The week of Feb. 20 to 26 is Freedom to Read Week in Canada, a time to enjoy the intellectual freedom guaranteed under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Organized by the Book and Periodical Council, the week is also a time to read a book that has come under scrutiny in the past.
Freedom to Read Week could also be an opportunity to sit down with a copy of the Bible, the Qur’an or the Communist Manifesto, three works with global significance, which all generate strong reactions.
Close to one-third of the world’s population identifies as Christian and around one-quarter are Muslims. More than half of the world’s population of 7.9 billion are adherents of these two faiths. And one-fifth of the world’s people live under communist governments.
I can read the pivotal texts behind any of the world’s religions, and I can read the important works that have shaped government ideologies. Any or all of these may make some people uncomfortable, but these works and others are all available to me.
Here in Canada, anyone can purchase, borrow, access a website or download an app containing the Bible. There are no bans or restrictions on owning or reading it here.
This isn’t the case elsewhere. In North Korea, Bibles are banned and possessing a copy can result in imprisonment, torture and death. In Morocco, it is against the law to carry a copy of the Bible translated into Arabic. And in Uzbekistan, harsh penalties are imposed on people who own Bibles.
In Canada, anyone is also free to read the Qur’an or to possess a copy of the Islamic scriptures. In 2013, a court in the Russian city of Novorossiysk banned a translation of the Qur’an.
That was not the only translation of the Qur’an available in Russia, but it was one of more than 2,000 publications banned in that country.
Canadians are also free to read The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The document, first published in 1848, formed the framework for the former Soviet Union and other communist nations, past and present. This book has been prohibited in several countries over the years.
While the work itself is not a banned book at present, there are countries where displays of communist symbols are prohibited.
In Ukraine and Indonesia, the hammer and sickle, the red star, The Internationale and the slogan, “Workers of the world, unite!” are among the prohibited displays of communism.
In Ukraine, singing or playing the former anthem of the Soviet Union or other former anthems of Soviet republics is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
It’s different in Canada. In this country, we pride ourselves on having the freedom to read what we want, and the freedom to think as we want. Those are dear freedoms to be held tight.
John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.
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