On January 7, two Islamist gunmen forced their way into the Paris headquarters of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which had published articles and cartoons mocking Islam, and opened fire. They killed the paper’s editor, several staff cartoonists and others who happened to be in the office, as well as a police officer outside the building. The gunmen, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, French Muslim brothers of Algerian descent, were later killed by police. Meanwhile, an associate of the Kouachi brothers, Amedy Coulibaly, took hostages in a kosher supermarket in a Paris suburb. Four hostages were killed, as was Coulibaly.

These deeply disturbing events raised many questions. A debate on the Inroads listserv focused on how to respond to the ideas underlying the attacks in a context of religious pluralism.

From: Henry Milner | January 12

In light of recent events, there is a clear consensus on the need to protect freedom of expression from religion-based violence. But so far the discussion about means has been limited to police actions against possible perpetrators. The more difficult question concerns how to respond to the spread of the underlying ideas in countries that recognize religious pluralism.

I would like to start a discussion of this matter, seeking contributions especially from those who know something about the application of laws. I have been thinking about what nations based on the rule of law could do to oppose those whose preachings in places of worship, on the internet, in publications, etc. incite violence in the name of religion. What is needed is a simple applicable principle that nations could agree to, one that is applicable across widely different situations. I first thought of focusing on those who promise rewards in the afterlife, but I think I have a better principle and would like some feedback about the principle and how it could be applied – from removing tax-exempt status to possible civil or criminal proceedings. It asks countries to adopt a law whereby the right to preach is recognized only for those explicitly accepting and publicly expressing the following principle:

“There is an expectation of conformity to the preachings of this religion only upon those who have freely chosen to be bound by it. The beliefs and legal actions of those who practise other religions or no religion cannot be the object of any such expectations, direct or indirect.”

From: Bob Chodos | January 12

I support Henry’s effort to find a way to distinguish legitimate religious preaching from preaching that creates a climate in which events such as those of last week in Paris are likely to occur. The principle Henry puts forward should be broadly acceptable. Something quite similar – “There is no compulsion in religion” – is stated in the Qur’an (2:256).

However, interpreting Henry’s statement will not be a simple matter. I would like to point out two possible difficulties of interpretation:

  • What constitutes a “religion”? Religious violence often occurs between groups espousing different interpretations of the same religion – e.g. between Catholics and Protestants in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Similarly, the actions of today’s Islamic State are largely directed against Muslims who don’t agree with its interpretation of Islam. Jews in Orthodox neighbourhoods in Israel throw stones at other Jews who violate the Orthodox version of the Sabbath.
  • How do we determine whether or not people have “freely chosen” to be bound by a religion? It could be argued that “free choice” in religion is actually quite rare. My being a Jew, for example, is a product of my growing up in a Jewish family and being educated in a Hebrew day school, not my free choice. When does the influence of family and community become coercive community pressure? When does “education” become “indoctrination”? These issues have been raised in the context of the debate over Muslim women’s “free choice” to wear the niqab.
From: Gareth Morley | January 12

Another problem is that religions teach what they consider to be general moral principles. Serious Catholics don’t just believe that abortion is wrong for Catholics. They believe it is wrong for anybody. You can think that is benighted. But then how would you deal with the U.S. civil rights movement? It was clearly based in black American Protestantism. Biblical rhetoric was omnipresent. But it didn’t say that segregation was wrong when practised by adherents of the black Protestant denominations. It was wrong in general. Same with the antislavery movement, Gandhi’s movement to free India, the current movement to free Tibet, etc., etc. So you can’t have a principle that religious teachings are only binding on religious adherents. Some are; some aren’t.

From: Frances Abele | January 12

Bob raises powerful and important points. I am not sure how to handle either issue.

Would it be helpful to start at the other end, so to speak, by whittling away the easy targets? Would we denounce (or legally sanction?) all preaching that exhorts violence against anyone or any group? How about preaching that disrespects other faiths?

From: Louis Germain | January 12

The Charlie event is not really a religious act. It is not a political act. It is a violent act that derives from social illness. There is a deep difference between the Islamic State attack on neighbouring countries and the Charlie killings.

