This May two-four weekend, help put an end to Canada’s blasphemy law

by | May 19, 2017

If you’re looking for a constructive way to mark this two-four, might I suggest writing up a pair of quick letters to the Minister of Justice and your MP (assuming they’re not one and the same)? The subject I recommend is the repeal of Canada’s blasphemy law.

Right now is a good time to bring this issue to your MP’s attention, for a couple of reasons.

[Photo of Jody Wilson-Raybould.]

Jody Wilson-Raybould

First, there is reason to believe that the Department of Justice is probably going to make a recommendation regarding Criminal Code §296 (Blasphemous Libel) in the coming weeks. , Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould responded to a petition to repeal the blasphemy law, and her response was encouraging.

Wilson-Raybould has also spoken out about cleaning up “zombie laws”; ancient laws that have been ruled unconstitutional but remain on the books. The blasphemy law is technically not a zombie law because it has never actually been ruled unconstitutional… because it has never been used since our Constitution was patriated – it’s never been used while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has existed. But everyone agrees it wouldn’t stand a Charter challenge, so it’s effectively a zombie law. We just need to keep the pressure on Wilson-Raybould to include §296 in her Criminal Code clean-up.

The other reason now is a good time to do this is because there have been a number of very high-profile blasphemy cases in the news recently. It might be a good idea to mention them in your letter to help drive home the point that blasphemy laws do real harm.

Here are some quick recaps of recent cases.

Convicted for playing Pokémon Go in a church

[A still from Ruslan Sokolovsky's video, showing him playing Pokémon Go in a Russian church.]

Ruslan Sokolovsky playing Pokémon Go in a Russian church.

Last year, 21 year-old Russian vlogger Ruslan Sokolovsky saw a news report a suggesting that one could be convicted of “inciting religious hatred” for playing Pokémon Go in a church. He thought the idea was ludicrous, and didn’t believe that Russian authorities would actually charge anyone for such a “crime”. So he put it to the test.

, he uploaded a video of himself playing Pokémon Go in the famous Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land (yes, that’s it’s name) in Yekaterinburg.

Almost immediately after, he was under investigation by Russian authorities, and soon detained.

Even after his arrest, Russians couldn’t believe their country was quite so fucked up. On Facebook, the mayor of Yekaterinburg called the arrest ridiculous, making a comment to the tune of: You can’t arrest a man for idiocy. But on the other hand, the spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church, while trying to play down the arrest, blamed Sokolovsky for causing a deliberate provocation, and called him a blogger in the style of Charlie Hebdo.

Well, , Sokolovsky was convicted for “inciting religious hatred”… the same charge used against Pussy Riot back in 2012. He could have faced five years in prison, but luckily after the outcry he was only given a 3 1⁄2 year suspended sentence.

Convicted for calling out people misrepresenting the Quran

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known by his nickname “Ahok”, was (is?) the governor of Jakarta, Indonesia, appointed to that position when the former governor became President Joko Widodo. By all accounts I can find, Basuki was generally a decent leader, known for being tough on corruption and strong on social welfare and environmental programs. But it was always an uphill struggle for him because he is what they call a “double minority”: Chinese (not Javanese or Sundanese) and Christian (not Muslim).

This year, Basuki had to run for election to the governor’s position for the first time (recall that he got the job in the first place because Widodo passed it down to him), and he apparently faced terrible racism and bigotry during the process. In particular, Muslim leaders were telling people that they could not vote for Basuki, because Basuki was a Christian – they had to vote for the Muslim candidate.

At issue is verse 51 of surat al-Maʼida (سورة المائدة‎‎,), which translates as “The Table” or “The Table Spread (with Food)”. Here’s how the Skeptic’s Annotated Quran translates it:

O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them. Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk.

Now the word “friends” in “Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends.” is where the problem lies. That word is “auliya” (أَوْلِيَاءَ), which could be translated as friends… but not exactly. For example, in my Quran (Yusuf Ali), it is translated as “friends and protectors”. Other translations include helpers, allies, and patrons.

It’s the “patron” sense that’s the problem; that is the sense that was being exploited by Basuki’s political opponents to justify telling Muslims that they couldn’t vote for Christians… like Basuki.

So, quite naturally, Basuki spoke out against that interpretation, telling people that those claiming that 5:51 was saying you couldn’t vote for a Christian were liars.

Unfortunately for Basuki, his opponents got hold of a video of him saying that, and edited it… changing one word… to make it sound like Basuki was saying the Quran was lying… not the people making claims about it.

Cue the shrieking protests.

The man who actually edited the videos was charged, but the damage was done. At one point, 45% of Indonesians believed that Basuki had blasphemed, but 88% didn’t know what he’d actually said.

