A fiery conflict erupted in the Arts Tunnel Oct. 1 after the University of Saskatchewan Freethought Alliance satirized religion during their celebration of International Blasphemy Rights Day.
The event hosted by the Freethought Alliance gave students walking by the chance to trade their soul for a cookie and to spin a wheel to find out which hell they are destined for.
The majority of the tension arose from the deity drawing contest that had images of Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad, among other deities, posted to inspire contestants.
Students who disagreed with the display tore down posters and stole the cellphones of two members of the Freethought Alliance while others intimidated and threatened the group’s members to attempt to stop the blasphemy day activities.
Caroline Cottrell, the U of S Students’ Union general manager, said she was asked to shut down the Freethought Alliance’s table several times by students opposed to the display.
The Freethought Alliance students “were exercising their right to free speech,” Cottrell said.
“They weren’t harassing people…. As soon as somebody does that, I will ask them to leave. But until that point I will defend their right to free speech just as I’ll defend yours.”
Ali Afzal, an executive member of the U of S Muslim Students Association, did not feel that the Freethought Alliance had taken the right means to create discussion.
Freedom of speech is very powerful and with anything that is very powerful, you have to wield it with a certain level of responsibility. — Ali Afzal, U of S Muslim Students Association
“If there had been a less offensive image of our prophet there would still be some shock, it would still start it off on a little bit of a wrong foot, but not to this extent,” Afzal said, referring to the Freethought Alliance’s use of the Danish cartoon that depicts Muhammad with a black bomb in his turban.
Compared to the depictions of Jesus and Buddha, which were merely generic images, the cartoon of Muhammad supports the stereotype that Muslims and Islam are tied to terrorism, Afzal said.
“For Muslims, the image used, if you wanted to choose the most offensive and deliberately provocative image, that is the one you’d pick,” he said. “Especially if you’ve been keeping up on current events, that image itself directly equates Muslims with terrorism.”
Afzal said that if the Freethought Alliance had used an image of Muhammad unassociated with terrorism, he would not have been as offended and would have been able to approach the event’s discussion in a more opportunistic fashion.
“You would treat it more like a social faux-pas and use it as a springboard towards a discussion,” Afzal said.
Brandon Gerbig, a member of the Freethought Alliance, was aware that the image of Islamic prophet Muhammad could be upsetting to some, but in the spirit of the day that celebrates freedom of speech — specifically when criticizing religion — he would not let that stop him.
“It is about bringing awareness and reminding people that they shouldn’t be afraid to voice their opinions if they are blasphemous.”
Gerbig wanted to ensure that people were aware that Blasphemy Day — actually on Sept. 30, not Oct. 1 — supports not only freedom of speech but also freedom of expression, which includes depictions of deities.
“It is a social effect that with drawings of Muhammad we don’t have freedom from religion because we’re pressured not to talk about it and pressured not to draw it,” Gerbig said.
Citing intimidation as a tactic used to discourage depictions of Muhammad, Gerbig said he wants Canadians to know that they live in a country that celebrates freedom of expression.
Afzal’s student group set up a table beside the Freethought Alliance to counter the Blasphemy Day event.
By the end of the day, the Freethought Alliance and MSA were in the Arts Tunnel and had come to a peaceful balance of freedom of speech as each supported their beliefs through discussions.
“We spoke to each other as respectful equals even though we disagreed totally,” Gerbig said.
“The real spirit of free speech got captured there when people of opposing ideals had the freedom to oppose each other yet respect each other.”
Afzal said that emotions may have prevented the positive and constructive discussions that were possible from occurring.
With the recent controversy over the release of the film Innocence of Muslims, Afzal would like to see more people informed about the role Islam plays in freedom of speech.
“I see this as an opportunity,” Afzal said. “It could have been really nice to be able to discuss issues like the film, like the geopolitical situation, especially in the context of freedom of speech.”
Although the Freethought Alliance was within their rights of free speech, Afzal said that free speech should be used within the boundaries of consideration for others.
“Freedom of speech is very powerful and with anything that is very powerful, you have to wield it with a certain level of responsibility.”
Illustration: Samantha Braun/The Sheaf