Freedom of Speech: A Core Islamic Value!

Epigraph:

And if you are in doubt as to what We (Allah) have sent down to Our servant (Muhammad), then produce a Chapter like it, and call upon your helpers besides Allah, if you are truthful.  (Al Quran 2:24)  

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Those of us, who have seen the Message movie, about the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and most of the Muslims have, would recall a scene, when the companions of the Prophet are saying the creed of Islam, in the courtyard of Kaaba, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet of God,” and the non-Muslim Meccans start throwing stones at them and start beating them.

This physical struggle is going on as the main character of the movie, who is uncle of the prophet Muhammad, Hamza, who is not a Muslim yet, enters the courtyard of Kaaba and says tauntingly to Abu Jahal, one of the main leaders of the Meccans, “He is the bravest man in the desert, when he meets unarmed men!”  Abu Jahal retorts, “Muhammad is a liar,” to which Hamza responds, “Where is the lie and where is the truth, when it has not been spoken yet.  You do not let him speak.”

We find in the early history of Islam and all of the Holy Prophet Muhammad’s life that he was a great champion of free speech.  How else would he propagate his religion, in Arabia?

The religion started with one man and everyone else was on the other side of the river, in a manner of speaking.

The famous British apologist for the Holy Prophet Muhammad, Thomas Carlyle wrote in his book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History:

Much has been said of Mahomet’s propagating his Religion by the sword. It is no doubt far nobler what we have to boast of the Christian Religion, that it propagated itself peaceably in the way of preaching and conviction.  Yet withal, if we take this for an argument of the truth or falsehood of a religion, there is a radical mistake in it. The sword indeed: but where will you get your sword! Every new opinion, at its starting, is precisely in a minority of one. In one man’s head alone, there it dwells as yet.  One man alone of the whole world believes it; there is one man against all men. That  he take a sword, and try to propagate with that, will do little for him. You must first get your sword! On the whole, a thing will propagate itself as it can.

There are at least five places, where the Holy Quran claims its uniqueness and puts out a challenge to non-believers to produce its equal:

And if you are in doubt as to what We have sent down to Our servant, then produce a Chapter like it, and call upon your helpers beside Allah, if you are truthful.  (Al Quran 2:24)

Do they say, ‘He has forged it?’ Say, ‘Bring then a Surah like unto it, and call for help on all you can besides Allah, if you are truthful.’  (Al Quran 10:39)

Do they say, ‘He has forged it?’ Say, ‘Then bring ten Chapters like it, forged, and call on whom you can beside Allah, if you are truthful.’  (Al Quran 11:14)

Say, ‘If mankind and the Jinn gathered together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like thereof, even though they should help one another.’  (Al Quran 17:89)

Do they say, ‘He has fabricated it?’ Nay, but they would not believe.  Let them, then, bring forth an announcement like this, if they speak the truth!  (Al Quran 52:34-35)

This challenge has never been met in fourteen hundred years, but, there is another aspect to this challenge.  This enshrines the freedom of speech of every non-believer in the eyes of everyone who believes in the Holy Quran to be the literal word of God.

If this is not freedom of speech, I do not know what is!  Any man has a God given right to produce the equal of ‘word of God,’ even though Allah says that no one can succeed at this.

Prof. Laura Vaccia Vaglieri, who was a professor at the University of Naples, has the following to say in praise of the Holy Quran:

For the book, besides its perfection in form and method, proved itself beyond imitation even in its substance. In it, among other things, we read a forecast of future events, and a description of events which had taken place centuries before but were generally ignored. There are frequent references to the laws of nature, to various sciences, both religious and secular. We find there vast stores of knowledge which are beyond the capacity of the most intelligent of men, the greatest of philosophers and the ablest of politicians. For all these reasons the Quran could not be the work of an uneducated man, who had spent all his life in the midst of an unrefined society far away from men of learning and religion, a man who always insisted that he was but a man just like any others, and, as such, unable to perform miracles unless he had the help of Almighty God. The Quran could have its source only in Him Whose knowledge comprehends everything in heaven and earth.[1]

But, a permission has been given to every non-Muslim, to claim in any Muslim country that the Quran is the word of Muhammad and not God and that he or she is going to produce its equivalent or something equal to part of it.

No Mullah dare take this right away from them, in defiance of the fact that God gave them this right, Himself.

I suggest that if any Mullah goes against the word of God, he should be charged with blasphemy and given a taste of his own medicine!

On a more serious note, what is blasphemy?  Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as follows:

Blasphemy is irreverence toward a deity or deities and, by extension, the use of profanity.

