Free speech includes the freedom to insult religious figures

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould appears at the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee on Bill C-51 in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 20, 2018. Among other things, the bill would remove blasphemy from the Criminal Code. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

For over a century now, various Christian apologists have advanced the “liar, lunatic, or Lord” argument in support of their belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. If Jesus was not the Lord, you see, then he must otherwise have been dishonest or deranged. Putting aside the question of what certainty we have concerning the words that Jesus spoke two thousand years ago, it should go without saying that answering “liar” or “lunatic” to the question should not constitute a crime.

Mind you, calling Jesus Christ a deranged lunatic is likely to offend Christians. They might be insulted, too, since the assertion implies that Christians, therefore, worship a crazy person. However, the mere fact that certain people may feel offended or insulted about aspersions cast on a long-dead religious figure is no basis for infringing on the free speech rights of anyone who wishes to cast such aspersions.

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It is troubling indeed that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has failed to understand this basic principle. The regrettable decision handed down this week should also give Canada a sense of urgency in getting the legislation repealing our own blasphemous libel law across the finish line.

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The ECHR was asked to rule on the case of an Austrian woman who had been convicted of “disparaging religion” after she called the Islamic prophet Muhammad a pedophile. The ECHR concluded that the original verdict did not violate the woman’s free speech rights and that the Austrian court had “carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected, and served the legitimate aim of preserving religious peace in Austria.”

In a society where freedom of expression exists, the “right of others to have their feelings protected” does not and should not exist. By proclaiming this right into existence, the ECHR is creating a de facto blasphemy law. We’ve gone from “Je Suis Charlie” to this.

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Muhammad had multiple wives and one of them was Aisha, who was indeed a child when the marriage occurred. Some accounts put her age at six or seven, while others put it at nine or 10 (Muhammad would have been 49 or 50). There are also disputed accounts as to when the marriage would have been consummated and there has been a broader debate about whether such marriages were normal at the time. To be sure, between Muslim apologists and those harbouring anti-Islamic prejudices, there are vested interests in portraying this history in a certain light.

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It’s a delicate issue to be sure, but it’s a legitimate area of historical inquiry. While some may view it as unfair to judge historical figures by today’s standards, it’s not outside the bounds of reasonable discourse to do so. In this context, it would be fair to take a harsh view of the circumstances of this marriage.

Muhammad to me was not a prophet. He was merely a man and like any other man or woman of history he was imperfect and is open to criticism. Calling him a pedophile might seem harsh, but there is a historical context from which that flows. The answer is not to censor such views but rather to counter them with what defenders of Muhammad would view as relevant context.

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Can the marriage be criticized at all? What’s an acceptable choice of words to voice disapproval? Furthermore, are these rules intended to apply only after a certain amount of time has passed or a religion has a certain number of followers?

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Warren Jeffs had multiple child brides, and was in fact convicted of sexually assaulting children. Yet to many followers of the FLDS he is and remains a prophet. I doubt anyone would bat an eye at Jeffs being called a pedophile even if his followers claimed to be offended by such an “insult.”

A few years ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints finally admitted some uncomfortable truths about founder Joseph Smith that previously Mormons would have likely viewed as insults and smears of their prophet. A fear of offending people — or a prohibition on offending religious sensitivities — should never interfere with a pursuit of the truth.

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Mockery is a form of criticism, and insults go hand-in-hand with mockery. The difference is meaningless even though the ECHR is trying to claim otherwise. Freedom of religion protects a person’s right to believe in whatever religion one chooses, but it does not guarantee respect of those beliefs.

Bill C-51 is set to usher in a number of changes to Canada’s Criminal Code, including the elimination of our blasphemous libel law. That bill, though, is still stuck at third reading in the Senate. There are other pressing reasons for getting that law passed, but in light of what just happened in Europe, there’s a sudden sense of urgency to strike a blow for free expression.

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Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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