The Islamic State has an agenda. It is trying to establish a political territory where laws will be primarily defined by the way they interpret Islam. The Islamic State wants political power. It wants to spread its so-called Islamic rule all over the world. The Charlie killers did not have a political agenda; neither had they a plan to spread their religious beliefs. Their gesture simply expressed unsophisticated revolt. Revolt resulting from the social decay the modern urbanized way of life brings to the low-income classes. Some of these young men become religious fanatics; others become narco thugs.

The Charlie killers were not “primed” by imams at the mosque but by the internet. Religion is the wall on which clings the vine of their revolt.

That revolt is a much more complex and difficult problem to solve than the Islamic State war. Yet, in order to curb terrorism, governments will almost certainly put the emphasis on repression, throwing money into police budgets while, for the sake of deficit elimination, cutting funds to social programs benefiting the milieus where violence grows.

Cherchez l’erreur, as we say in Québec.

From: Henry Milner | January 13

I am pleased to have received thoughtful responses to my posting. I realize this is highly complex matter. Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is a challenge that won’t go away, and countries practising religious pluralism need to try to face up to it. I am not concerned directly here with individual religious expression which, I agree, we cannot separate from other forms of expression. In using the term preach, I am referring to something organized and recognized. So how could the principle I proposed earlier be applied? The key element is respect for the law in a democratic society:

“There is an expectation of conformity to the preachings of this religion only upon those who have freely chosen to be bound by it. The beliefs and legal actions of those who practise other religions or no religion cannot be the object of any such expectations, direct or indirect.”

Consider the example of Catholics and abortion. If abortion is legal, then the Catholic Church as such would agree that in preaching on abortion it would accept the above principle. Expectations/duties can be placed on a Catholic prospective mother and a Catholic medical practitioner but no one else. And the mother and doctor have every right to withdraw from the Catholic Church. It is true that this may conflict with official Catholic doctrine, but any drawing of lines in a pluralist society will encounter such situations.

Consider Islamic or Orthodox Jewish preaching about female dress. The same principle would apply. To be recognized as a legitimate religion they would agree that there would be no condemnation of women dressing in a manner within the law unless they have chosen to be bound by the particular religion.

In other words, religious groups acting within the law can be illiberal, but only within their own freely entered (and exited) community.

Are these restrictions enforceable in some way? Clearly the question is complex. But it is one that needs to be asked.

From: Bob Chodos | January 13

Religious groups seek to enforce certain norms of individual behaviour – Henry brings up the example of female dress. We can agree that these norms cannot be made to apply outside the boundaries of the religious group.

Religious groups also seek to influence the behaviour of society as a whole, on issues that are clearly social rather than individual in nature: war and peace, the right of workers to organize, universal health insurance, civil rights. Of course, a religious group cannot expect to enforce its views on such issues, but its influence may be a factor in determining the course that the broader society follows.

Then there are issues that some may see as individual and others would see as social. Abortion would be one such issue (this is the distinction that Mario Cuomo addressed in his famous 1984 speech at Notre Dame). Same-sex marriage. Euthanasia.

All this raises a number of questions. Is it legitimate for religious groups to seek to influence the behaviour of society as a whole? If so, are there guidelines within which they need to operate? And can we draw a line between issues on which religious groups can seek to influence the behaviour of society as a whole and those on which they can influence only their own members?

From: Garth Stevenson | January 13

Bob’s distinction between “issues that are clearly social” and “issues that some may see as individual and others would see as social” doesn’t make much sense to me. Does he mean it is okay for churches to adopt left-wing positions but not to adopt right-wing positions? This may be good politics but it is poor theology. I don’t recall seeing anything about health insurance in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, although it is obviously an excellent idea. After all, the distinction between left and right was only invented in 1789 AD. Most religions have fairly explicit views about individual behaviour, and most have less to say about collective behaviour.

