Canada’s Blasphemy Law

Today, Rob Breakenridge retweeted a tweet from Scott Gilmore which reads

Mocking religions should be illegal according to Montreal Muslim Council

The article to which Gilmore refers, “Ridiculiser les religions devrait être puni, selon le Conseil musulman de Montréal,” published in Actualité in August 2015, can be translated as “Ridiculing religions should be punished, according to the Muslim Council of Montreal.”

Imam Salam Elmenyawi, the chairman of the Muslim Council of Montreal, Elmenyawi would like the Quebec government to expand the scope of Bill 59 because

“Quand on tourne en dérision une religion, vous vous moquez de moi, vous vous moquez de ma femme, vous vous moquez du prophète. . . . Si votre intention est de protéger des personnes, il faut comprendre que pour un musulman, quand on attaque sa religion, c’est la personne elle-même qui est attaquée.”

 

“When you deride religion, you laugh at me, you laugh at my wife, you mock the Prophet. . . . If your intention is to protect people, we must understand that for a Muslim, when you attack religion, it is the person himself who is attacked.” (Google)

While Quebec Bill 59 has not been passed, Canada still has a blasphemy law in its Criminal Code. According to Centre for Inquiry Canada’s section on Canada’s blasphemy law,

Blasphemy is currently regarded as the act of showing contempt (or failing to display reverence and respect) for religious symbols or persons. It is well known that in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan faith-based governments, radical militarized organizations and even individuals use the concept of blasphemy to justify violent implementation of their dogmatic ideologies – they silence criticism or commentary through lawful and unlawful justifications that blasphemy hurts their religious sentiments.

While Canadians react with horror when countries use the concept of blasphemy to justify violent implementation of their dogmatic ideologies and to silence criticism and commentary, most Canadians are unaware of Section 296 of Canada’s Criminal Code:

296 (1) Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.

(2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.

(3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.

As Cassandra Martino points out in an article in the winter 2015-2016 issue of Humanist Perspectives, Canada’s Blasphemy Law is Sleeping But Not Dead. This is why

CFIC hopes to bring enough public and political attention to this issue that, if nothing else, a brave MP will sponsor a Private Member’s Bill to repeal Section 296 of the Criminal Code.

Madeline Weld argues, in her editorial to the winter 2015-2016 issue of Humanist Perspectives, that blasphemy laws are “[a]n abomination that continues to plague humanity.” Weld goes on to criticize

the absurdity that is Quebec’s Bill 59, “to prevent and combat hate speech and speech inciting violence…” The bill . . . would allow an anonymous procedure for reporting hate speech to the Quebec Human Rights Commission (QHRC) and would grant it new powers, including the power to investigate. In addition to targeting hate speech against protected groups of individuals, including those based on race, sexual orientation, and gender, Bill 59 also protects language, social condition, and political convictions.

If Imam Salam Elmenyawi and Pope Francis and other religious leaders had their way,  Canada’s Blasphemy Law would no longer be dormant; criticizing, ridiculing, and mocking religion would be illegal and Canadians’ right to free speech and expression would be seriously threatened.

CFIC asks you to support its campaign to take a stand against violence and bigotry by writing a letter to your Member of Parliament asking for a repeal of Section 296 of the Criminal Code.

Additional information and resources can be found on the CFIC’s website.

9 thoughts on “Canada’s Blasphemy Law

  1. “If Imam Salam Elmenyawi and Pope Francis and other religious leaders had their way, Canada’s Blasphemy Law would no longer be dormant; criticizing, ridiculing, and mocking religion would be illegal and Canadians’ right to free speech and expression would be seriously threatened.”

    While I am against all kinds of blasphemy laws, including most of the ‘anti-hatespeech’ stuff, and even support relgious freedom of expression, you have ignored the facts in this case.

    The canadian law, and all references you provide, support the right to criticism, it is only the more malicious ridicule and mocking that is at issue here.

