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Offence to Islam not taken lightly

Tue, Jan 16, 2001


WE have offended many, as is clear from the letters we publish on this page, with our printing of a letter from a Winnipeg correspondent in the Faith page on Saturday.

The letter was about Islam and was in reply to an earlier article published on Dec. 30 last year that was written in praise of the religion. Saturday's letter was condemnatory and, had I been Muslim, I should have found it offensive. It was offensive because however many misdeeds may be performed in the name of any religion, there can be no cause to condemn all its believers. It was also offensive because it interpreted the religion in ways that stated interpretation as fact. The letter claimed, for instance, that "the religion of Islam is false," that "Muslims claim that Allah is the same God as Christians and Jews worship, but that is false" and many other tendentious and inflammatory statements that many Islamic believers would wholeheartedly reject.

This newspaper aims to be the forum for debate for the community it serves. That community includes all religions that are practised wherever the newspaper may be read, whether in print or on-line. Its primary readership and therefore its focus for debate, is, of course, the people of Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. It is among those people that we have caused anger and caused them to suspect our editorial judgment and balance.

In judging what to print, we must consider what is a fair balance of opinion. There are, of course, limits to what we will allow people to say, but we do allow letters that criticize us, our standards, our morals and, occasionally, the competency of our staff. We allow people to complain about the service we provide. We allow far more latitude in the presentation of fact and opinion to our letter writers than we do to ourselves in the fact and opinion pieces that we write. Sometimes, our own staff feel we go too far in allowing attacks on the newspaper and those who work for it.

Controversial opinion

Given the choice between printing opinion and holding it back, we will tend to err on the side of printing. In doing so, we may from time to time print what should not be printed. This newspaper cannot shirk controversy and do its job. There is a fine line, however, between controversial opinion and hurtful opinion, between a well-argued case and incendiary views. A free society, like a free press, censors opinion at its peril.

Nowhere is the decision-making on matters of opinion more difficult than on the Faith page. Religion is about belief, belief that can defy rational thought. Religion is believed passionately. What is controversial to one believer is commonplace to the next. Faith is not monolithic, it allows of many interpretations, but one person's interpretation is another's heresy. Wars are still fought over religion. It is, then, hardly surprising that views expressed on a Faith page can cause anger and offence. However careful I may be as editor, offence will be caused.

I still believe that the Faith page can and should explore different views of religion and the search for belief and divinity. That on the Faith page, and elsewhere, our judgment over what we publish will falter, I have no doubt either.

My judgment is not perfect, neither is my staff's and neither is yours.

Best of motives

The letter on Saturday was printed in the best of motives as part of a debate that has flourished on the Faith page from time to time about the nature of Islam, a religion in which many may have a great interest but is practised by a minority of Canadians. Our attempt to provide debate on Islam was intended to be inclusive, to reflect our community back to itself. That has not been the result.

In retrospect, the standards of debate to which we would hold ourselves were breached on Saturday. Like others, we learn from our mistakes. The views expressed are not the views of this newspaper. No religion should be impervious to criticism, no believers should shun debate. The letter, however, crossed the normal bounds of acceptable debate within this newspaper. I am responsible for what appears in this newspaper and I offer my apology for the offence caused.


Nicholas Hirst is editor of the Free Press.

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