Blasphemy, Islam and Free Speech

Faizur Rahman

By A. Faizur Rahman

There can be no doubt that the murder of middle-school teacher, Samuel Paty, in France earlier this month for displaying cartoons of Prophet Muhammad was an act of sickening brutality. But what makes it even more horrifying is the fact that it was committed in the name of a prophet who is honoured in the Quran (21:107) as Rahmatal Lil Aalameen (embodiment of universal compassion).

Muslim Response

In his New York Times article, Muslims and Islamophobia: Quran Has Many Verses That Command A Courteous Response to Even A Terrible Insult to Islam Islamic scholar Mustafa Akyol reminds Muslims that blasphemy laws were invented by medieval Muslim jurists to punish anyone who insulted their religion but Muslims “don’t have to blindly abide by medieval jurisprudence.” His plea was: “We can defend our faith not with the dictates of power, but the appeals of reason and virtue.”

Muslims have every right to protest against condemnable attempts to defame the Prophet. But they must refrain from violence, for it is the very antithesis of the term Islam, which means peace. Any reaction in defence of the Prophet has to be in accordance with his exemplary conduct which was totally inspired by the Quran. The Quran took note of some of the offensive insinuations hurled at the Prophet by his detractors (25:41 & 38:4-5) but advised him saying, “Have patience with what they say, and distance yourself from them with noble dignity” (73:10). It did not advocate any kind of retaliation against the offenders.

In fact, the Quran did not even criminalise blasphemy. It is the Old Testament which said that “…anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them.” (Leviticus 24:16)

Even the idea of retributive justice (Lex Talionis) has its theological basis in the Hebrew Bible, not the Quran. The second book of the Torah states that in cases of serious injury “you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21: 23-25). The third book goes further. It decrees: “Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. Anyone who injures their neighbour is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.” (Leviticus 24: 17-20).

This crude kind of retributive proportionality was the temporal norm in ancient history. The Quran (2:178), however, tried to reform this law by removing the element of sublimated vengeance from it by saying, “O believers! Legal retribution (Qisas) is prescribed for you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. However, if the convicted person receives pardon from the aggrieved party, the prescribed rules of compensation must be followed accordingly. This is a compassionate concession from your Lord (Takhfeefun Min Rabbikum Wa Rahmah).”

The notion of restorative justice, evident in the verse above, is found repeated in verse 41:34: “And not alike are the good and the evil. Repel (evil) with what is best, and he between whom and you was enmity would become as if he were a close friend.”

The Prophet meticulously followed this divine instruction and did not allow cowardly insults or physical attacks to come in the way of his great mission.

Once on a visit to Ta’if, a small town about 60 kilometres from Mecca, he was mocked and stoned to the extent that he started bleeding profusely. Yet he did nothing more than pray for the well-being of the people of Ta’if and express the hope that their next generation would accept his message.

Historic Treaty of Hudaybiya

Even during the signing of the historic Treaty of Hudaybiya in 6 AH (628 CE) the Prophet displayed his characteristic tolerance and peaceableness when he agreed to all its conditions, including the Meccan demand to sign in his personal capacity and not as the Prophet. His companions were incensed and rejected the blasphemous exaction. But the Prophet in all humility, and in the larger interest of peace, endorsed the pact as “Mohammed, the son of Abdullah” thereby proving his greatness once again. It is no wonder that the Quran (68:4) praised him as the possessor of the most exalted standard of character (Khuluqin Azeem).

The Hudaybiya treaty was such a success for the Muslims that the Quran (48:1) called a clear victory (Fathhan Mubeen). Within a period of two years, it paved the way for the re-capture of Mecca from those who had driven out the prophet. Here again, the Prophet proved true to his divine title Rahmatal Lil Aalameen by declaring a general amnesty after entering Mecca. Even his staunchest enemies who fought wars against him, such as Abu Sufyan and Ikrima ibn Abu Jahal, were forgiven. The result was, anti-Islam forces, having come to know of the peaceful nature of the religion, not only gave up their animosity but became its foremost promoters.