In Christianity, blasphemy has points in common with heresy but is differentiated from it in that heresy consists of holding a belief contrary to the orthodox one. Thus, it is not blasphemous to deny the existence of God or to question the established tenets of the Christian faith unless this is done in a mocking and derisive spirit. In the Christian religion, blasphemy has been regarded as a sin by moral theologians; St. Thomas Aquinas described it as a sin against faith. For the Muslim it is blasphemy to speak contemptuously not only of God but also of Muḥammad.

The Holy Quran says that Jesus was a noble prophet but also stresses time and again that he was not god and argues against his divinity.

It offers scores of arguments and in one place says that he had human needs, like eating, therefore, he was not God:

The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a Messenger; surely, Messengers like unto him had indeed passed away before him. And his mother was a truthful woman. They both used to eat food. See how We explain the Signs for their good, and see how they are turned away. (Al Quran 5:76)

Now, if a Muslim was to stress Jesus’ human vulnerabilities a little more, by pointing out his birth from female passage or his regular need to attend to call of nature, a zealous court made of right leaning Christians, may find it blasphemous.

This would certainly upset 1.5 billion Muslims that an articulate argument from the Holy Quran got someone on the death row, if the Christians follow the “Muslim,” style of capital punishment for blasphemy.

But, then the Muslims need to examine, what impressions their zealous courts, create for the 5.5 billion non-Muslims.

It seems in our global village, unless, we are to kill all religious discussion and communication, blasphemy laws are not tenable.  Especially, when we appreciate that most communications in discussion forums now occur across country borders, rather than within.

Yet, several recent incidents have drawn international attention to laws and policies prohibiting blasphemy – remarks or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine. In a highly publicized case last summer, for example, a 14-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan was arrested and detained for several weeks after she was accused of burning pages from the Quran.1 In neighboring India, a man reputed to be a religious skeptic is facing blasphemy charges because he claimed a statue of Jesus venerated by Mumbai’s Catholic community for its miraculous qualities is a fake.2 The man reportedly is staying in Europe to avoid prosecution.3 In Greece, a man was arrested and charged with blasphemy after he posted satirical references to an Orthodox Christian monk on Facebook.4

blasphemy-1

Pakistan, India and Greece are not alone in actively pursuing blasphemy prosecutions. A new analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that as of 2011 nearly half of the countries and territories in the world (47%) have laws or policies that penalize blasphemy, apostasy (abandoning one’s faith) or defamation (disparagement or criticism of particular religions or religion in general). Of the 198 countries studied, 32 (16%) have anti-blasphemy laws, 20 (10%) have laws penalizing apostasy and 87 (44%) have laws against the defamation of religion, including hate speech against members of religious groups.

The previous study found that countries that have laws against blasphemy, apostasy or defamation also are more likely to have high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion than countries that do not have such laws. This does not mean that laws against blasphemy, apostasy and defamation of religion necessarily cause higher restrictions on religion. But they do suggest that the two phenomena often go hand-in-hand: countries with laws against blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion also tend to have higher government restrictions on religion and higher social hostilities involving religion.

Despite these wide spread laws in many Muslim countries, the variability in prevalence of these ideas, shows a lack of consensus about punishment of blasphemy and apostasy, among the Muslims.

One of the questions, which Pew asked of Muslims in 38 countries from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, was whether or not they support making sharia the official law in the country. In many countries, the answer was overwhelmingly yes, although Pew notes that many respondents said sharia should apply only to Muslims and, just as importantly, that “Muslims differ widely in how they interpret certain aspects of sharia, including whether divorce and family planning are morally acceptable.” Many respondents reject the stricter laws and punishments for which sharia is often, fairly or unfairly, known in the West. In other words, just because some people say they support sharia law does not mean they want to make their neighbors live in a 9th-century-style caliphate.

Still, amid an otherwise innocuous or even reassuring report, Pew’s study found some disturbing details. One that jumped out for me was the alarmingly high share of Muslims in some Middle Eastern and South Asian countries who say they support the death penalty for any Muslim who leaves the faith or converts to another.

According to Pew’s data, 78 percent of Afghan Muslims say they support laws condemning to death anyone who gives up Islam. In both Egypt and Pakistan, 64 percent report holding this view. This is also the majority view among Muslims in Malaysia, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

It’s important to note, though, that this view is not widely held in all Muslim countries or even among Muslims in these regions. In Bangladesh, another majority Muslim South Asian state that has a shared heritage with Pakistan, it is about half as prevalent, with 36 percent saying they support it. Fewer than one in six Tunisian Muslims hold the view, as do fewer than one in seven Muslims in Lebanon, which has a strong Christian minority.

The view is especially rare among Central Asian and European Muslims. Only 6 percent of Russian Muslims agree that converts from Islam should face death, as do 1 percent of Albanian Muslims and, at the bottom of the chart, 0.5 percent of Kazakhs.

death penalty

Article 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights state:

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
  • Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

As most countries are signatory of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights, one can clearly argue that laws against blasphemy and apostasy are against the spirit of International Law.

