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The Globe’s monthly panel convenes to discuss violence in religion’s nameThe Globe and Mail

A common theme in the discussion of last month's deadly violence in Libya, Egypt and other countries has been "Muslim rage" – the notion of mass anger at perceived slights to Muslims' faith. Whatever degree to which this condition exists, Islam isn't unique – every religion has the power to cause such harm, and almost certainly has experience in exercising it. Faith Exchange panelists have gathered to discuss the issue.

  • Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and host of the TV program Context with Lorna Dueck, seen Sundays on Global TV at 9:30 a.m. ET and Vision TV at 12:30 p.m. ET.
  • Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
  • Richard Landau is an award-winning television host and Executive Producer of interfaith and public affairs programming and a range of documentary productions. He is author of the e-book What the World Needs to Know About Interfaith Dialogue – the definitive study of how interfaith dialogue works.
  • Peter Stockland is director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal, a Canadian think tank that explains culture to religion and religion to culture. He is publisher of Convivium magazine and has just launched a collection of short stories called If Only.
  • Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe’s online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.

Guy Nicholson: Thanks for joining us today, panelists – particularly Richard Landau, who's with us for the first time. Would anyone like to take issue with the premise that every faith is capable of causing this kind of harm, and experience in doing so?

Peter Stockland: Guy, I would maybe put a stick in the spokes of your premise by suggesting every human being has the potential to be manipulated into joining a mob that on some pretext, faith or otherwise, has the power to cause harm. Placing the onus on faith seems to me like suggesting that every cooked carrot has the power to make children dislike it.

Richard Landau: Yes, I would take exception as well. Followers can do that type of harm. Faiths? No.

Guy Nicholson: But what are they following, Richard? Book clubs don't break into embassies or embark on crusades. Is there something unique about religion that compells followers to extreme measures (not all of them bad, granted)?

Richard Landau: A poor interpretation of religion may encourage the masses to righteous indignation – "Anything I do in the name of protecting or advancing my faith is sanctified." I think you could find similar thinking in some political circles, too.

Peter Stockland: The streets of Montreal were filled last spring with tens of thousands of students who downed books to engage in often violent demonstrations against a cup-of-coffee-a-day tuition increase, Guy. They weren't saying the rosary beforehand.

Richard Landau: Ditto Vancouver Canucks fans. No religion there.

Guy Nicholson: We're not talking about the Canadiens, after all …

Peter Stockland: Notre Dame du Centre Bell can get awfully raucous and irreligious – especially when the Leafs or Bruins are in town.

Guy Nicholson: To your point, though, Peter, there were many critical things written about Quebec's political culture and student culture as a result. Was that justified, or should we have distinguished between faith and fallen?

I do take your point about fundamentalism as false religion, though. My next question might be, how much of what was characterized as "Muslim rage" can we characterize as truly Islamic in nature, and how much has been driven by political nuance, non-religious culture and history?

Richard Landau: You can separate the "rage in the name of a given faith" from the faith itself when the leaders of thought in each respective faith community begin to draw that line very clearly and say: That violent behaviour has no justification in our faith.

Lorna Dueck: No argument from me on Guy's original premise. Yes, Christianity has also caused harm and has examples millennium old, or something, somewhere in the name of Christianity that just happened a minute ago. Faith does contain power, and people can use it to harm.

Richard Landau: That's why it is so critically important for the sane voices in each faith community to denounce the "crazies" who would purloin the reputation of their respective faiths.

Peter Stockland: Lorna, don't you agree that we have to distinguish between the faith and the fallen (human, all too human) nature of the followers? Pope Benedict XVI said in Lebanon last month that "all fundamentalism is false religion" because it denies the bond between faith and reason.

Lorna Dueck: Yes – let's use our faith-based buzz word of "fallen nature" to describe why people get violent over religion, but Guy's question about what fuel is in religion that has potential to cause violence is important. The fuel is belief in a supernatural authority of God. We have facts that God has been communicating with the human race since its existence, and Abrahamic faiths all share the same God. When these faiths, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, focus on their own interpretations instead of the common revealed character of God, that becomes the fuel for violence.

The belief in God is used for power, to conquer, to manipulate, to control, and the trump card becomes "God told us to." Then the voice becomes fundamentalism, and there is no room for reason. I love the Hebrew scripture where God coaxes us to "come, let us reason together." I do believe a great bond between faith and reason was the intention of this communicating supreme being, who I name as God, the Almighty.

Peter Stockland: Agreed, Lorna. Pope Benedict told Catholic patriarchs in Lebanon that "we must love Muslims for we are all brothers" and sisters. Blessed Pope John Paul II always referred to Jews as "our elder brothers and sisters in faith." But we have to acknowledge that, as human beings, Catholics have historically been as complicit as any other group in horrible acts of intolerance and what we today could call fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is false religion. My new credo.

