Monday, January 26, 2015

Free speech and sensitivities: some thoughts

In the hours following the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, debates were ignited as to the limitations on speech. Catch phrases were inserted throughout the world media discourse such as "freedom of speech" "Human rights" "democratic values". As if on a pre-arranged schedule, videos emerged in which Al-Qa'eda's Yemeni branch took credit. In addition to this, oddly enough, one of the attackers in the Paris fiasco did a video in which he declared his loyalty to ISIS [ft.1].

From the wider Muslim world, we saw condemnations of the attacks as well as Muslims marching to protest the initial caricatures of the Prophet in the first place. In Grozny, Chechnya, for example, there was a reported 800,000 Muslim protestors condemning the rather crude, distasteful cartoons.

There is a polarization taking place, it has been happening for a long time now. Radicals on all sides of any issue are the ones which get the media attention and it is they who are, unfortunately, defining the parameters of the argument. Nuances are lost, distortions and emotional outbursts are what's prevalent in the public discourse.

Flagrant hypocrisy

Making fun of Muslims and their Prophet [Muhammad, upon whom be peace and blessings] in the name of free speech is very hypocritical, especially when one considers that holocaust denial in EU nations [and other places] is a crime, even to dispute the official numbers of the victims is deemed offensive and worthy of prosecution. [ft.2]

These cartoons were clearly designed to provoke responses, inflame the Muslim street. Perhaps there are more sinister hands at play here, seeking to create controlled chaos, in order to achieve short and long term political goals.[ft.3]

So just how should Muslims respond?

The Qur'an tells us that the Prophet was insulted, and it even records some of those insults, but it says that a Muslim should simply leave the company of the mockers until they return to their senses [Q 4:140].  It also states that Muslims should respond with 'peace' when confronted by ignorant people [Q 25:63]. Indeed, the Qur'an even instructs Muslims in their behavior with Non believers, telling us not to even ridicule idols, because that may enrage the idolaters when there is no need to do so. [Q 6:108]

The Muslims have to realize that not  every insult deserves a response. Frankly, this was one of those times. Any sensible reader would look at the cartoons and take away from that a disgust with the publishers, as it was all in bad taste and beyond civilized behavior.

Moreover, the 'Ulamaa [Muslim scholars], whom we are told in tradition act as the inheritors of the Prophets, have a responsibility to engage in education and outreach. This is especially true in Western nations. Mosques should arrange tours, open houses, speeches and presentations in the wider society, in venues such as universities, Churches, and the like. The Muslim scholars should submit articles to local and international newspapers on Islamic teachings, on the life of the Prophet, and other issues.  If the media won't publish their articles, write letters. One is bound to be published. In addition, Muslims should show their faces, get themselves involved in local communities, with like-minded Non Muslims who have interest in issues relating to social justice, reconciling parties, and so forth. Religion is more than theological truisms, it is something that creates positive energies in the wider society.

The common Muslim should display the highest standards of conduct, and if unable to answer questions on the faith, direct the questioners to correct sources. These responses, while admittedly humble, will go a long way. It is also in line with the broad message of the Qur'an and Prophetic Sunnah.


[1] There is great irony here, because ISIS and Al-Qa'eda are foes. This tidbit makes us question the whole scenario.

[2] For more on Holocaust denial laws, see a summary

[3] I shared a similar thought when the "Innocence of Muslims" was released. See

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are you serious Waheed? I am surprised that I have to explain the difference between Holocaust denial and ridiculing Muhammad and Islam to you.

Imagine if I as a serbian went to bosnia and proclaimed to anyone that would listen that bosnian muslims were lying about the genocide that took place there.

That is the what Holocaust deniers do, its more than merely denying the killing of the jews, its calling all the victims liars.

There is a huge difference between the two and TOO often muslims in their race to ever be the victims conflate the issues.