I think a religious organization has just as much right to participate in public debates on abortion, same-sex marriage or assisted suicide as it has to comment on the other types of issues that Bob mentions. Of course in commenting on either type of issue it runs the risk of alienating part of its own membership, whose consciences may lead them in a different direction from that of the clergy. Protestantism, the religion that I know best, emphasizes the individual’s conscience more than most other religions, I suppose. This may be why, historically, most Protestant churches were somewhat less inclined to express views on public policy than the Catholic Church, since adopting a distinct view might cause divisions among the membership. I am not saying that this is necessarily a good thing, but I think it is a fact.

Of course, where individual behaviour and public policy intersect, it becomes more complex. Should a Muslim working in the public sector be allowed to cover her hair in the office, even if the state is rigidly secular? Should a Catholic doctor be allowed to refuse to perform abortions? I would say yes to both questions, for the same reason that members of pacifist sects like the Quakers are exempted from military service, even in wartime.

From: Bob Chodos | January 14

I think Garth is right that on the continuum between emphasizing individual behaviour and emphasizing collective behaviour, Protestantism is furthest over on the individual side. Pope John Paul II spoke of “structures of sin” and “social sin.” He didn’t dismiss the idea of individual sin, but he acknowledged that that’s not all there is.

Judaism too has a lot to say about collective behaviour. The commandments in the Torah are not only prescriptions for individual behaviour but also a blueprint for a society. The Hebrew prophets’ denunciations of ill treatment of the disadvantaged were directed at Israel as a whole, not just at individuals within it. On the Day of Atonement, Jews confess the sins of the community, not just their own individual sins.

In terms of the distinction between individual and social issues, let’s take the example of the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion. It could express that opposition by trying to prevent all Catholic women from having abortions (abortion as an issue of individual behaviour), or it could express it by lobbying for legislation that would prevent all women, Catholic or not, from having abortions (abortion as a social issue). That is the distinction I was trying to draw.

From: Henry Milner | January 14

A recognized religious leader could preach:

  • It is the duty of all to conform to the teachings of our faith (but not to in any way try to directly impose these duties on any others than its freely chosen members).
  • The only acceptable way of seeking to extend the duty outside the faith is via the law. That is, it is the duty of all to work democratically to change the law so that all will be bound by it.
From: Gareth Morley | January 14

But surely liberalism requires that Catholics can advocate for any of their political positions. The Catholic Church was against the Iraq war and against abortion. They should be just as entitled to advance the one position as the other. In neither case does Henry’s distinction make sense.

Of course, if you disagree with the church about one or both these issues, you are entitled in a liberal democracy to counterorganize. In the end, your ultimate normative commitments will be just as faith-based as the Catholic ones. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

I think the real danger to liberalism in the West is from overzealous secular majorities, not declining religious minorities.

From: Reg Whitaker | January 15

This has been a thoughtful, and thankfully respectful, discussion. A couple of points:

The religious context within which Charlie Hebdo published its cartoons and the terrorists massacred the editorial board provides motive for the criminal acts, i.e., the gunmen no doubt believed they were acting in the name of their idea of Islam, just as Charlie Hebdo had been acting in the belief that they were furthering their idea of secularism.

My question is: why should we accept these motives as the basis for debate? Let’s say that Charlie’s motives were misguided secularism, needlessly provoking an entire faith in response to the actions of a few taken in the name of that faith. Depicting the prophet Muhammad as a bomb-wielding terrorist transfers the odium attached to the vile actions of a few to all Muslims. That is not an acceptable basis for civil debate. On the other hand, slaughtering the editors in reaction is not a religious act, as such; it is simply a criminal act whatever the motive.

To bring this back to the discussion of what role organized religions can or should play in liberal democracies, if Catholic clergy wish to advocate their anti-abortion views in public forums, they are surely free to do so – so long as their voices are voices in democratic debate, and they accept the verdict of citizens and their representatives when the decisions go against them. Imposing their views as privileged because of their religious motive – in effect saying that I am speaking with the voice of God and you are not – is surely illegitimate, and broadly recognized as such by Catholics and by most other Christians, with some unfortunate exceptions.

