Getting Real About Blasphemy and Free Speech

Source: Huffington Post

By Muslim, professor, doctor and philanthropist

On January 7, gunmen did not just commit the heinous murder of 12 people at theCharlie Hebdo office in Paris; they also unleashed a barrage of extremism on both ends of the ideological spectrum.

On one end are some Muslim leaders, replaying the broken record of “We-condemn-this-and-please-don’t-blame-the-Muslims.”

On the other, media zealots are making this tragedy all about their right to publish anything.

Both sides know that they are selling a facile narrative. It’s time we get real with them.

Muslim leaders should declare Blasphemy Laws as un-Islamic

Don’t give me soft condemnations; say you want to abolish Blasphemy laws. This is at the heart of the debate. From Algeria to Indonesia, many Muslim majority countries have laws to punish any spoken, written, or visible representation that sullies the name of Prophet Muhammad. Offenders face a three-year imprisonment, death penalty or street execution, shaping an intolerant society where personal vendettas are settled under this religious and legal cover.

Pakistan is the poster child of such intolerance. In a country where blasphemy used to be unheard of, Pakistan seems to have become a place of wanton profanity ever since the Blasphemy laws were enacted in 1984. More than 1,000 cases have been filed.

The issue came to a head in 2011 when a 45-year-old Christian woman named Asia Bibi was accused of blasphemy. She denied it. When the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, called for reforming the law, his own bodyguard killed him. Pakistanreacted, but not like France: 50,000 protestors hailed Taseer’s killer as a hero, lawyers showered rose petals at him in the court, politicians refused to touch the Blasphemy laws, and clerics threatened the remaining dissenters. Within months, Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, another vocal opponent of the laws, was also assassinated. The debate ended on gunpoint. Literally.

This ominous mindset is now infiltrating the West. These clerics may not have the legal cover but they do have their pulpits from where they can foment hatred among disillusioned youth. I would not be surprised if such a cleric instigated the two men to attack Charles Hebdo.

Deep down, even these Muslim leaders know the Quran prescribes absolutely no punishment for blasphemy. Instead, it commands, “When you hear the Signs of Allah being denied and mocked at, sit not with them until they engage in a talk other than that” [4:141]. They know Prophet Muhammad faced severe blasphemy — but pardoned the culprits.

Don’t newspapers accommodate the sensitivities of other groups?

Now let’s get real and accept that publishing these specific cartoons has more to do with a calculated provocation and less to do with upholding free speech. Because if it were about upholding free speech, then equally offensive expressions against other minorities would have been published too. But we don’t see — not that we want to see — them mocking the Holocaust. We don’t see them using the F-word for gays or the N-word for Blacks. Instead, we see the media acknowledging the offense and pulling the offensive ads off.

Let’s illustrate the point with just three examples. In 2006, Sony pulled its Dutch PSP ad showing a white woman clutching a black woman by the chin. Why? Because the US critics and NAACP were offended. Next year, Snickers pulled its famous “man kiss” ad — after it played at the Super Bowl. Why? Because the gay community was offended. I saved the best for last. In 1998, DDB, a leading advertising company,apologized and paid thousands of dollars in compensation when Catholics sued them for making a VW Golf ad that mocked Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Why? Because the French Catholic community was offended.

In 2008, Charlie Hebdo fired its famous cartoonists, Siné, on charges of “anti-Semitism.” Siné had merely suggested that President Sarkozy’s son Jean was going to convert to Judaism to marry the heiress of a prosperous appliance chain. And what happened in 2013 when the French Muslims sued Charlie Hebdo for publishing a cover page with the headline, “The Koran is shit – it doesn’t stop bullets?” They were dubbed “Islamists” and given a lecture on free speech.

You see the double standards?

Read further

1 reply

  1. For the Muslim Times’ collection of articles about Free Speech, please click here.

    Several of the articles linked here have comments and discussions on the issue of free speech. I believe that the discussion should start off with the following among other issues at hand:

    European Convention of Human Rights
    I think many of the exceptions for freedom of speech are tackled in the Article 10 of European Convention of Human Rights.
    This Article provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart information and ideas, but allows restrictions for:

    interests of national security
    territorial integrity or public safety
    prevention of disorder or crime
    protection of health or morals
    protection of the reputation or the rights of others
    preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence
    maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary

    We would certainly need the best legal minds humanity can offer to give concrete and legalistic details of the above exceptions that may be acceptable to people of all faiths, ethnicities and nationalities, at least the moderates among them.

    If the Supreme Court Justices do not come to our rescue, may be a good and an accomplished writer can help out with a best selling book. But, the key is to at least, win the moderates, in all the established religions of the world and among the agnostics and atheists.

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