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There is a great lesson in this for Muslims whom the Quran (2:143) calls Ummatan Wasat (a moderate community). They must realise that vituperative attacks on the Prophet, apart from being the work of ignorant minds, is part of an attempt to project Muslims as religious extremists by eliciting violent reactions from them.

The Greatness Of The Prophet

One way of countering this would be to popularise the unimpeachable life history of the Prophet and ask those who seek to defame him through objectionable videos and cartoons to explain how distorting history and spreading lies about a non-vindictive, humane person constitutes artistic freedom.

They must be told how John Davenport, a British scholar, unable to tolerate the demonisation of the Prophet, wrote a 182-page book in 1869 “to free the history of Mohammed from false accusations and illiberal imputations, and to vindicate his just claim to be regarded as one of the greatest benefactors of mankind.” Titled An Apology for Mohammed and the Koran the book, it must be said, was an extraordinarily honest endeavour to acknowledge Prophet Muhammad “as the very greatest man whom Asia can claim as her son, if not, one of the rarest and most transcendent geniuses the world itself ever produced.”

In 1841, almost three decades before davenport, British polymath Thomas Carlyle in his classic work On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History had already recognised Prophet Muhammad as a true prophet. He wrote, “Our current hypothesis about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Impostor, a Falsehood incarnate, that his religion is a mere mass of quackery and fatuity, begins really to be now untenable to anyone. The lies, which well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man, are disgraceful to ourselves only.”

In his book The Humanity of Muhammad: A Christian View published earlier this year, Christian scholar Craig Considine advises his own community saying, “Muhammad’s pluralistic vision for his Ummah, and indeed the world at large, is timely considering the levels of extremism worldwide, particularly as they pertain to the persecution of Christians and other minority populations in Muslim-majority countries. Let me also remind Christian readers around the world that they would be wise to follow Muhammad’s pluralistic and civic ethos in terms of their relations with Muslims. Muhammad’s engagement with humanity can serve as a tool to counter our age of extremism.”

Another Christian researcher Anna Bonta Moreland in her probing study published this year Muhammad Reconsidered: A Christian Perspective on Islamic Prophecy concludes that there is enough latitude in Christian theology to recognise Prophet Muhammad as a prophet of God. Her argument is, “… Christians have internal reasons from within their tradition to take seriously the revelations Muhammad received in Mecca and Medina. In fact, Christians need to take all the resources used to interpret the Bible—historical, anthropological, philological, and theological—and apply them to a Christian reading of the Qur’an.”

Western Hypocrisy

In the light of such dispassionate assessments by eminent scholars Muslims cannot be faulted if they suspect that there is something sinister about the regularity with which hate propaganda against the Prophet emanates from the West. That the mischief-mongers there are leaving no medium unexploited to arouse passions is evident from the sustained unprovoked campaign against the Prophet by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and French weekly Charlie Hebdo.

In September 2005 Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the Prophet which led to widespread protests across the Muslim world. In 2006, Charlie Hebdo reprinted all 12 of the controversial Muhammad cartoons from Jyllands-Posten, adding a few more as an act of defiance. In November 2011 Charlie Hebdo once again mocked the Prophet by making him the imaginary guest editor of an edition named Charia Hebdo which the magazine claimed was intended to criticise the sharia.

But the most despicably vindictive caricatures of the Prophet were published by Charlie Hebdo in September 2012 in support of the anti-Islamic video Innocence of Muslims which was uploaded to YouTube from within USA in July 2012. On September 1 this year the weekly republished the same cartoons to mark the start of the trial that week in the case pertaining to the violent attack on its offices in January 2015. The republication led to another attack on September 25 outside the weekly’s former headquarters in which two persons were seriously wounded. The attacker confessed that he had acted to avenge the republication of the cartoons.