    Personally, I’m a happy mocker, but nothing you quote is against “criticism”.

    Section 3 of that law is pretty clear.
    And the Imam is also clear:
    “We can criticize, we can write books, you can do analysis, that’s fine and I encourage that. When there is a debate can be answered, but when there is derision, there is no answer when you myself ridicule me and my religion, there is no answer to it “insisted Salam Elmenyawi.

    The law is essentially making being a douchebag illegal. Not a good thing in my book, I enjoy being that on occasion too, but this is not limited to religion, it is something modern feminists are also pushing with their so called “safe space” liturgy.

    Offending people is not the same as threatening them. Threatening people is not the same as criticizing them, or their beliefs.

    • > The canadian law, and all references you provide, support the right to criticism, it is only the more malicious ridicule and mocking that is at issue here.

      No, it isn’t. Mockery and ridicule are not hate speech. That was cleared up in Whatcott.

      Even being malicious isn’t enough. Hate speech requires *extreme* “detestation” and “vilification” – not just run of the mill disgust or contempt; it is speech that a reasonable person would see as likely to incite harm to the target.

      > The law is essentially making being a douchebag illegal.

      No, it isn’t. That’s what Elmenyawi *wants*. It’s not what the bill actually does. It’s not actually possible to make the bill do what Elmenyawi wants; not that anyone is actually interested in trying.

      Go ahead and be a douchebag, if that’s what you’re into.

      > Offending people is not the same as threatening them. Threatening people is not the same as criticizing them, or their beliefs.

      And hate speech involves threat. Not offence; threat. The reason hate speech law is necessary when we already have laws that deal with threats is that hate speech law covers *indirect* threats. “I am going to murder you” is a direct threat. “People of your race/creed/whatever should be murdered” (or even just “people of such-and-such race/creed/whatever should be murdered”; you don’t actually need a direct target at all) is an indirect threat.

      Hate speech is not criticism, it is not mockery, and it is not insult, and cannot be confused for any of them. If you are not advocating for, or encouraging, horrible shit to be done to people based on some aspect of who they are, then you are not engaging in hate speech.

      • The ‘law’ I was referring to was blasphemous libel. As far as I am aware it does not have the same standard as ‘hate speech’. And it is law, not just a bill. It wouldn’t likely stand a charter challenge today…. but if the day comes that it actually gets used, I don’t think I’d trust the courts to protect me. You seem to have more faith in our legal system than I do. Getting railroaded by politics has a long tradition. Rights can be taken away.

        • > The ‘law’ I was referring to was blasphemous libel. As far as I am aware it does not have the same standard as ‘hate speech’. And it is law, not just a bill.

          It probably doesn’t have the same requirements as hate speech, but in all honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to say *what* the requirements would be. That’s because laws don’t exist in a vacuum, and whatever the standards for blasphemous libel are, they have to exist within the context of Canadian law in general. Given the broader context of law, I can’t find any standards for blasphemous libel that aren’t incoherent.

          Even when the blasphemy law was actually being used in pre-Charter days, it didn’t really make a whole lot of sense. I’d have to refresh my memory, but I recall that in the Sterry case, his defence against the blasphemous libel charge was that he wasn’t shit-talking the *Christian* God, he was shit-talking the *Jewish* God. And it apparently would have worked too, had it actually be accepted by the judge.

          So I don’t know how we can talk sensibly about what would be applicable under a law that doesn’t make any sense, and never has.

          > It wouldn’t likely stand a charter challenge today…. but if the day comes that it actually gets used, I don’t think I’d trust the courts to protect me. You seem to have more faith in our legal system than I do.

          Yes, but my trust isn’t placed blindly. Obviously there have been glitches, but nothing is perfect, and on the whole the Canadian legal system has been extremely friendly to reason.

          Idiotic laws do exist in Canada, but generally speaking, most idiotic laws we’re forced to abide by only exist because they’ve never been seriously challenged. When idiotic laws *do* get seriously challenged, they *usually* don’t survive it. I think we all know, for example, that the blasphemy law would never survive a challenge.

