By Dr Farzana Hassan, The Toronto SUN
We are witnessing a resurgent culture of clashing religiosities. The latest religious controversy erupted in Saskatoon when a city councillor recited a Christian prayer at a volunteer appreciation dinner. Ashu Solo, a non-Christian volunteer, felt “excluded.” He has since vowed to complain to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission over his treatment as a “second-class citizen.”
Recently, a similar controversy arose in Toronto over an advertisement displaying the Islamic statement of creed “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is his messenger.”
Sure enough, the Toronto Sun and other media in the GTA received complaints from citizens demanding the removal of the ad. The controversy is also linked to another ad showing a child praying to Jesus because her parents are drug addicts.
The TTC insists it must allow both ads in the interest of equality and protection of minority rights. The Islamic ad therefore continues to be displayed in four subway stations as part of a one-year contract between the Islamic Infocentre and the TTC.
In treating both ads with parity, however, the TTC may be ignoring a few crucial differences between the ads. The Muslim ad is undoubtedly a statement of dogma and hence considerably more offensive, whereas the Christian ad is merely an expression of religious devotion. The Islamic ad is clearly meant to propagate the faith in a public place. The Christian picture, on the other hand, represents a more personal expression of religiosity.
Mohammad Obaidullah from the Islamic Infocentre which paid for the ad said: “We are trying to give a message that what we believe is true, and it is up to our Canadian friends to decide whether they accept it or neglect it.”
This statement further confirms the ad as propaganda.
According to the TTC, such advertising is allowed under Charter provisions as citizens are guaranteed freedom of thought, freedom of religion, as well as liberty to express it to their liking. “There is no God but Allah” is certainly proselytizing; but we allow it in the public arena.
However, what the TTC fails to recognize is this is an offensive kind of way to have someone convert.
The sponsors translated the Islamic statement of creed as follows: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is the messenger of God.”
One can understand why such declarations would offend the majority of Canadians who are non-Muslim. There are theological disputes at play here. Non-Muslims reject the Islamic notion that Allah is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad alike.
Before the controversy came to light, the sponsors of the ad were showcasing the writings of a certain Dr. Zakir Naik, who openly endorses militancy and violence.
Dr. Naik preaches an ultra-conservative brand of Islam in India and wields considerable influence on the masses. They have since removed all the links to Naik’s speeches from their website.
The TTC must take care to acknowledge such differences. Public displays of one’s religion cannot all be treated equivalently. In this regard, the Saskatoon councillor who recited the Christian prayer also violated the separation of religion and state.
The Islamic Infocentre has since promised to modify the ad toward a more acceptable translation of the Muslim statement of creed or Shahada.
That remains to be seen.
Meanwhile clarity is required to determine when certain lines have been crossed. And while we are prone to err on the side of freedom of expression, we must nonetheless assess the legality of every public religious display on an individual basis.
— Dr. Hassan is the former president of the Muslim Canadian Congress