The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Students clash in the Tunnel over religious satire on International Blasphemy Rights Day

By in News

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

  • Jesus

    Just because you are free to say whatever you want doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole about it.

    • Responder

      I fully agree.

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous

    Looks like Brandon Gerbig and his cronies are trying to incite violence at University of Saskatchewan. They should be kicked out of the university. They have given the university a bad name.

    • The T

      Showing the cartoon that earned a Danish cartoonist death threats is not inciting violence. If anything it is a reference to the sad fact that many religious people don’t believe their religions ought be open to scrutiny or ridicule, and some religious sects will even use violence or the threat of violence to impinge free speech.

      So actually, the opposite of what you said is true. Wanting to kick them out of the university for a free speech demonstration commemorating the victims of violence (e.g. Theo Van Gogh) and victims of the threats of violence (e.g. Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist) is really just saying you agree with the authoritarian, fundamentalist view that religion ought be immune to ridicule.

      Glad to know you don’t believe in free speech. This was illuminating, like this horrifying story about the harassment conducted against the Freethought Alliance by religious people.

    • Responder

      The harassers are the University of Saskatchewan Freethought Alliance.

  • Me

    Why did the U of S apologize for obscene pictures of Jesus in the student newspaper, but not object to these atheists drawing the Muslim prophet and obscene pictures of Jesus? Let’s have some consistency.

    • Responder

      I agree.

  • UofSSucks

    Why did the U of S apologize for obscene pictures of Jesus in the student newspaper, but not object to these atheists drawing the Muslim prophet & obscene pictures of Jesus? Let’s have some consistency.

    • YouSayingTheyAllLookAlike?

      All I see is an angry Christian dude and an angry Muslim dude (or Sikh, or just any brown guy with a turban). I don’t think the picture illustrates Christ or Muhammad, it’s not like they’re labelled. Besides, Jesus never wore a stylin’ pope hat.

      Quit trying to drag the student paper through the mud with your baseless over sensitivities.

    • Responder

      He’s obviously talking about this incident, you ignorant fool:

    • lance

      Don’t call someone an ignorant fool, it’s pretty ignorant yourself. And maybe they apologized because the sheaf is a newspaper connected with the student union and university. And the the others was atheists doing it personally. And we can draw whatever the hell we want whether it be muhammed getting a pearl necklace it doesn’t need to be apologized for.

  • LaughingAtTheAttentionWhores

    They look like a bunch of attention whores who will do anything for publicity. They might as well run through the tunnel naked to get publicity.

    • Responder

      I totally agree.

    • TheSheaf

      Please stop having conversations with yourself. 8/10 comments on this page are yours. Next time just write one comment. And remember, we can see your IP address…

    • The T

      I like how you made the extra effort to NOT hide your trolling by titling yourself “Responder” when you responded to your own comment.

  • The Irony Maiden

    I didn’t see the depictions, but if your’re telling me that this ‘Freethought’ group actually used the Danish cartoon portrayal of Muhammed in their Prophet Wheel, then they were A) not thinking; or B) intentionally trying to start shit. Either way, they should be kicked out of the Tunnel and the University for being stupid and wasting taxpayer money.

    • Wasting Taxpayer money? Jesus, I must of not went to pick up my check…..

      Plus, we were fully thinking. The idea of free speech is not to be intimidated or scared into being censored, and posting the most volatile image we could think of is a good way of demonstrating that.

  • JD

    “you have the freedom to say whatever you want until I don’t like it” – Christianity

  • dfadf

    Who are these anonymous cowards who did this?

  • dfadf

    These atheists are implying all Muslims are “terrorists.”

  • M

    They hate religious people including Muslims.

  • Daryl Hofmann

    This story had a surprisingly civil happy ending, which is fucking great. Young people living in Canada kick ass.

  • Anti-Hate

    Nazis posted pictures villifying Jews to build hatred of them. The University of Saskatchewan Freethought Alliance posted pictures villifying Muslims to build hatred of them.

  • Anti-Hate

    They should call their club the University of Saskatchewan Hatred Alliance.

  • Anti-Hate

    These fools think they’re defending free speech by giving out cookies and posting blasphemous pictures. What a bunch of fools.

  • CantBelieveIt

    Don’t these atheist fools have anything more productive to do with their time?

