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Defending Free Speech or the Prophet ﷺ ? – Imam Kamil Mufti

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[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]n January seventh a savage shooting in Paris at the office of Charlie Hebdo, a French weekly satirical newspaper, claimed the lives of several people. Reportedly, the first person the attackers killed was a Muslim police officer, Ahmed Merabet.

The event evoked different responses and raised several issues for Muslims.

The easiest issue was how to reconcile violence of this nature with the message of the Prophet of Mercy ﷺ. Every sane Muslim knew what happened that day was a violation of Islam and not Islam.

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Unsure of how to feel or how to react to mockery of the Prophet ﷺ, some Muslims try to ignore such matters altogether. First off, belief in Prophet Muhammadﷺ is the second part of our testimony of faith. Allah describes the believers as those who respect and honor him (Surah al-Fath 48:8-9). There is no question that anyone with a shred of imaan (faith) should feel deeply hurt when our Nabi ﷺ is portrayed in movies and cartoons in the most degrading manner, essentially for corporate profit.

A deeper issue that arose was how to reconcile our faith in Prophet Muhammad and an almost natural defense of freedom of speech, a basic human right.

First thing to note is that mockery of our Prophet ﷺ is not unheard of in our tradition. Throughout the life of Prophet Muhammadﷺ he was ridiculed, insulted, and even attacked by his opponents. The divine instruction to him was clear:

فَٱصۡبِرۡ عَلَىٰ مَا يَقُولُونَ

‘So be patient over what they say…’ (Surah 20:130, 50:39 Muzammil 73:10)

The companions of Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) noted that he was commanded to forgive people’s bad character (Abu Dawud). Out of the numerous recorded cases, we will present two. Ibn Kathir, the famous scholar of the Quran, records an instance in which the Prophet ﷺ was mocked. One time, the Prophet ﷺ got so ill that he could not stand up for one or two nights, so a woman came and said, ‘I think your shaytan (devil) has abandoned you!’ At this Allah revealed,

وَٱلضُّحَىٰ ١ وَٱلَّيۡلِ إِذَا سَجَىٰ ٢ مَا وَدَّعَكَ رَبُّكَ وَمَا قَلَىٰ ٣

‘By the forenoon and by the night when it is still, your Lord has neither forsaken you not hated you.’

In another instance, someone asked, “O Messenger of Allah ﷺ , pray against the idolaters!” The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “Indeed, I was not sent to invoke curses, but rather I was only sent as mercy.” (Muslim)

Secondly, how should we respond to mockery of our Prophet ﷺ? What answer do we find in our faith to this conundrum in a way compatible with our religious demands and existential reality? The answer of the Quran is essentially ‘Yes, you must react. You react with dawa, not terror,’ as Allah tells us,

ٱدۡعُ إِلَىٰ سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِٱلۡحِكۡمَةِ وَٱلۡمَوۡعِظَةِ ٱلۡحَسَنَةِۖ وَجَٰدِلۡهُم بِٱلَّتِي هِيَ أَحۡسَنُۚ

“Call people to the way of your Lord with wisdom, good teaching, and argue with them in the most courteous way” (an-Nahl 16:125)

When someone insults our religion, we must remove their ignorance with dawa, treat their arrogance with wisdom and education, and make them love Islam by interacting with them with the very manners of the Prophetﷺ they make fun of. Killing in the name of the Prophet ﷺ is not the response sanctioned by our religion. Those who react with violence did not read 114 chapters from Quran, and if they did, they did not understood, and if they understood, they did not follow it. Some people ask, what if people continue with their mocking? The Quran teaches us to simply dismiss and ignore:

إِذَا سَمِعۡتُمۡ ءَايَٰتِ ٱللَّهِ يُكۡفَرُ بِهَا وَيُسۡتَهۡزَأُ بِهَا فَلَا تَقۡعُدُواْ مَعَهُمۡ حَتَّىٰ يَخُوضُواْ فِي حَدِيثٍ غَيۡرِهِۦٓ

“When you hear them deny and ridicule the verses of Allah do not sit with them until they enter into another conversation.” (Quran 4:140)

But, a general guidance of more da’wa and education is not enough. To dig deeper, it is important to understand how the issue was framed in the minds of the people Muslims should engage with. For that, we must understand two matters:

First, how did the corporate media frame the events of January? The event was immediately framed as an attack on free speech, a clash between Islam and a cherished value held so dear by Europe. The message was that Europe is enlightened, but Islam is a backward, intolerant relic of the dark ages. Europe is civilized, whereas the other refuses to be civilized.

Second, every Muslim who wishes to build a deeper understanding must know some basic facts about freedom of speech:

  • Freedom of speech does not mean unregulated speech.
  • No society has ever existed where speech has not been limited to some extent. Each society, each country, including liberal democracies, limit what can be said because of the harm and offense that unregulated speech can cause.
  • The main advocate of ‘freedom of speech’ was a 19th century British philosopher, John Stuart Mill. In his book On Liberty even he acknowledged that it must be limited by what he called ‘the harm principle.’ It is because of his influence that hate speech (like racist slurs and anti-Semitism) is not covered under freedom of speech.
  • Laws are in place that prevent Holocaust denial in many countries.

