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Reformist Muslims need legal protection from blasphemy accusations

Farzana Hassan [president, Muslim Canadian Congress] and Tarek Fatah [founder, Muslim Canadian Congress]: "How long will it take the leadership of North America's traditional Muslim leadership to embrace the First amendment of the United Sates constitution and the doctrine of the separation of religion and state? Will the concept of freedom of expression survive ever-new challenges from the defenders of medieval traditions that bar any discussion or critique of religion?

These are questions bubbling below the surface right now, but eventually are bound to erupt into the open. Moreover, when they do, chances of a rise in overt racist backlash against Muslims of all shades and opinions is a likely outcome. Certainly, the events of the past few months provide ample evidence for this trend, with two human rights complaints making newspaper headlines and leading to fierce debates about the limits of free speech and what might constitute hate literature.

The first involved a human rights complaint against Ezra Levant, the editor of the defunct [Canadian magazine the] Western Standard, while the second, more recent one, was filed against Macleans magazine, by four Osgoode law students on behalf of the Canadian Islamic Congress. Needless to say, these complaints are justifiably interpreted as assaults on freedom of speech and conscience by Canadians both Muslim and non-Muslim, leading many to question the mandate of these commissions as well as the validity or otherwise of these human rights complaints.

Historically, orthodoxy has demanded abject compliance to the closed belief systems it guards. Therefore, the freedom to question, challenge, and evaluate dogma remains an elusive ideal for those who practice it, often at great risk to their lives and persons. Though in the West, "heresy" came to be accepted as valid religious expression in the seventeen hundreds in keeping with the first amendment; Muslim societies continue to be dogged by obscurantism and a stubborn resistance to modernity. Many a time, such intransigence results in lawsuits, human rights complaints and conspiracy theories against individuals perceived as threats to the status quo.

As an example, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) recently approved a resolution protecting religion from "defamation". Once again, the drivers of this move were Islamist organizations who refuse to tolerate the slightest dissent over religious matters. What these tyrants and monarchs from the Arab world fail to realize or choose to pretend otherwise is the fact that critics of Islamist ideologies are not opposing Islam as a religion, but the use of Islam as a political ideology that hides behind religion for protection, while seeking political ascendancy.

For Muslims who believe in challenging religious dogma, who actively pursue the goal of bringing about reform in Muslim societies and who advocate the separation of religion and state, this becomes a particularly threatening scenario as charges of blasphemy and apostasy often occasion calls for the execution of "apostates" and "heretics". A Turkish man recently convicted of "ridiculing god" faces the death penalty in a Saudi prison while secular and moderate Muslims living in the West are frequently the targets of death threats or bullying tactics to silence them one way or another.

The law in Canada and the United States must look into formulating legal measures that protect reformists within various faith traditions. In particular, given the serious consequences that secular and reformist Muslims face in their efforts to challenge orthodox positions, charges of apostasy and blasphemy leveled against them by fundamentalists should be criminalized as legal safeguards against such bullying and silencing tactics. The United States and Canada must look into introducing legislation that will protect such individuals from these accusations often laden with threats to their lives and security.

As long as Islamists around the world use Islam as a political ideology in the footsteps of such jihadi ideologues as Hassan Al-Banna, Syed Qutb, Abul Ala Maudoodi and Ayatollah Khomeini, their Muslim, and non-Muslim opponents will have the right to challenge this ideology with full vigour. Hiding behind the skirts of religion to avoid being critiqued, these fascist cults demonstrate not just cowardice, but a cunningness that is fooling large segments of the liberal-left intelligentsia in the West, which will be among the first to suffer if and when Islamists use liberal democracy to extinguish its light."

Opinions expressed in JURIST's Hotline are the sole responsibility of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, or the University of Pittsburgh.

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