Lorna Dueck: Richard and Peter, let's be a little bit practical here. When faith is taught and promoted in a way that focuses on exclusion, superiority and defence, harm is going to happen. Models of power are easily aligned with any faith and, if you have teachers and practioners of faith attracted to that, destruction happens.

Richard Landau: Yes, Lorna. Faith uncoupled from reason tends to fanaticism and may tend to violence. "Reformation" has been a good development. Not every religion or culture has been through a Reformation or an Enlightenment.

Sheema Khan: Back to the original premise: I feel a bit uncomfortable at pinning mass anger onto perceived offence by a religious group. I think the wider issue is mass anger in reaction to perceived offence – period. Think about racism – the violence following the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King verdict. Or, further back, the infamous Richard Riot.

When there is mass reaction, it is usually after a long incubation period, after which a tipping point is reached. This is not to excuse violent behaviour but to underscore that, when grievances are not addressed in a satisfactory manner, people will take matters into their own hands.

In the case of the video at the centre of this crisis, it seems to have been the latest in a long line of attempts to denigrate Islam. For many Muslims, the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) is dearer to their hearts than their own selves. And in many of these countries, the concept of freedom of expression has limits when it comes to religious sensitivies (even Egypt blocked screening of The Da Vinci Code, due to protest by the local Copic Christian community). The world's largest democracy, India, also has laws on the books that limit freedom of expression when it comes to lampooning/criticizing religion.

Here in the West, the concept of freedom of expression has taken a good two centuries to ripen and mature. And our laws guaranteeing freedom of expression were enacted within geographical boundaries, as a balance between rights and duties while maintaining social cohesion. During the Internet age, we see the equivalent of the "butterfly effect" – "free speech" in one land can travel instantaneously to another, amplifying its initial volume.

Richard Landau: While violence may arise after grievances have not been addressed, there is also violence whipped up and fomented by those who simply want to make trouble. It appears that extremists on the fringes of Islam and Christianity are attempting to drive the rest of the world over the cliff.

Peter Stockland: Sheema, would you agree that what is often reported as spontaneous "mass" anger such as we've seen recently is often carefully orchestrated and manipulated by political provocateurs? Couldn't we argue properly that politics, not faith, is the culprit?

Sheema Khan: Yes, Peter – I agree fully. As we get more details, it is clear that Egyptian Salafists took the English-language video, translated it into Arabic and then broadcast it on their TV station. This is the spark that took this unknown video to a new level. The Salafists knew exactly what they were doing: manipulating religious sensitivities for their own ends.

Similarly, in Libya, al-Qaeda offshoots used the protest as cover to carry out terrorist attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The Libyan people were so horrified at these actions that they protested against the militias in Benghazi – some even died. And as Thomas Friedman reported earlier this week in The New York Times, there has been a lot of soul-searching and internal criticism within Arab media about misplaced anger toward this video.

Sheema Khan: There is another reason why I would caution against blaming "faith." It's an easy cop-out for blind followers to absolve themselves of any responsibility by saying, for example, that "Islam made me do it." So let's put the onus on individuals, who have the choice to think through their actions.

I do agree that we have to put restraints on the "crazies" on all sides. This is reminiscient of an example given by the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh): A ship sails on the sea; it has an upper deck and a lower deck. Some on the lower deck are thirsty, and imprudently break a hole in the side of the ship to get water. If they are not stopped, the entire ship will sink.

Today, we are all in this boat together. Some want to disagree with or criticize Islam. They should be allowed to, but not in a manner that is so destructive that it sinks the boat. Similarly, some want to defend their faith against denigration. They should be allowed to do so, but not in a manner that is so destructive that it sinks the boat. We need to listen to the issues brought forth, educate ourselves and others about how to agree to disagree, and allow for peaceful protest on both sides.

Peter Stockland: Extremely well said, Sheema. Millions of people of all faiths get up every morning in this country and peacefully go about their business through the day, side by side. They share a common life although they have contrary faiths. Our culture fosters that. Other cultures, at this moment in history, don't. That argues, to me, that the culture (politics), not the actual faith, is the source of division and violence.

Richard Landau: Yes, Peter, but it is not so easy to extract the egg from the cake – to separate faith from politics or human administration. For example, it is going to be a lengthy process of education to get some Pakistanis to stop burning down Shia mosques and churches in the name of faith.

Peter Stockland: True, Richard, but maybe one way is to resist the urge to say "You people did X, Y, Z," when the "you" being spoken to happens to live thousands of miles away from the offence.

Guy Nicholson: Sheema, what can pluralistic, democratic countries like Canada realistically do to stop "destructive" expression? Especially when the same kind of expression against other faiths or communities is considered fair game?

Sheema Khan: I think it is important for Muslims in the West to explain to their religious brethren how freedom of expression does not threaten one's ability to practise one's faith. How the West allows for freedom of worship, freedom of association, laws against discrimination and so on.

And that one is able to defend against attacks of one's faith by speech, by the pen, by peaceful protest and by education. Violence is not the answer. And that there are limits to free speech here – one cannot incite to hatred or murder; one cannot defame etc.

