On Choice, Islam and Western Values

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent”

  • Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919), is a United States Supreme Court decision concerning enforcement of the Espionage Act of 1917 during World War I.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

  • Evelyn Beatrice Hall, under the pseudonym of S. G. Tallentyre (1868-1956)

I recently had the “pleasure” of beginning to watch a piece on Sun News Network. Brian Lilley was interviewing Gavin McInnes of TakiMag.com. They were talking about Islam and I had to stop watching. Like so many other pundits, they seek to create a narrative where Islam and the Western World are destined to take part in a Clash of Civilizations. They take a tragedy like the Charlie Hebdo murders and argue that this is the ‘norm’ for Islam and its practitioners. However, they choose to ignore that these are the actions of two people. Two people who make up a population of almost 6 million Muslims who are a part of a country with over 66 million people. While the high visible murder of ten journalists and two police officers – one of whom has already been identified as Muslim – is to me unforgiveable, those actions do not constitute a sign that Islam is incompatible with Western Values.

If that was the case, Christianity would find itself in trouble. In the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s, the KKK provided much Biblical Evidence to go on its campaign of hate in attacking Blacks, Jews and Catholics. In Canada, the United Church of Canada, Roman Catholic, Anglican Church and the Presbyterian Church found themselves having to apologize for their participation in the Residential School System and various child sexual abuse scandals. But it does not end there. Looking at South African Dutch Reformed Church; It was only in 1992, “two years after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, that the Church acknowledged aparthied as a sin”;(Richard Downes, BBC.co.uk, Dispatches, November 19, 1997), while the “ Hervormde Kerk (Restructured Church) is still arguing over whether apartheid was a sin.” (By Charles Leonard, Published by the Mail & Guardian (mg.co.za), The slow and steady death of the Dutch Reformed Church, 5 Apr 2012)

But Christianity is not alone. Judaism was not demonized when Yitzhak Rabin – the Jewish Prime Minister of Israel – was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli Jewish radical named Yigal Amir in November of 1995. Nor were Norwegians or Scandinavians, when Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old Norwegian right-wing extremist, killed 77 people in two different attacks. While Anders Behring Breivik claimed he was saving European Culture from Islam, we did not ask anyone to apologize on his behalf. Nor were all Tamils or Sikhs branded with the label of being incompatible with Western thought when Rajiv Gandhi was killed by Tamil Terrorists or Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards.

Or we can look closer to home. The downing of Air India – a flight which contained 329 people, of which 280 were Canadian – by Sikh extremists did not change our view of the Sikhism as a largely peaceful one, nor did the assassination of publisher Tara Singh Hayer in BC. While Canadians were not happy with the idea of having separatists in our country, we made a very big distinction between the peaceful aims of the Parti Quebecois or Bloc Quebecois and the violent aims of the FLQ: Violence which led to the October Crisis in 1970. In other words, religious or political violence is not isolated to one religion and to say that is the case would be foolish.

Yet in some quarters, some commentators have claimed that this “Clash” is going to happen. It is one where Western Countries will no longer be Western. Like the famed accusations in other countries, one can hear these critics saying that the ‘Muslims are coming and they are going to change your way of life’. They say that Muslims want to bring Sharia Law to Western Countries; or that we should fear the chador, dupatta, burqa, niqab or hijab. For all of this – in their eyes – should be feared. They argue that all these people do is bring violence and we should be willing to lose our civil rights and liberty to defend against this.

To me this sounds like nothing more than the usual response to something unknown; like the Komagata Maru incident, where 352 British Subjects were not allowed to land in Canada because they were Sikh, Muslim or Hindu; of the Chinese Head tax, or the internment of Japanese, German and Italian Canadians. The arguments that Islam is not compatible with Western Values sounds like the fear that has come to the surface so many times before. If some brave politicians don’t stand up, some future Prime Minister will probably have to look back at this time and say that the government commitment to understand consultations “on how best to recognize this sad moment in Canada’s history”. Those words are important because they were spoken by Stephen Harper on August 6, 2006, at the Ghadri Babiyan da Mela (Festival of the Ghadar Party) in Surrey, B.C., where he acknowledged the Komagata Maru incident. I don’t think we should have to wait 100 years for such empty words.