          Things do go wrong sometimes – I’m not claiming it’s a *perfect* system. But from a reasonable overall perspective, things don’t really go wrong all that often, and when they do it’s almost always only in the lower courts, so they can be “fixed” in higher courts. I do trust the legal system, but not blindly; I keep a careful eye on it, and when I do see things starting to go wrong, I stand up and speak out. (And to be clear: the courts and legal system I trust; the cops I don’t trust even in the slightest.) Most encouraging of all, the trend over time has been almost consistent improvement.

          So it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good and getting better. I can live with that.

          Personally, I think writing it off simply because there’s been the occasional glitch – and because *other* countries’ legal systems are a fucking mess – is a terrible idea. It’s not going to go away just because you don’t want to deal with it. And choosing not to deal with it leaves it in the hands of those who *do* want to take ownership of it… which could be someone you *really* don’t want to have that power.

          Nothing is perfect, and we necessarily have to accept a certain level of risk just to exist and function in the world. Your car has a non-zero chance of exploding in your face when you start it, your house has a non-zero chance of collapsing on you while you sleep… yet you still drive and you don’t sleep outdoors. Insanity? Of course not; you realize that the realistic probabilities of those things happening are vanishingly small, and you balance them against the benefits. The same is true for the legal system. Yes, there is a non-zero chance that it could turn around and screw you, but realistically the probability of that happening in Canada is tiny, and considering all the benefits it gives you (and the fact that you really can’t avoid it in any case), writing it off just makes no sense.

          > Rights can be taken away.

          That depends on what kind of rights you’re talking about. Granted (legal) rights can be taken away, but fundamental rights cannot – they can only be ignored.

          The difference may sound like mere semantics, not really relevant to a victim of injustice in practice, but it is a very important and profound difference.

          If your rights are taken away… game over. That’s it. You’re done. The most you can do is beg to get them back. Good luck with that. You might find some public support if you’re lucky, I suppose, but by and large if you’ve lost a right, that’s the end of it. You have no recourse.

          On the other hand, if your rights have merely been *ignored*, you have recourse. You can take it to higher courts, other bodies (like human rights tribunals), even super-nationally in extreme cases (such as to the United Nations Human Rights Council). And you can take it to the public, who can effectively pressure the government and courts – the thing with the law is that while it does constrain us somewhat, it also equally constrains those in power. And if the government simply won’t honour the rights you should have, then the government is no longer legitimate – the Canadian constitution explicitly only gives legitimacy to the government under rule of law.

          But in reality, such extremes will virtually never be necessary. I’m not living in a fantasy world; I’m quite aware that rights can be and occasionally are ignored in practice. But I’m also equally aware that we have so many protections, and they work so well, that in virtually all cases, any ignored rights *will* be honoured eventually. Admittedly, sometimes that comes too late for the victim – if not after death, it often comes after significant suffering – but they will *almost* always be honoured in the end, and usually before *too* much harm has done. Not perfect, but pretty good on the whole, and getting better all the time.

          • “So I don’t know how we can talk sensibly about what would be applicable under a law that doesn’t make any sense, and never has.”

            Exactly, even in our current situation, how it would be applied is up for grabs. But… it won’t get applied until someone thinks their is a political will. And then it will still be…. the law. A scary prospect.

            “Most encouraging of all, the trend over time has been almost consistent improvement.
            So it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good and getting better. I can live with that.”

            The thing is laws are a function of their time. Canada as a political entity has been ‘getting better’ for a whole host of very clear economic, geopolitical and technological reasons.

            But when things go bad, and from history we know they always do eventually, they tend to spiral quickly, and then essentially all bets are off. Japanese internment camps, native residential schools… Canada is not immune even when we are on the upswing. You and I are just on the cresting wave of our civilization, and in one of the most unique and comfortable positions in human history, but history does not favour us long term.

