Panelists at Struggle and
Harmony: Left to right are Dr. Donald Savage, Dr. Christine Jamieson,
Rabbi Shlomo Mahn and Imam Salam Elmenyami.
Photo by Andrew
by Barbara Black
Free speech, particularly around the sensitive issue of religion, was
the subject of a panel discussion held at Concordia on Tuesday night.
Although the panellists discussed the subject in the abstract, several
audience members showed by their questions that they are living the issue
The speakers were Donald Savage, a historian who worked with the Canadian
Association of University Teachers; Christine Jamieson, an ethicist and
theologian; and two associate chaplains at Concordia, Rabbi Shlomo Mahn
and Imam Salam Elmenyawi.
Dr. Savage, who is currently an adjunct professor at Concordia, provided
some historical context for disputes on campus. In the early 19th-century,
Christianity was important in Canada, but no single denomination predominated,
so the first universities were public and non-denominational, with affiliated
colleges and schools of theology.
However, becoming secular was not enough to ensure free speech, and one
of the first student protests was by University of Toronto students against
the fact that their university was virtually a department of the government.
I dont think weve solved this question [of free speech]
yet. Is shutting down opposition to your ideas the right response?
Dr. Savage asked. Weapons used by the left against the right can boomerang,
and be used by the right against the left, he said. The playing
field will never be level, but it can only be challenged under the rules
of liberal democracy.
Dr. Jamieson explored the meanings of the words free and speech,
and drew on the thought of a Canadian Roman Catholic theologian, Bernard
Lonergan. Freedom can mean release from slavery or imprisonment, but it
can also mean transcending necessity.
Speech is unique to human beings, and it is speech that humanizes
us. However, we are imperfect, and wrestle with meaning. Since speech
is always between people, it puts us in the public realm, communicating
Rabbi Mahn is an Orthodox Jew, raised in New York and educated there and
in Israel. He works full-time as a chaplain to Jewish students at McGill
and Concordia. He reminded his audience that religious institutions have
not always favoured free speech.
On the other hand, speech and text have been extremely important to religious
people. When the Jews realized they were going to be dispersed and would
be a minority everywhere, they wrote their religious precepts into the
Talmud. The person who believes his or her religion is the truth is serene
in that knowledge.
Conventions around what can be said are constantly changing, Rabbi Mahn
said, but by discussing your views with others, you not only begin to
understand the other person, you better understand your own point view,
and learn to defend your position.
Imam Elmenyawi was an electrical engineer by profession, but undertook
religious studies and for the past 15 years has volunteered and provided
leadership to the Muslim community of Montreal. Like Rabbi Mahn, with
whom he shared a some light moments on the panel, he provides chaplaincy
The imam said that all religions strive for justice, and it cannot be
secured unless it is achieved for everyone. Free speech includes the right
to express oneself and the right to be informed and inform others. Even
in giving a religious message, the prophet Mohammed said that the message
may be given, but the hearer must listen and decide if it is true.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
Imam Elmenyawi said, quoting a Christian gospel, but when we try to set
the limits of speech, it can be a problem. The Quran says we must
speak in the proper way, not backbite; we shouldnt withhold information;
we should encourage others to speak the truth. Religious believers should
support one another.
Imam Elmenyawi said that according to Islam, you are free to speak, but
you must face the consequences. If you establish that something you have
been told is not true, you must hold the person accountable.
A student gave an example from a conversation between two of her friends
and asked if it was an issue of free speech: a Muslim friend suggested
to a Christian friend something hurtful about the historical Jesus. Dr.
Jamieson saw this as inherited discourse, not discussion intended
to elicit truth.
Imam Elmenyawi reminded his listeners that Christianity and Islam have
many precepts and prophets in common, and Muslims have protested insults
against Christians, such as works of art that ridiculed religion.
In the case of the Nigerian riot that resulted from a flippant remark
by a journalist covering a beauty pageant, which was raised by a student,
both Christians and Muslims died, and this shameful occurrance resulted
from a lack of balance within the state of Nigeria. Consistency
in the application of rules is what is needed, said the imam, whether
it is the state or the university.
A student who is active with Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights said
that Concordias administrators have applied bylaws and codes selectively,
to Jewish as well as to Muslim students. These are serious allegations,
he said, and the administrations response was to dismiss the issues,
but the true feelings of students cant be denied.
We have been asking for an open, independent inquiry for three years,
he said, and for the opening of files in the Office of Rights and Responsibilities.
Last week the SPHR had to go to court because they were [unknowingly]
holding an illegal demonstration. Obviously youre not going to ask
for permission from the same administration youre demonstrating
against. Rabbi Mahn said that while justice often slow and expensive,
you can take such issues beyond the university to the civil court.
Is criticism of the state of Israel automatically anti-Semitic? a Muslim
student asked. Imam Elmenyawi pointed out that many Israelis disagree
strongly with their own government. However, discrimination of any kind
is wrong. He feels Concordias Board of Governors should have a Muslim
member, and he knows that the Rector is trying to achieve this, but even
one person would not change the balance.
Discrimination may not be intentional; people do not understand
our culture, he said. It is our job to bring it to their attention,
and not to rest until these issues are addressed. I think the university
is willing to sit down and work out these problems.
The next event in this series
is a panel discussion on Monday, Feb. 10, at 4 p.m. in H-110 on Religious
Traditions, Holy Days and Precepts: Opening a Window into your Neighbours