The question of individual conscience is a bit more difficult. A Catholic medical practitioner who refuses to assist in an abortion because of their moral conscience must be respected: that is, they cannot be forced to perform an act they find immoral. Nor, however, can this be the pretext for undermining the law of the land. They can step aside individually but they cannot be allowed to act collectively in such a way as to subvert the law as determined by prior democratic decision.

There is also the question of where the claims of some infringe on the rights of others. Evangelical preaching that homosexuality is evil and homosexuals should be punished is not religious free speech, but hate speech directed at promoting violence against an identifiable minority. Silencing such voices by legal sanction is maintaining the necessary ground rules for democratic debate.

In short, I am suggesting that pluralist democracies should be both tolerant of diversity and muscular in defence of liberalism against its enemies. If the latter sometimes calls for “censorship,” then so be it. I would particularly applaud the voluntary censorship of those media like the Globe and Mail, the CBC and the New York Times that have refused on principle to print or broadcast the cartoons in question. If the French government had censored Charlie Hebdo, it would probably have been politically counterproductive and just put wind in Marine Le Pen’s sails.

From: Henry Milner | January 15

I appreciate thoughtful comments like those of Reg, Gareth and Bob, but I think they are based on the assumption that these are isolated incidents and that we will be able to continue as we have been. It is my view that given the territory, wealth and internet and logistical sophistication of Islamic extremist groups, the opposite is the case – though this may be a bit less visible in Canada.

But we do need to react as liberal democracies, avoiding targeting Muslims. It is a matter of subjecting churches, synagogues, mosques to the law. I use a less controversial example, namely Catholics, a highly respected religion these days headed by an almost saintly figure. And I address abortion rather than “blasphemy” or other acts that a given religion considers sinful but are legal and accepted in the wider society.

To what extent can we hold the church responsible for Catholic zealots who target legal abortion clinics? A priest who preaches that abortion is a sin should be required to add that in this country it is legal and as long as this is so, Catholics must respect the right of non-Catholics to abortions.

What about the time-honoured practice of civil disobedience against “unjust” laws? In seeking to change the law beyond using the standard democratic means, Catholics could be invited to picket lawmakers’ offices to publicize their cause, and if ordered to disperse could willingly be arrested. They should not, however, be invited to take any action vis-à-vis an abortion clinic that would impede its carrying out its legal activities.

From: Gareth Morley | January 15

I certainly agree that religious people should be required to follow the law. Obviously, that means not murdering people, but it also means respecting property and rights of access, including of abortion clinics. I don’t think I would agree with a law that required a sermon to include a statement to that effect. There are laws against incitement to violence, and they apply to priests, rabbis and imams as much as anyone else.

I guess the fundamental difference is that I think that it is far more likely that France in 2015 will overreact to these attacks than underreact to them. That’s not peculiarly French: surely we can all see now that Canada overreacted in 1970 and the United States overreacted in 2001. Unlike in Canada and Australia following the Ottawa and Sydney attacks, there has already been a rise in anti-Muslim violence in France.

Of course, there needs to be a police/intelligence response. But the reality is that the best way to disrupt these groups is to get information from infiltrators or associates of terrorists. The more the Muslim community is integrated into the broader society, the easier that is. Nothing can give perfect security. But if 10 per cent of the population is subject to insults and disproportionate police attention and excluded from the labour market, then the other 90 per cent are going to be less safe. France doesn’t really have a principled devotion to freedom of speech: you can be prosecuted for denying the Holocaust or for other things that offend current sensibilities. It is more that Muslims just aren’t in the group that has the power to legally stop themselves from being insulted.

A case in point

At the end of January, a request by an imam for a permit to open a community centre in the borough of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve in east-end Montreal provided a concrete example of the difficult questions the listserv had been grappling with. According to news reports, Imam Hamza Chaoui had stated on social media that democracy was incompatible with Islam because it would allow the election of “an infidel or a homosexual or an atheist who affirms that Allah does not exist.” Imam Chaoui taught that a woman should be accompanied by a guardian in public at all times, that music should be banned and that amputation, as practised in Saudi Arabia, was a more effective punishment for theft than a prison sentence.