“It was in this cauldron of social and religious turmoil” reported the Wall Street Journal, “that Mr. [Samuel] Paty prepared to give his lesson in early October” on the “contours and limits of free speech.” (Demonstrations Pay Homage to French Teacher Beheaded After Lesson on Charlie Hebdo). From the statement attributed in the Wall Street Journal to Mr. Ricard, the anti-terrorism prosecutor, the two cartoons Paty showed the class were extremely offensive. Perhaps he did not realise that the idea of free speech can be explained without showing defamatory cartoons. Nonetheless, as argued above, Samuel Paty did not deserve to be killed for that. But the “contours and limits of free speech” that he wanted to teach need to be openly debated.

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Defamation Is Not Criticism

Muslims would certainly like to understand why extreme anti-Islam acts come under the umbrella of free speech in countries where even genuine criticism of Zionism is considered an anathema amounting to anti-Semitism.

In August 2012, around the time anti-Prophetic videos and cartoons were being published in the name of free speech, in a blatant attempt to circumvent the First Amendment, the California State Assembly passed a resolution titled HR 35 asking educational institutions to ensure that Jewish students were protected from anti-Semitic discourses on their campuses such as those that project Israel as a racist state “guilty of heinous crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing and genocide…” HR 35 also urged universities to neutralise “student-and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns against Israel that are a means of demonising Israel…” (AMENDED IN ASSEMBLY AUGUST 28, 2012). This was vehemently opposed by the California Scholars for Academic Freedom (An Open Letter: From California Scholars for Academic Freedom).

More recently, documents obtained by The Guardian last year showed how pro-Israel and conservative lobbyists in the US were encouraging state lawmakers to outlaw anti-Semitism in public education, from kindergarten through to graduate universities. The newspaper reported that the proposed definition of anti-Semitism is so wide that, in addition to standard protections against hate speech towards Jews, it would also prohibit debate about the human rights violations of the Israeli government (Revealed: rightwing push to suppress criticism of Israel on US campuses). A couple of days ago, Canada’s largest online news site, The Star, published a report highlighting the suppression of moderate voices criticizing Israel in Canadian Universities (Controversies at U of T Law, York University highlight escalating suppression of moderate voices criticizing Israel).

One fails to understand why Western societies which otherwise, make no attempt to conceal their pro-Israel bias are so unwilling to differentiate between genuine criticism and defamation.

Article 12 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to the protection of the law against arbitrary attacks upon his honour and reputation.

Similarly, Article 19(3) of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights lays down that the right to freedom of expression is subject to certain restrictions to protect “the rights or reputation of others” and “for the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals”. Article 10 (2) of the European Convention on Human Rights inter alia states that freedom of expression “since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society…”

Articles 32 of France’s own Law of 29 July 1881 on the Freedom of the Press defines defamation as any allegation or accusation of a fact that causes an attack on the honour or consideration of a person. When directed at private persons, defamation is punishable with a fine of €12,000. (Paragraph 3: Crimes against people. (Articles 29 to 35 quater) and Criminal Defamation

If so much care requires to be taken to safeguard the reputation of living persons, are not dead people — who cannot defend themselves — entitled to equal if not more protection?

Thankfully, Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) offers such a protection to the dead. Explanation 1 of this Section states: “It may amount to defamation to impute anything to a deceased person, if the imputation would harm the reputation of that person if living, and is intended to be hurtful to the feelings of his family or other near relatives.”

Videos such as Innocence of Muslims and cartoons such as those published in Denmark and France do not represent a critique of Islam. They are a bundle of outrageous lies about the Prophet and therefore, cannot enjoy protection under free speech laws. One wonders why Western societies refuse to legally protect the reputation of Prophet Muhammad when at least 16 European countries have laws against Holocaust Denial to secure the honour of European Jews killed in the horrific Nazi genocide. It is time the West, especially an Emmanuel Macron-led “Christian” France, realised that a permanent state of conflict with Islam bodes ill for global peace.

A. Faizur Rahman is secretary-general of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought Email: email.faiz@gmail.com Twitter: @FaizEngineer

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