Many Muslims felt that freedom of speech is selective when it comes to them. First, the very newspaper which mocked the Prophet under the guise of free speech fired a cartoonist who published an anti-Semitic article in 2008. Second, the president of France who called it an attack on freedom, supported the banning of a French comedian who was considered anti-Semite in 2014; his nationwide tours were banned. Third, during the summer Israel-Gaza conflict, France became the first country in the world to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Forth, in the aftermath of the events, there was a Twitter hashtag, #killAllMuslims. Some Muslims wondered, how come calls to eliminate them are made without any consequence, but they will never be tolerated against any other minority, religious or otherwise? Anti-Semitism is illegal to prevent sentiments of 14 million Jews from being hurt. Therefore, the question some people ask is, ‘what about the sentiments of 1.6 billion Muslims hurt by those who mock their Prophetﷺ ?’

Others argue that anti-Semitism is legally banned because of the violence it can generate. People point to two recent incidents of anti-Muslim bigotry generating hate and violence. For example, 30,000 extremists recently marched against Muslims in Germany. Also, bigots attacked three mosques in Sweden a few weeks prior to Paris attacks, one was set on fire.

Lastly, there is a debate whether such cartoons are a form of hate speech. Those who say they are, take their inspiration from history. In the 1930s segregated America, on the one side people who controlled the power structure were burning blacks and severely limited their job opportunities, and on other they were also depicting them in cartoons as dumb, violent, lazy, thieves who looked like monkeys. Nazi Germany did the same with Jews. Today, for good reason, a cartoon showing a black man as a zoo animal or a Jew as an evil banker will never be accepted. Muslim minority in France is mostly made of immigrant North Africans. A powerless underclass, they are similar in many ways to the African Americans in the 1930s and the Jews in Nazi Germany. They have been moved to live in slums, good paying jobs are out of reach for the most qualified, and hijab is severely limited in the public sphere. That context is what makes such cartoons a form of hate speech in their view.

The Solution

In 2013, in a rare show of unity, the Ummah came together in an attempt to redraw the existing boundary between hate speech and freedom of expression. 57 Muslim countries, under the banner of OIC, came with a 97 page document to extend these laws to Islamophobia. Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN at the time summed it up brilliantly, ‘Islamophobia has to be treated in law and practice equal to the treatment given to anti-Semitism.’

Educated at the University of Texas at Austin and Mauritania and Egypt, Imam Mufti is a pragmatic, moderate, and conservative writer and educator on orthodox Islam. Passionate about promoting tolerance among diverse Muslim schools of thought and interfaith harmony through education, he has served as a Resident Scholar at the Islamic Foundation of Peoria (IFP), IL, for the past six years, where he has worked towards community building and countering Islamophobia.

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Muslimah DownUnder

    March 1, 2015 at 6:51 AM

    Salaam
    This is a debate that happened in Australia. The topic was, ” God and his prophets be protected from insult”. Both teams had amazing points. It’s seriously a worthwhile watch.

  2. Muslimah DownUnder

    March 1, 2015 at 6:52 AM

    Salaam
    This is a debate that happened in Australia. The topic was, ” God and his prophets be protected from insult”. Both teams had amazing points. It’s seriously a worthwhile watch.
    http://www.abc.net.au/tv/bigideas/stories/2014/01/31/3934900.htm

  3. shagoofa

    March 2, 2015 at 8:59 AM

    Imam wow muslims r forevr saying there r 1.8 billion muslims and how many jews are around in the world???? so when u compare muslim issues to jews it shows ur anti jewish bias .We need to look inward and counter our issues ,Pakistni ambassdor is hardly the one to talk about islamphobia in his country muslims kill each other by dozens so plz give us a break , its pple like u who r directy responsible for the sad state of muslim world

  4. RP1

    March 3, 2015 at 4:18 AM

    I wonder if those 57 Muslim countries extend their blasphemy laws is such an equal way…I think not

    • Carlos

      March 6, 2016 at 6:48 AM

      Read the Quran with ur conscious plz

  5. Susan Harr

    March 7, 2015 at 2:11 PM

    Well said, Iman Mufti. A very clear, considered and sensible article. I am not a Muslim, but have every sympathy with those who were deeply hurt by the vulgar cartoons of your Prophet (PBUH). I have worked and lived in Muslim countries and have a deep affection for the Middle East and its way of life. Please also note that in the UK (my country) we do NOT ban the hijab or the full veiling of women. It is left entirely to individual choice. I do not understand the French!

  6. veber

    March 8, 2015 at 4:39 PM

    My husband’s great great great grandfather is The Prophet pbuh. I am never going to allow cursing of a related family member. He is a dear and highly respected member of the family. He is not a figment of imagination that you can make a mockery of. He is someone’s beloved.

    • June

      March 8, 2015 at 8:33 PM

      Sister, HONESTLY I do not question the validity of your claim (there are no less than millions of people who are legitimately related the the prophet (saw)), I only sincerely advise you more carefully consider you wording. Perhaps just say that your husband can trace his lineage back to the prophet (saw). “Great, great, great grandfather”, if you are being reasonable with everybody’s ages, at best goes only about as far back as the early 1800s. Even with the generous assumption that your husband is 80 and each generation had a kid at the age of 50 only gets you as far back as the 1600s. So, either each generation lived to be nearly 300 (having kids in their late 200s) or there are clearly a few more generation to go. Unless of course you mean the “prophet” Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (which would coordinate with the claim of great, great, great grandfather) in which case I have quite a lot more to say that I will leave unsaid.

  7. Mike

    December 5, 2015 at 5:03 PM

    So, you want to make criticizing Islam or Muhammad illegal. How is this “moderate”?

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