From: Gareth Morley | February 3

Of course, a free society must allow a request like this.

Chaoui doesn’t think much of democracy, feminism or post-Enlightenment criminology. At least from the news report, he isn’t advocating killing anyone.

John Stuart Mill, who made a few contributions to democracy, feminism and post-Enlightenment criminology, made the basic point that we can only be confident in our commitments to the extent we let them be challenged.

I certainly don’t wish Chaoui success in persuading people, but the historic evidence suggests to me that his message will lose out in the long run. In the short run, we need to try to split violent fundamentalists from nonviolent ones, since nonviolent ones are most likely to have useful information about the violent.

From: Henry Milner | February 3

These are excerpts from today’s Montreal Gazette. I think Quebec/Montreal is making the right decision. As an individual M. Chaoui should be welcome to express his views, but recognized religious leaders must accept certain constraints.

Chaoui came under fire last week, when he requested a permit to establish the Ashabeb community youth centre in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. The imam preaches that democracy and Islam are incompatible. Couillard’s initial support for Montreal’s decision to block the Islamic community centre the iman wanted to open stands …

Over the weekend, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and borough mayor Réal Ménard announced the imam would not be given an occupancy permit for the centre he wanted to open …

“I’m not a ‘radicalization agent,’” Chaoui said in a statement Tuesday. “I’ve never known hatred or violence against a group … I always encouraged young people to integrate harmoniously into Quebec society, to respect the laws, not to make use of violence in resolving any conflicts and to complete their university studies.”

From: Garth Stevenson | February 3

Preaching violence is a crime and should not be allowed, But preaching against democracy is not a crime, as far as I know. H.L. Mencken made fun of democracy all his life. So, from a different perspective, did the Communist Party, when it existed. What about the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were persecuted by Duplessis? They drew some very controversial conclusions from their religious beliefs. Is this case really any different?

From: Gareth Morley | February 4

I agree with Garth. The spirit of Duplessis lives in Quebec. The Jehovah’s Witnesses think that all of humanity other than 144,000 people will be tortured eternally, which is frankly worse than having your hand cut off. Moreover, they are also against life-saving blood transfusions. Duplessis’s other target, the Communist Party of Canada, supported a brutal dictatorship responsible for millions of deaths.

Duplessis said he was not preventing the Jehovah’s Witnesses from preaching their religion. He was denying them the use of the city streets without a permit. Just a littering law. He was not banning the Communist Party. He was just prohibiting them from using a house to propagate Communism. Just a land use law.

If the city is denying M. Chaoui a permit because it doesn’t like his views, it is violating his freedom of expression and freedom of religion. That would be an extremely easy decision. As you know, for justification under section 1 of the Charter, it is harder to predict what will happen. This would certainly be an easy case in the United States, but I am afraid our courts have not come to a coherent principle like viewpoint-neutrality.

The basic principle in both countries, though, is that the government does not need to open up community centres, but if it does, it cannot allow some groups and disallow others on the basis of their religious or ideological viewpoint.

Despite some excesses under the War Measures Act and by the covert wing of the RCMP, this country generally recognized that the terrorism of the FLQ was no reason to suppress peaceful expressions of Quebec nationalism. There has been plenty of leftist terrorism in the last century, but we don’t ban Capital study clubs or anarchist vegan collectives. Let’s keep our heads about us, and not sell our own liberal values short.

From: Henry Milner | February 4

Gareth, the problem with argument by analogy is that context is left out. This comparison would work if in the 1950s some people were being recruited to kill in the name of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision in Montreal needs to be justified, or criticized, on its merits today. I have argued that some kind of rule needs to be applied to religious groups sanctioned by the (pluralist) community. I use the example of a priest who preaches that abortion is a sin: the priest should be required to add that in this country it is legal and, as long as this is so, Catholics must explicitly respect the legitimacy of abortions for non-Catholics.