            “That depends on what kind of rights you’re talking about. Granted (legal) rights can be taken away, but fundamental rights cannot – they can only be ignored.”

            Legal rights are fragile things at the best of times, but they are enforceable things, fundamental rights are mere ideas. I like the UN universal declaration of Human Rights, but I take no comfort in it…because… it needed to be written down.

            Bill 59 probably won’t end up being the top of a slippery slope, probably, but ‘hate laws’ still worry me. They are the type of thing that gets expanded in bad times.

            I’m no Platonist, just a Humanist. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Given where the rest of the world still is, its easy to see how far we have to fall. All it takes is a real war… or a serious economic threat or downturn…

            In good times its always best to rid ourselves of bad laws. In bad times, the best intentions can become tragedy very quickly with only so much as a nudge.

          • > But when things go bad, and from history we know they always do eventually, they tend to spiral quickly, and then essentially all bets are off. Japanese internment camps, native residential schools…

            I wouldn’t agree that these are particularly good examples of things going bad “quickly”, or even of things going from good to bad at all. Japanese internment was terrible… but it’s not like Japanese immigrants were being treated all that well before. Internment didn’t just… “happen”. It was a spike in the level of shit being done to them, sure, but it’s not like that spike didn’t have contextual justification and extreme provocation. That’s not to say it was *deserved*, or just by any measure, just that it didn’t exactly come out of the blue. It wasn’t a peachy world for Japanese-Canadians, then “DUNNN! Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” The same with the residential school system; that also didn’t exactly spring up overnight, and it didn’t come out of nowhere.

            I’m not saying that things don’t occasionally go from bad to terrible, or from terrible to fucking horrifying. The *trend* is toward getting better, but it’s not a perfect pattern with no deviations. Glitches happen.

            But right now we’re at “pretty good”, and to go from “pretty good” all the way to “fucking horrifying” is a *hell* of a leap. Even going from “pretty good” to “bad” is a pretty unlikely leap. Going from “pretty good” to “merely okay” is not unlikely, sure, but I would expect that even *that* much of a slide would spark action to be taken to halt the slide long before it goes further into “not good” then “bad” then further. Shit does happen, but you can usually see it building up long in advance of the poonami.

            > Legal rights are fragile things at the best of times, but they are enforceable things, fundamental rights are mere ideas.

            If a legal system don’t respect fundamental rights, the system itself will not be respected. Any authority it has will have to be maintained by force, and *that* is a fragile thing. Just take a look at Saudi Arabia for a real-time example; they’re still holding on for now, sure… but their time is running out, and they know it, and the reason they’re under this pressure is precisely because they don’t respect fundamental rights. If they did respect fundamental rights, nobody would give a shit if they were a silly little monarchy with weird customs, just like no one really gives a shit about Norway’s monarchy.

            > I like the UN universal declaration of Human Rights, but I take no comfort in it…because… it needed to be written down.

            Well, technically it didn’t *need* to be written down. The basic concepts it represents would have been valid even if it hadn’t been drafted. It just would have been a lot harder to express them in practice without something already composed to point to and say, “see that? I mean that”.

            It did need to be written down to make it *legally* binding, of course, but that wasn’t technically a necessary step. If they hadn’t been legally mandated, they would still have been necessary in practice, or the legal systems built without them would be unstable.

            It’s rather like a scientific paper, like Einstein’s paper on special relativity. Special relativity would (and did) exist* regardless of whether Einstein wrote the paper, and even without the paper we would have needed special relativity to calculate the motions of the planets or the calculations would be wrong (and they were). The primary benefit of the paper is that it gives us something simple to point to to describe a complex concept: case in point, I’ve used the term “special relativity” repeatedly and you probably know exactly what I mean… imagine if I had to explain the concept from scratch just to initiate this conversation.