Robert P. George wrote in a recent Op-Ed in Christian Science Monitor:

As the UN General Assembly begins its new session, a colossal gulf is again visible – a gulf between what international human rights law and UN resolutions say, and what some member nations do. A concrete effort must be made by the international community to close this gulf.

One glaring example is how some countries treat people who dare to express dissenting views about religion. A number of nations uphold and enforce laws that punish their own citizens for religious dissent or what they view as deviance from sacred norms. Under such laws and practices, dissidents may find their views labeled as blasphemous, defamatory, or insulting to religious symbols, figures, or feelings. If they are tried and convicted, some face draconian punishments, including execution.

But, it seems Mullahs in Pakistan are in love with their blasphemy laws and do not want to give those up, despite the wide spread condemnation that they have received.

Pakistan’s constitutionally mandated Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), in their strange twist of logic, told the government, anyone who wrongly accuses a person of blasphemy against Islam must be executed — a measure intended to protect innocent people who are often killed by mobs.

The CII demanded the measure after endorsing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which allow a death sentence for people found guilty of desecrating the Quran, the Prophet Muhammad, mosques or Islamic beliefs.

It seems that Mullahs want someone to die, if not the accused, at least the accuser!

On the other hand, one finds that there are laws against anti-Semitism and denying of the holocaust, in the West that cherishes its freedoms.

What is so wrong about anti-Semitism and denying of the holocaust that we need to legislate these issues?

May be the answer lies in the 2,000 years history of anti-Semitism in the Christian world, which most recently manifested itself, as holocaust.

Speech against a minority or a twisted presentation of their beliefs can lead to discrimination, exploitation, murder, mayhem and genocide and not necessarily in that order!

So, from this we can draw that no one approves of hate-mongering and sometimes hate-mongering touches the limits of legality.

Perhaps my right to swing my fist or my stick ends where the other man’s nose begins.

Many a problems can be tackled if we follow the Golden rule and allow each one the same rules and stop claiming exceptionalism and veto rights.

It is obvious to everyone that one cannot shout fire in a crowded theater and then there is the saying, ‘loose lips sink ships.’

The phrase originated on propaganda posters during World War II.[1] The phrase was created by the War Advertising Council[2] and used on posters by the United States Office of War Information.[1]

The most famous poster that helped popularize the phrase was created for the Seagram Distillers Corporation by the designer Seymour R. Goff (also known by the pseudonym “Ess-ar-gee” or Essargee).[3] This type of poster was part of a general campaign of American propaganda during World War IIto advise servicemen and other citizens to avoid careless talk concerning secure information that might be of use to the enemy.[4] The British equivalent used variations on the phrase “Keep mum,”[5] while in neutral Sweden the State Information Board promoted the wordplay “en svensk tiger.”

The gist of this particular slogan was that one should avoid speaking of ship movements, as this talk (if directed at or overheard by covert enemy agents) might allow the enemy to intercept and destroy the ships.[6]

There were many similar such slogans, but “Loose lips sink ships” remained in the American idiom for the remainder of the century and into the next, usually as an admonition to avoid careless talk in general.[6][7]

Where the limit of freedom of speech ends and the jurisdiction of ‘Law and Order’ starts and what is proportionate punishment for perjury and like, is up to the learned men and women of Law to decide, after detailed debates in legitimate and respectable courts.

But, I am here to claim that polite exposition of ones religion and exposure of others’ religions, respectfully done, is certainly within the limits of freedom of speech, otherwise, soon enough there will be limits on how to think and perceive!

Epilogue

I believe there should be no blasphemy laws.

There are laws against hate mongering and slander and if someone is accused of those crimes, he or she can be prosecuted under those laws.

I conclude with the following verses of the Holy Quran, where God challenges the non-believers of the time, to bring forth their arguments.  The Quran invites them, to not only bring a few arguments, but to bring a whole book, in favor of what they claim:

Now ask them whether thy Lord has daughters whereas they have sons.

Did We create the angels females while they were witnesses?

Now, surely it is one of their fabrications that they say, ‘Allah has begotten children;’ and they are certainly liars.

Has He chosen daughters in preference to sons?

What is the matter with you? How judge ye?

Will you not then reflect?

Or have you a clear authority?

Then produce your Book, if you are truthful. (Al Quran 37:150-158)

If writing a book against the claims of Allah, in the literal word of God, the Holy Quran, is not freedom of speech, I do not know what is?

Reference

1. Laura Veccia Vaglieri.   An Interpretation of Islam.  First published in 1957.  Goodward books, 2004.  Page 42-44.

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