Criminal Code Section 296 since 2014.  Consider notifying your local MP about your position on this archaic law!  

If the federal government "does the right thing", Canada will begin to repeal Criminal Code Section 296 by February 2017.

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