5 things you need to know about Islam and free speech

Islam is not above criticism, but neither are free speech activists.

Internet Culture

Published Feb 12, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 1:31 pm CDT


The appalling Paris attacks have brought the debate on free speech to the mainstream once again. Charlie Hebdo is being hailed a free speech icon. Free speech fanatics are on a rampage, demonizing anyone who is using their own free speech right to disagree with the content of the magazine, no matter how loud their condemnation of the atrocious violence. Like many other Muslims, I have also been asked to clarify my position on free speech to the point of queasiness. So I’ll let my free speech do the talking.

At the outset, I want to make this clear: It is possible to condemn and grieve the horrific violence in Paris and openly disagree with Charlie Hebdo’s content at the same time. The two are not contradictory. Quite to the contrary, not expressing my honest criticism for fear of backlash would be the real loss for free expression.

As a Muslim, I borrow my understanding on free speech from the teachings of Islam—which I find in complete agreement with my conscience. Here are a few salient points to consider in this regard:

1) Islam is not above criticism

The usual knee-jerk reaction I get when expressing any disapproval of the distasteful cartoons of Prophet Muhammad is: “Listen up you Moozlum! Islam is not above criticism.”

Of course, it is not. No idea is above criticism—not a religious ideology, not the contents of a magazine, and certainly not someone’s differing view on free speech. I am not sure how my calm criticism of what I consider displeasing is translated to a plea to shelter my ideas from criticism. This is a logical fallacy. It does not make any sense. Anyone is free to critique Islam’s ideals and teachings all they want. Far from discouraging this, Islam welcomes intellectual and literary discourse and repeatedly invites mankind to reason. 

Just in the recent past, I have initiated two debates with anti-Islam critics on issues surrounding apostasy and blasphemy laws in Islam. The challenge on the latter has still not been accepted. Rest assured, we do not run from discourse. We welcome it.

2) Pointless ridicule is pointless criticism 

Defining criticism by grisly obscene images of a man sacred to a quarter of the world—and not a critique of his ideas—speaks volumes about the intellectual, ethical, and literary aptitude of some free speech fanatics. If I do not like someone’s ideas, I address them intellectually. I do not depict the person behind the ideas—or their beloved ones—in hideous cartoons to win the case for free criticism. Engaging in such a disgracious act would speak more about my own moral standing—and lack of an intellectual rebuttal—than anything else.

Muslims and non-Muslims live as neighbors in many Western countries. Mutual respect and cultural sensitivity are key to such pluralistic societies.

Let’s say you had a new neighbor one day. You knock on their door and say: “Hey bro, welcome to the neighborhood. I live next door. Oh, and by the way, you look like a pig. And is that your mother behind you? She looks like a fat old donkey. Dinner at my place tonight? Let’s connect?” Any human would be tempted to punch you back. Islam would certainly forbid the punch but would also call the insult pointless in the first place. Thus, if you were punched for insulting your neighbor’s mother, should you be anointed a free speech hero? And should anyone who fails to recognize you one be deemed a free speech enemy?

Equating the “right to free speech” with a passionate “duty to offend” is degrading it.  

Even though we have the right to say offensive things, basic social ethics ask that we don’t. It should not be about how far we can challenge free speech limits. It should be about how far we can raise the intellectual standards of it. The Koran warns: “O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule another people; perhaps they may be better than them…and do not insult one another and do not call each other by offensive nicknames” (Koran 49:11).

Equating the “right to free speech” with a passionate “duty to offend” is degrading it.  Whereas Islam does not punish such offense legally, it questions the need for unnecessary provocation. It lays greater emphasis on mutual respect, imploring society to higher ethical and intellectual standards to promote peace and harmony. The Koran, for example, prohibits worship of idols in strict terms, yet admonishes believers to not abuse them at any cost. The underlying theme is respectful difference of opinion—key to a harmonious pluralistic existence.

3) Free speech comes with responsibilities (and limits) 

Like every right, free speech also comes with responsibilities. Racist, sexist, homophobic, or other hate speech has no place in the civilized world. Even here in America, there are laws forbidding certain forms of hate speech. As for insulting speech, society takes it on itself to discourage and call it out. If standing up for free speech means defying its ethical limits, should those who espouse anti-black bigotry, anti-Semitism, or any other form of bigotry be hailed free speech heroes?

Indeed such bigots have the right to bigoted speech. They have the right to use the “N-word,” mock 9/11 victims, or lampoon Jews and the Holocaust. Extremists in Pakistan have a similar right to glorify the killers of Charlie Hebdo. In turn, society should confront such bigoted abuse of free speech with better speech.

Not everyone agrees free speech must be a social—not legal—liability. France, for example, disagrees. It is one of over a dozen European countries that have criminalized denying the Holocaust. In fact, just days after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, French authorities arrested a comedian over a Facebook post that was considered apologetic of the Charlie Hebdo attackers. In Germany, the daily Berliner Zeitung had to apologize for mistakenly printing a cartoon that offended the Jewish community. Instead, the cartoon was meant to offend the Muslims.

Even radical anti-Islam critics agree they would set limits to free speech. It is not a question then of whether free speech has ethical limits. It is a question of why offending Muslims is any different from offending Jewish, black, or LGBT communities.

4) No anti-blasphemy laws

 “Oh! so Mr. Brownie, you want the West to live under your f***ing blasphemy laws?”

I have actually had this bigoted statement said to me before. No, I am not advocating for anti-blasphemy laws at all. In fact, these laws are against the clear teachings of the Koran. There is no punishment in Islam, let alone death, for offending one’s religious sentiments. This is a matter between man and God. As humans, Muslims are commanded to ignore offensive speech, and look the other way in peaceful self-restraint.

The Koran describes the believers as those who “walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant people address them, they say: ‘Peace'” (25:63). It also commands, “And when [believers] hear vain talk, they turn away therefrom and say, ‘To us our deeds, and to you your deeds; peace be to you, we seek not the ignorant'” (28:55).

Prophet Muhammad’s own example is also a guiding light in this regard. He never punished anyone for offending him or his faith. In fact, he forgave his blood-thirsty enemies when he returned victorious to Mecca, announcing universal amnesty. He also forgave—and led prayers for—the Medinite chief who led a smear campaign against him and his wives.

This is why while a handful of extremists called for violence against Charlie Hebdo, the majority of Muslims simply ignored their offense, responding to the abuse of free speech with better speech.

Most of Europe already has blasphemy laws (e.g., in relation to the Holocaust). I am not advocating for these. If anything, I oppose them.

5) Let us elevate free speech

 “Oh so you want to limit free speech further?”

Not at all! all I ask is to elevate your free speech. If you think your “right to free speech” is defined by a “duty to offend,” you are degrading free speech. Free speech is much more sacred than pointless lampoonery.

As I see it, there are two models of free speech—one laying emphasis on the “need to offend,” and the other emphasizing intellectual criticism and civil dialogue. Let us support the latter. As a society, we have already set an ethical standard that discourages many forms of bigotry. Islamophobia must be recognized on the same par. If it is bigotry to offend Jews and black folks, why is it heroic to offend the Muslims?

The Pope said in a recent speech: “One cannot react violently, but if [someone] says something bad about my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s to be expected. … There is a limit.” He was joking about the punch. Though my faith would prohibit punching the neighbor who comes to my door abusing my mother, I would do one more thing other than calmly closing the door behind me: I would use my free speech to urge him to elevate his own.

And it is this same message I have for the Charlie Hebdos of the world.

This article was originally featured on the Good Men Project and reposted with permission.

Photo via mreham/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Feb 12, 2015, 1:30 pm CST