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Muhammad makes appearance on campus

ACCORDING TO THAT old maxim, it is impolite to discuss sex, religion, or politics with strangers. On the typical Canadian university campus, however, we take the opposite approach, bombarding students with condoms and political pamphlets without even pausing to get their names.

While we’re quite forward with sex and politics, usually we’re more hesitant to jump right into talking about religion. Maybe it’s just out of respect for people’s most sincerely held beliefs that we hesitate to talk God on a whim, but it seems this tendency toward respect is unravelling on campus and around the world.

The new big thing in atheist and secularist activism is to desecrate those symbols considered sacred by believers, perhaps in the hopes of sparking debate on important questions like the existence of God or the social utility of religion, or perhaps just to frustrate and anger those who do believe.

Consider the Muhammad cartoon controversy that occurred in Denmark six years ago: Jyllands-Posten published a series of 12 editorial cartoons containing depictions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, portraying him both neutrally and as a terrorist. For those unfamiliar with Islamic theology, most Muslims believe portrayals of Muhammad are to be avoided and offensive portrayals are simply wrong.

Jyllands-Posten’s editors knew this, but printed the cartoons anyway—presumably to encourage debate about the issues of free speech and self-censorship in the Western press. The cartoons lived up to their billing: They were reprinted around the world and set off mass protests in Europe and the Middle East.

Or consider PZ Myers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota and an icon to many in the more militant faction of the atheist movement. Myers has made a name for himself by impaling a consecrated host—which Catholics consider holy—on a rusty nail. Combine that with spilling some coffee grounds over a copy of the Qur’an and you practically have an atheist Moses.

Even the more respectable figures in the New Atheist movement have pursued such tactics, with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens calling for the arrest of Pope Benedict XVI, the spiritual leader of the world’s largest religious group, on charges of crimes against humanity. Let’s not forget, this is the same Hitchens who called Mother Teresa a “bitch” and said, “It’s a shame there’s no hell for her to go to.” He later apologized, but that sort of disrespect speaks for itself.

At the University of Ottawa, our very own Atheist Club, formally known as the Atheist Community of the University of Ottawa (ACUO), has recently taken to copying such tactics. At the club fair, they displayed a stick figure image of Muhammad on a laptop (their creativity is striking).

I met with third-year student Scott Keith, the president of the ACUO, to discuss the tone of the debate surrounding the existence of God and the effects of religion on society. Over the course of our discussion, he maintained that the ACUO is a social group that is “not trying to de-convert anyone,” instead focusing on the “promo[tion] of secular values.” But he sees no problem with his club’s posting of the Muhammad stick figure, saying that even though it is inflammatory and that most Muslims on campus would likely take offence to the drawing, it is not illegal.

There is nothing illegal about it—and there shouldn’t be. People have the right to express their opinions. Besides, who do we trust to decide what sort of expression is too offensive to be allowed? The state, through blasphemy laws and human rights codes? Or should the student federation be able to decide what sort of expression is appropriate on our campus?

But just because it is legal to offend people doesn’t mean it’s right, or constructive, to do so. Universities should be among the best venues for discussing the soundness and social utility of religious belief, but when we go out of our way to offend people of faith, the entire discussion grinds to a halt: People, by nature, are less likely to engage with those who mock their deepest-held beliefs. If their goal is reasoned discussion, the New Atheist movement has shot itself in the foot by offending the sensibilities of believing students.

To get the other side of the story, I met with third-year student Adam Gilani, president of the U of O Muslim Student Association. His take on the situation was rather fitting: “If we’re trying to foster a respectful and genuine conversation, we need to take a pause to be mindful and respectful of other people’s beliefs and values.” When we engage in a respectful conversation, people are more likely to feel comfortable and communicate better.

Gilani noted while he did not interpret the Muhammad display as a personal affront, he knew some of his membership would consider the display highly offensive. He acknowledged that an expression code would be necessarily limited and likely ineffective, preferring instead a mutual agreement on boundaries stemming from respectful conversation.

As far as I’m concerned, Gilani is right: If it is to be of any value, dialogue on religious issues must be respectful. While nobody can force others to act respectfully, we can and should speak up when they are acting with an insensitivity that demeans belief and offends believers.

It’s not just about politeness—it’s about how we conduct the most important debates in our society. We cannot allow the shrillest and most offensive voices to drown out a reasoned and respectful discussion. Now that’s a maxim worth listening to.

—Kelden Formosa