What is freedom?

This week the Canadian government announced the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom and named Dr Andrew Bennett international Ambassador for religious freedom.  Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose to make this announcement in a mosque of the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam in Toronto.

The Ahmadiyya movement began in India a little more than one hundred years ago, when Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was proclaimed to be the promised Mahdi and Messiah.  The movement has spread all over the world, with ten million or more adherents in 200 countries, with the largest concentration of members being in Pakistan.  The Ahmadis accept all the central tenets of the Muslim faith and consider themselves to be fully Muslim.  Their concept of jihad (struggle) differs from radical Islamists, in that they consider it to refer first to the struggle against their own evil desires and secondly to the spread of Islam by the pen.  They consider violent jihad a betrayal of the Muslim faith.

The Muslim nation of Pakistan refuses to recognize the Ahmadis as Muslim.  Under Pakistani law it is blasphemy for the Ahmadis to call themselves Muslim, to call their place of worship a mosque, or to publicly greet one another with salaam alaikum (peace be unto you).  Saudi Arabia forbids Ahmadis to participate in the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Prime Minister Harper, an evangelical Christian, evidently believes that our own religious freedom is linked to granting that same freedom to all others, excepting of course those who wish to use violence to propagate their beliefs.

Some people have a different notion of freedom.  Closer to home, in Saskatoon, Ashu Solo, a member of the city’s race relations and cultural diversity committee, was invited to a dinner recognizing volunteers.  Before the dinner, a city councillor offered a prayer that included the name Jesus and ended with Amen.  Mr Solo, an atheist, believes his rights have been violated and the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission will hear his complaint.

Human Rights Commissions across Canada have made some really bizarre decisions in recent years.  Thankfully, there is still a measure of sanity in the court system and the worst of these decisions have been overruled by judges.

Two days ago, a client and I went to a restaurant for dinner.  When our food arrived, the client asked me to pray.  Did I violate the rights of everyone else in the restaurant?  With the buzz of conversation at the other tables, I doubt that anyone else heard me, but maybe it would be too much for some people to see a Christian bow his head to pray.  What if a Christian would complain to the Human Rights Commission every time he heard some public statement contrary to his faith?  Or, would my rights be violated if a rabbi were asked to pray at some public function where I was present?

I’m afraid that Mr Solo’s idea of freedom does not include freedom for anyone but himself.  Yet, isn’t there within each of us at least a little wish that everyone who does not see things the way I see them would just go away?

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