            (* And “exist” doesn’t mean “physically exist”. “Special relativity” is not a thing that actually has concrete physical existence anywhere in the universe. It’s just a set of “rules” that describe how things necessarily work when they’re not in violation with nature – and they’re not even true rules because reality doesn’t follow from them, they follow from reality. All of the above is basically the same for human rights – they’re not physical facts, they’re “rules” that describe how societies necessarily work when they’re not in violation with reason. Granted, while we don’t (yet) know how to violate nature, we are tragically quite adept at violating reason. And know that it rarely ends well.)

            > Bill 59 probably won’t end up being the top of a slippery slope….

            Oh it definitely won’t. The people freaking out over it are all barking up the wrong tree, partly due to unjustified paranoia, but largely due to simple ignorance. The most common meme is that the Bill expands the definition of hate speech (while simultaneously not defining it at all, somehow – go figure)… but that’s patent bullshit. Hate speech is defined in the Criminal Code; the Criminal Code is federal, not provincial. Québec has as much power to change the definition of hate speech as Flin Flon, Manitoba does.

            > They are the type of thing that gets expanded in bad times. … All it takes is a real war… or a serious economic threat or downturn… … In good times its always best to rid ourselves of bad laws. In bad times, the best intentions can become tragedy very quickly with only so much as a nudge.

            Concerns about laws being abused, and particularly of being expanded to be abusive during hard times, are hardly unique to hate speech laws. Politicians use crises to pass all kinds of horrible laws. Right now, actually, my main focus is on the TPP – a secret treaty that was negotiated largely behind the backs of the people under the pretence of averting an economic disaster… that, frankly, is never really going to happen, and even if it did the TPP is hardly going to do anything toward saving us from it. It’ll make a lot of rich dudes richer of course, while making it a lot harder for the rest of us to create and share information and art.

            The price of liberty is vigilance. That’s all there is to it. Singling out hate speech law as particularly problematic is misguided, because first of all it’s not particularly dangerous and never has been, and secondly the politicians *know* people are antsy about it so they can easily use it to distract you while they pass laws that allow them to conduct warrantless searches, harass and disrupt the activities of people who haven’t actually been accused of anything, and make anti-government “propaganda” and protest illegal.

            Oh, wait. That actually happened.

  2. I don’t think that we should automatically apply the label “douchebag” to someone who uses ridicule and “malicious” is a bit strong. I also enjoy ridiculing and mocking religion’s tenets and beliefs without any consideration because this undeserved respect that religion demands is the big problem, but I use it strategically when dealing with individuals. We can and might respect the individual without having any respect for what they believe.

    But the Pope and many Imams and their followers refuse to allow us and themselves to separate their identity from their religion: “for a Muslim, when you attack religion, it is the person himself who is attacked; “there is no answer when you ridicule me and my religion.”

    We should say, “Sorry, that is your problem.” They have made that decision to be offended or to feel attacked all by themselves. Too bad. Get over it. There is no special accommodation for religion. No one has a legal right to not be offended.

    You are absolutely spot on: offending people is not the same as threatening them and the law shouldn’t be protecting religious offense.

    • > … offending people is not the same as threatening them and the law shouldn’t be protecting religious offense.

      It doesn’t.

      Offending religious people is your Constitutional right. Even the blasphemy law wouldn’t stand. (But that’s not why it’s a problem. Even if it is obvious in violation of the Charter, its mere existence means it can potentially be used, and even though you will certainly win if it is used against you, a court fight can be *expensive*, and last a long, long time.)

      So go ahead and have a merry time offending people.

  3. It is very clear that claiming religious identity privilege should be an offence. Of all the horrid and stupid ideas we are obliged, by the Enlightenment to denounce, faith based prohibitions are at the top of the list.

    So there you go Justin, bring in some legislation that makes objecting to enlightened ridicule and intellectual contempt punishable by steep fines and lengthy jail sentences.

    Turn the Enlightenment Cops out into the community and start rounding up these screwballs.

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