Those who are reacting so violently to protect the honour of the Prophet seem oblivious to his own example. He, like so many prophets before, endured the worst of personal insults (all of which are described in the Koran). We have accurate information as to how he responded. When he finally conquered Mecca (after 23 years of persecution and expulsion), amnesty was granted to nearly all its residents. We seem to have forgotten that forgiveness was such a central part of his persona. That forgiveness, pardoning are attributes of God, that are repeated time and time again in the Koran.

Last year, I was fortunate to visit the West Bank and Cairo and exchange ideas with Muslim communities. Many assumed that Islam was under attack in the West, due to news stories about vandalized mosques and a pastor threatening to burn a Koran. When I explained the reality, it was quite an eye-opener.

Lorna Dueck: Here's what we can to do stop the violence – keep talking about religion! Let me quote from President Barack Obama's address to the UN General Assembly last week: "The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift of the values of understanding and mutual respect."

We must continue to probe what people are believing about the supernatural. What are people engaging in their religious communities and beliefs and how might it affect our world? An interesting example of this has been the Why I Hate Religion video by Jeff Bethke. It's been a YouTube phenomenon that has picked up more traffic than the insulting and blasphemous Innocence of Muslims and has sparked a huge debate about what different religions believe.

I'm insulted and offended by what people say about Christianity, but it is fair game. What's not fair is when you hide religion and make it a no-go area for media or any other public examination.

Guy Nicholson: So perhaps we've solved the entire issue! But you have to admit, "Muslim rage" makes a better headline than "Complex socio-historical rage exacerbated by religious fundamentalism with political overtones." How well have Western media been doing at explaining this story?

Richard Landau: The U.S. administration, by repeated references, has imparted far too much power to that wing-nut video. In the midst of the furor, I posted a comment on Facebook about the video, the responses to it and how all of us should frame it.

Sheema Khan: Good response, Richard! I would go even further, as someone who is familiar with the intense love that people hold for the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh): Show your love and honour for the Prophet by following his footsteps.

Peter Stockland: LOL, Guy. The media have done a horrible job of it, largely because many journalists don't know enough (anything?) about the nature of the faiths they are blaming.

Guy Nicholson: Any specific examples to share? Good or bad?

Sheema Khan: The "Muslim rage" headline is an example. As Newsweek found out, it is a ridiculous hashtag – not to mention a ridiculous lead.

Then there were those articles that painted all Muslims (1.2 billion people) in one hue, with self-righteous assertions of Muslim culture. These were shallow and simply reinforced stereotypes. Fewer than 0.001 per cent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims marched in violent protests. And yet, they are taken as representative of "Muslim rage." The media should apply the same standards they apply to news/analysis here at home.

There has been some excellent media analysis, though. This Doug Saunders piece in The Globe was one example. Another, that just came out, is a piece by Pulitzer-prize winner Steve Coll (author of Ghost Wars) in the most recent issue of The New Yorker.

Lorna Dueck: I've been watching this paper for coverage of the two Canadian citizens charged by Egypt in distributing Innocence of Muslims and it is woefully underreported. When the Canadian Coptic community gets implicated like this in an international edict, we should give it at least as much exposure as the 40th anniversary of a great hockey goal.

Sheema Khan: Good point, Lorna. Given the explosive nature of this issue, and the real threat that comes with being named on the warrant, we should decide on a course of action that safeguards the lives of the Canadians being accused.

Is a widespread media campaign the best recourse? I think that, instead, there should be some quiet, behind-the-scenes networking between people of conscience who will work together to ensure that these two individuals are not tried in public, and that they are accorded every opportunity to answer their critics. They will need support – and here is where Muslims can, and must, play a key role – in standing up for justice, even if it is against their religious brethren (as we are commanded to do in the Koran).

Lorna Dueck: But we should give insight into who is our Canadian-Egyptian Coptic community, what are their connections politically and, most important, what are they learning from their religious leaders about how to respond to this crisis.

Peter Stockland: You know, there is a fascinating piece to be done, journalistically, not just academically, on the faith-culture response to images and iconography. We in the West are so drenched in images that we barely notice them and rarely accord them power. But what about human beings for whom images/icons still actually contain power? Maybe it's not just the content but the relationship to actual expression. I mean this as beyond the free speech/restricted speech debate. I mean it as an exploration of meaning.

Lorna Dueck: I was struck by a thoughtful note reported Sept. 16 by David Kirkpatrick from Cairo in The New York Times on the cultural clash this religious violence underscores. He investigated how we use our freedom in the West to insult, and how that is misunderstood by others. That reported piece, some of the good journalism needed on religion, ended with 29-year-old Mohamed Sabry, an Egyptian art teacher, saying: "To see the Islamic world in this condition of underdevelopment, this is a bigger insult to the prophet."

Guy Nicholson: That's all the time we have today. Thanks to everyone for taking part – as always, a thought-provoking discussion.