For there is another way. I know this because 550 years ago, Islam was the tolerant religion. It was because of places like remote Christendom nations – like Ireland – and Islamic Al-Andalus that some of the great works of Ancient Greece and Rome survived. Islamic States, like Emirate of Granada, were cosmopolitan places where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived and worked side by side. This was in direct contrast with the Christian Kingdoms. For those who forget the Inquisition was still in play in Western Europe. In 1633, Galileo Galilei would be admonished for his views on heliocentrism – the theory that the Earth rotates around the Sun. The Islamic World already knew that Galileo was right and they already had a pluralistic society.

The good news is those ancient and pluralistic Muslims still have descendants. Irshad Manji is one of them. Ms. Manji is one of my heroes. She is a feminist and a lesbian who practices Islam. She has been fighting around the world for the change of the way that her faith is practiced. She was identified by Jakarta Post – the largest newspaper in the largest Muslim nation – as being “one of three women creating positive change in contemporary Islam”. A Canadian, she is known in the world’s 49 Muslim Majority Countries as being a creditable force.

Through her books, I have learned that one need not mock Muhammad, the Islamic Prophet, to guarantee one’s right to Free Speech. She has spoken out in three books and has questioned her religion since the age of 14. She has shown that people should not be murdered for their drawings and that Free Speech is not dead in the West. Ms. Manji has shown that the advocacy for change within Islam is possible and it simply takes more effort, more words and more action.

For it will be argued here that words are the way to seek change. There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in this world. According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, one will find that 84% of the world’s population has a religious identity. Of those 23.2% are Adherents of Islam. Most are found in South and Southeast Asia. Indonesia is home to 12.7% of the world’s Muslim Population. Pakistan, India and Bangladesh follow close behind. China has a larger Muslim population than Syria and the UK has more Muslims than Lebanon. Consequently, change will not happen if we limit migration. Change will not happen at the barrel of a gun or because of more legislation. Change will only happen because people convince each other. This will only happen if we use words.

Malala Yousafzai has shown this. She is Muslim and at the age of 17 was the co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. At her tender age, Malala has accomplished much. In 2013, Time Magazine declared that she was one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World”. Additionally, she was the winner of Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize. This adherent of Islam has worked nationally and internationally to ensure that girls were able to attend school. That is why the Taliban tried to assassinate her. Surely the work of Malala Yousafzai and Irshad Manji fall in-line with “Western Values”. And what is most interesting to me is that the work of both Malala and Irshad have done more to challenge Islamic Extremists than anything done by any Western Government. For their work has challenged a false idea/agenda just as the Beatles, Radio Free America, the BBC World Service and other Western Art, Music and Ideas challenged Communist Regimes during the Cold War.

The work of Malala and Irshad shows that Islam is compatible with Western Values. But there is more evidence. The oldest Mosque in Canada was built in Edmonton and dates back to 1938. So while, I will may be the first to disapprove of what someone has to say; for the most part, I will be the first to defend their right, to the death, to say it. However, what I have learned is that it is easier to convince people by not offending them. It is easier to talk to people, express, explain, share and exchange points of view rather than trying to yell at them about the rightness of your position. Consequently, I don’t have to replicate or share satirical photos to defend my freedoms. I can just speak out as I have done since university for the beliefs that I have.

My beliefs are simple. I believe that our government should be both preserve “peace, order and good government” and be given reasonable limits that are “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. Consequently, we should protect individuals against discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation age or mental or physical disability. We should protect people’s rights to participate in political activities and the right to a democratic government”. We should protect individuals’ freedom of religion, of thought, of expression, of the press and of peaceful assembly. All of this should be done because we have found that this type of government is successful. When Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims came to Canada, they helped to build a great nation. When Blacks came to Canada to seek freedom or Chinese and Japanese to work, they helped to weave a complicated fabric which would eventually bring us the rich blanket which is Multiculturalism. Islam has worked within Canada to show that Governments should do more than just provide the most benefit to the most people. Governments should also not let the fear of the Majority act in a Tyrannical Manner to a society’s minorities. For when one minority is targeted, any of us could be next because in some way we are all a minority. So I say to people like Brian Lilley, Gavin McInnes, Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant, the problem is not Islam but a handful of Individuals who practice it. Our aim should not be to condemn the second largest religion in the World – one with 1.6 billion adherents – but to engage in a conversation that will either change it or remind it of its earlier more progressive iterations. Conversations worked to end the Civil Unrest in 1920’s Ireland and the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Conversations worked to end Apartheid in Southern Africa and seem to be bringing an end to the intransigence evident between the US and Cuba. Surely, we can take the same approach today.

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