The horrific murder of French journalists has prompted me to reflect on the meaning of freedom of speech for Muslims among themselves and in their relationships with non-Muslims. Firstly what is ‘freedom of speech’? Are Islamic teachings on this subject compatible with Western ideas? And how should Muslims react when this freedom is used to mock and/or insult what they hold to be sacred?
A simplistic definition of ‘freedom of speech’ is that everyone can give their opinion publicly about any topic and can do so in any way they like including using mockery, satire or insults to get a point across. I recently heard a BBC reporter maintaining that freedom to insults is part of democracy. In the West this dates back to the Reformation when Protestants rebelled against the overbearing power of the Catholic Church. In the 18th century intellectuals like Voltaire in France led the criticism against the autocratic power of their rulers and the hypocritical priesthood culminating in the violent French Revolution. Thomas Paine wrote a treatise on the rights of man which greatly influenced the American rebellion against the British crown. The idea of freedom of speech was closely related to the rights and freedom of the citizen in opposition to the tyranny of their rulers. As established religious bodies were part of this ruling elite they were also pilloried and satirised. Freedom to criticise gradually became a valued part of secular tradition, as citizens were able to speak their minds without fear of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.
However this freedom is not and can never be absolute. Some types of insult are libellous and subject to the laws of libel. In times of conflict and war conscientious objectors or people sympathetic to the enemy were imprisoned. For example during the Second World War, Nazi sympathisers were proscribed. In modern Britain one can be prosecuted or at least ostracised for racist, homophobic statements or incitement to religious or racial hatred, especially anti Semitism. But it is not illegal to mock or criticise or even insult religious figures who are no longer living. This is even regarded as ‘a bit of fun’. The film ‘Life of Brian’ was a satire on the life of Jesus Christ which offended many Christians, even if most ignored it. Also, in practice freedom of speech is very much dominated by the media, whose editors & controllers can pick and choose what to publicise and what to ignore. So the general public, believing that they are ‘free’ to say and believe what they like are in fact being manipulated. For example, the media have often chosen to play down atrocities committed against Muslims abroad (such as Palestine, Burma, Chechnya and China) or have just mentioned them in passing on stations which the general public do not watch or listen to.
In Muslim countries the tradition of freely criticising the government has not developed to the extent it has in the west since most governments have suppressed it. But there is a long tradition of questioning and discussing religious issues. Criticising or mocking religious figures has taken the form of satirical stories or allegories (such as Mullah Nasreddin) but has never extended to mockery of God or the Prophets, especially not the Prophet Muhammad(s). I believe this is because most Muslims still have a strong sense of the sacred.
They may mock mullahs, imams and ulama because these are men and may be hypocritical, power hungry, in league with a corrupt government etc, but the holiness of the Almighty and integrity of his Prophets are never in doubt. However the Holy Qur’an is quite clear that calling the Prophet(s) mad or a liar or soothsayer is unacceptable. So a Muslim may question God or the Prophets but NEVER insult them. On this point, Muslims cannot agree with the Western free for all. Christians and people of other faiths once believed the same and many still do.
So if we Muslims are upset by mockery and insults towards what we hold most sacred, how can we react? As we have seen, a minority of Muslims believe in using violence against the perpetrators, claiming that in doing so they are carrying out the injunctions of the Holy Qur’an to take action by force, if there is no legal recourse. In fact their actions are also fuelled by rage against their helplessness.
Their attacks give them a feeling of empowerment. The majority of Muslims are rightly horrified and fearful for their own safety from the inevitable backlash. At this moment, thousands of Muslims are trying to flee to the west because of wars, barbarities and poverty in their own countries. Some of these have been provoked by Western countries, but we still need to recognise that in the main we have actually benefitted from freedom of speech and may practice our religion within the laws of the country we live in.
Let us look at our original teachings on this subject. Firstly the Holy Qur’an emphatically states that ‘there is no compulsion in religion/spiritual paths.’ No one can be forced to follow any religion. Also we are specifically told that different tribes and nations were created ‘so that we might know each other.’(49:13) We are told to speak to opponents in a gentle way and not provoke them. “When the ignorant address you, reply to them ‘Peace’” (25:63) The Prophet(s) reacted to insult with dignity and often forgiveness. He did his utmost to come to an accommodation with his opponents, and did not rise to provocation. Most of them have been forgotten while his name and leadership is still alive in the world.
As for mockery of God, He needs no defence or vengeance; for every one of us will eventually face death whether we like it or not. It is true that we are entitled to self-defence, but murdering civilians is neither legal according to Shariah nor appropriate. Instead of showing people the nobility of original Islam, it has the very opposite effect! We need to campaign for justice for oppressed Muslims in different parts of the world without using counter-productive violence and educate our young people to be self-reliant, self-respecting and able to explain the true teachings.
Following the example of the Prophet(s) is the best way of showing people in the west the truly Islamic way of reacting to insult. Most of them are ignorant of this because we have not done enough to convince them that Islam is not a violent religion. We do also need to examine ourselves; are we living up to the great example given to us? –