  • qwerty

    The University of Saskatchewan Freethought Alliance is essentially a hate group.

  • qwerty

    Why didn’t the University of Saskatchewan Freethought Alliance have a swastika posted at their table to represent their hatred of religious people?

  • Anonymous cowards are the one spamming this page with sock puppets.

  • C. Cottrell

    For the record, the Freethought Alliance did not use the Danish cartoon. Primarily they used a stick figure drawing.

    • We had the Danish Cartoon, but it was torn off, we then drew the stick figure

  • Anonymus

    Caroline Cottrell is the biggest idiot EVER. If these atheists were going around swearing at professors and Cottrell at the university and giving professors and her the finger to demonstrate freedom of expression, she wouldn’t be defending their free speech, but Cottrell turns around and calls it free speech when the atheists are trying to piss off religious people at the university including Muslims by doing things like drawing their prophet. I think Cottrell is fine with free speech as long as it doesn’t affect her. There’s no difference between this craziness and Terry Jones burning the Muslim book. Are these anonymous atheist cowards going to do that next? Are Cottrell and the University of Saskatchewan going to allow that next? Caroline Cottrell is totally unfit to be the the U of S Students’ Union general manager and should be fired. Because their atheist club has “University of Saskatchewan” in its name, the university is responsible for the actions of these atheists.

    • if they were directing threats to her as a person, that would no be free speech, that would be hate speech. People need protection, not ideas (aka, religion)

    • It would have been nice if the poster had seen fit to stand publicly by his/her remakrs. I’m an atheist myself, but I admire the religious prophets for having the courage of their convictions to not hide behind ‘anonymous’; they risked far more than this person does by posting to a university newspaper.
      And the best discussions do not attack individuals but, rather, promote conversation by talking about ideas and behaviours. You should apologise for the animus you’ve shown here to another person.

    • Caroline Cottrell

      Thanks very much for the assessment of my intellectual capabiility, I appreciate your feedback. For the record however, the angry behaviour actually came from various groups of Muslim students and my response was to arrange for them to have a table in the tunnel. My religious beliefs are, in fact, not anyone’s concern. My responsibility is to uphold Section Two of the Canadian Charter when called upon and this is as it should be. My record stands. I have advocated for Christians, Mulsims, Athesists, Pro-lifers, Pro-choicers, Jews, Hindus, Liberala, Conservatives, NPSers, and many others, without prejudice, when they have been duly ratified campus clubs. I will continue to do so. If this is an offense so egregious that I deserve to be fired then I’m sure the Executive will be happy to examine your suggestion closely. In the meamtime, if you wish to stand for your beliefs, and not hid behind “Anonymous” please feel to contact me at the USSU office.

  • Anonymous

    The university has the right to stop speech that harasses other members of the university community.

    How about someone post obscene pictures of Caroline Cottrell in the U of S tunnel and see if she and the university call that free speech too?

    Caroline Cottrell is an ugly cow. Is this acceptable free speech? Is the university going to censor this speech?

    • No, that is hate speech, because you are specifically attacking a person. We were attacking ideas (aka, religions)

  • Just thought of a relevant artwork. Cavallo’s “My Sweet Lord.”

  • I was one of the people behind the table, feel free to respectfully ask me any questions you wish. FSM bless you.

    • So you are not an anonymous coward like our sock puppet troll.

  • Regardless of the image used..It was Blasphemy Day. That right there should say something..

  • SalmanRushdie

    Everyone keeps talking about how freedom of speech has to be wielded with a “certain level of responsibility.” That means each individual can decide for THEMSELVES what they would like to say, not you disagree with agree with him or her so he or she should have been more responsible–that’s censorship and a feeble attempt at promoting prior restraint. You should be embarrassed if you ever justify violence for the supposed crime of thought, drawing, or writing.

    Let’s just have a discussion”–no, let’s not. I want to draw pictures of the prophet all day, and I don’t believe in the Quran, or the Hadith, and blasphemy doesn’t exist for me( I also don’t adhere to Christianity, Jainism, or the tawdry Ba’hai). I don’t need to explain myself for making fun of an imaginary god. However, if in the physical world I attack someone, or threaten them with violence, it’s no longer a matter of faith.

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