While Indonesia has made a pretense of being an open and tolerant society, the reality is that concession after concession has been given to Muslim fundamentalists, and now it seems the system has finally snapped. Even though Basuki had the original video to prove he didn’t say what he was accused of saying, it didn’t matter. It’s apparently blasphemy for a non-Muslim to “teach” about what the Quran says at all.

So Basuki was convicted of blasphemy and inciting violence, and will spend two years in jail. He also lost the election, not that that matters now.

No one cares that Stephen Fry blasphemed

The last two cases were rather dark – particularly the Ahok case – so I wanted to end on a lighter note.

In 2015, English comedian Stephen Fry was the guest on Gay Byrne’s religious show The Meaning of Life on RTÉ in Ireland. Byrne asked Fry the tired old question of what Fry – an atheist – would do if, when he died, he was actually confronted by God.

Fry’s answer is magnificent:


You can see how put out Byrne is by Fry’s response. But Byrne wasn’t the only one, because – like Canada – Ireland has a blaphemy law… and someone saw that interview, and thought Fry’s response might just have run afoul of it. They complained to the Garda Síochána (basically, the Irish RCMP), and the Garda took the complaint seriously.

This could have been another depressing story, but it’s actually quite the opposite.

First, the person who filed the complaint admitted that they weren’t personally bothered by it. They were just doing their civic duty; they saw something that seemed like it might be breaking the law, so they reported it. Fair enough. Good for them, even.

The police took the complaint seriously, as they should all complaints, until there’s a reason to dismiss them. But ultimately they dropped the investigation. Why? Brace yourself, this is awesome.

The Irish blasphemy law was passed in 2009, as a patch to cover for the fact that the original blasphemy law – which specifically protected Christianity – was ruled unconstitutional in 1999. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but as I understand it, Ireland’s constitution requires a blasphemy law. So they had two options: pass a constitutionally sound blasphemy law, or amend the constitution to no longer require one. The latter would require a costly referendum, so what they decided to do was pass a blasphemy law that – while constitutionally sound – was utterly unenforceable.

This is what they came up with:

  1. A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000.
  2. For the purposes of this section, a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if—
    1. he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and
    2. he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.
  3. It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.
  4. In this section “ religion ” does not include an organisation or cult—
    1. the principal object of which is the making of profit, or
    2. that employs oppressive psychological manipulation—
      1. of its followers, or
      2. for the purpose of gaining new followers.

So the two conditions for Stephen Fry to have blasphemed would be that he uttered “matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion”, and that he intended to cause that outrage. (And of course, if that was proven, it would have to be shown that there was no artistic merit to what he said, and that the religions he insulted were not all scams or cults. I know what you’re thinking about that last part.)

Welp, when gardaí investigated, they were – and I quote – unable to find a substantial number of outraged people.

So the “substantial number of adherents” required in the law weren’t found.

So the charges were dropped.


But we still have a blasphemy law

These three high-profile and frankly idiotic cases from these past two weeks are a perfect excuse to write your MP, and remind them that Canada has a blasphemy law. All of the embarrassment and and absurdity in those cases could happen here.

In fact, by all rights, they should happen here. The law is on the books, and that means that when someone sees it being violated, they have a civic obligation to report it… and the police have an obligation to investigate it… and the Crown has an obligation to prosecute it. If any of that would be pointless because a conviction would never happen or never be upheld, then the law should be taken off the books.

So take a few minutes this long weekend to type up a short letter to your MP, and possibly also to the Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould. Remember, mail can be sent postage-free to MPs. Just address it as:

[Name of Member of Parliament]
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

For even more bang for your buck, you could send it to your MP’s constituency office. Unfortunately, that’s not postage-free, but if you’re out and about, you could always hand-deliver it.

Little actions like this actually have an enormous impact. The repeal of the blasphemy law is so close; if we really pile on the pressure now, it could be just what we need to make it happen.

2 thoughts on “This May two-four weekend, help put an end to Canada’s blasphemy law

  1. Carmen

    You can also email – I get great results from those. Got one from the PM’s office last week! 🙂

    1. Indi Post author

      You know, I’ve had mixed advice about that. Some insiders have said there’s no difference between paper mail and an email. But others have said that an email has very little impact, while paper mail has much more impact.

      Apparently politicians assign weights to each item they receive to gauge public opinion. For example, for every email they receive on an issue, they calculate five people feel really strongly about it, but for every paper letter they receive, they calculate two dozen people. Those numbers are just what I vaguely recall. But the takeaway is that there are more effective and less effective ways to get a politician’s attention, and I’ve heard that paper mail has big impact.

      If all you’re going to do is email, then by all means, do that – anything is better than nothing. But if you can spare a sheet of paper to print up the letter and the time to drop it in a mailbox, that might have *far* more impact.


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