Now let us take the particular case in point. In defending his project, Chaoui is quoted in the Gazette as saying. “I’ve never known hatred or violence against a group … I always encouraged young people to integrate harmoniously into Quebec society, to respect the laws, not to make use of violence in resolving any conflicts and to complete their university studies.” Does this resolve the issue? I am not sure. If you are teaching that democracy is incompatible with Islam because homosexuals or deniers of Allah can be elected to office, are you simply making an intellectual point, or are you teaching your young protégés that these are enemies to be opposed? You may say that you do not preach violence, but if you reject democracy, what form of opposition are you endorsing?

Similarly, if you preach that the presence of unaccompnied women in public goes against Islam, unless you add that that should be their choice, what is the underlying message to young male Muslims? It clearly is not just a theoretical point.

It seems to me that until a satisfactory response is provided to such questions, denial of a permit is a reasonable precaution.

From: Joe Murray | February 4

I don’t think there is any justification to start forcing people to affirm the rider Henry is asking for. A Catholic priest saying, “abortion is a sin,” shouldn’t face state sanction if he doesn’t add that “in my country it is legal, and so Catholics must respect the legitimacy of abortions for non-Catholics.” Presumably, in Henry’s view he should also be required to affirm something along the lines of respect for the legal choice as citizens of Catholics who choose to have an abortion, even if Catholics can have recourse to non-coercive punishments within their community, like refusing communion to people who have had abortions or advocate for women’s choice in their reproductive health.

I think Garth is perfectly justified in making the analogies he does. Freedom of expression doesn’t deserve these limitations just because a small minority of a group such as a religion start to use illegal violence to pursue their ends, like firebombing abortion clinics or shooting doctors who perform abortions. Just because the FLQ started killing doesn’t mean any separatist should have had to affirm something about the legitimacy of the federal state or been barred from renting a room.

In the current context, denial of a permit for a physical space for Chaoui is not yet justified, since he hasn’t yet promoted violence. I think a warrant to monitor his activities, especially online, might be appropriate, since he has indicated he does not believe in the legitimacy of the current Canadian state. But there are many who don’t believe in that, and if we should have learned anything from our history of domestic repression of political dissent, it’s that we should not take that as a reasonable basis for domestic spy surveillance. There might be other information about Chaoui that lends more credence to the view that he will himself cross into illegal activities or promote others to do that, but what has been adduced here so far is insufficient.

From: Reg Whitaker | February 6

I admit finally to being a bit confused by this discussion. Perhaps a different take might be in order. Mayor Coderre said that Imam Chaoui was guilty of “radicalization.” The problem here is that this concept, along with the grotesquely exaggerated and over-the-top legislative response (C-51) to a couple of acts of lone-wolf “radicalized” terrorism, has muddied the waters completely between freedom of speech and incitement to violence. C-51 establishes an offence, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, for “knowingly” advocating or promoting the commission of terrorist offences, or being “reckless as to whether” offences “may be committed as a result of such communication.” Terrorism is redefined as a huge swath of potential political activity.

The concept of “radicalization” is pretty much like “Communism” in the Cold War: fill in your own blanks. Coderre has filled in his with regard to Chaoui.

Frankly this is a mess.

From: Frances Abele | February 7

Thank you, Reg, for bringing this back to a consideration of what we are really facing. C-51 appears to be an extremist response to problems we do not really have. It frightens me. I have been listening hard whenever people from the Harper government have defended it, and have heard no reasoned argument – not even a lame one – for why it is necessary. They all seem to have the same fearmongering talking points that do not even refer concretely to what changes C-51 will bring.

Concerning the hateful Mr. Chaoui – well, he must be challenged (by other citizens) and denounced (peacefully and respectfully). If he crosses a legal line and the old ones would do just fine) then he must be charged. There are many people whose views make me uncomfortable (see above). That’s life. I’d add that it would be an excellent idea for all of us to reach out to – and publicly support – the leaders of the majority Muslim community who are also trying to counteract the bizarre and the hateful. We need to keep creating an open and democratic society.

Henry, I am a bit out of sympathy with the question you keep posing, because it forces us to debate what kinds of ideas should be attacked or suppressed through the state. This is certainly sometimes necessary, but there is a great deal that members of the society can do as well – and I believe that the latter tends to build a better country.

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