In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks last year, Western responses varied, both in degrees of harshness of rhetoric and in the weepiness of their condolences, however, there was one major, unifying theme: It was Muslims’ respect for the Prophet and distaste of blasphemy that was the problem at hand, and to solve it, Muslims must abandon this value and not only adopt a indifferent attitude to blasphemy, but an approving response to it as well. In other words, Muslims must be compelled to adopt the oft-quoted Western value of ‘Freedom of Speech’.
But what exactly is freedom of speech? (and what is ‘freedom’ anyways, though that is a wholly more complex inquiry). Because of all the frequently bandied around liberal slogans, ‘freedom of speech’ is perhaps the most nebulous.
We are told that we have the right to freedom of speech within certain limits. What are these limits? The common answer would be that those limitations come into effect when your speech threatens other people’s rights: shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater being a common example. But this is simply not true. For example, Holocaust denial is (rightfully) illegal in 14 European nations. Holocaust deniers are not promoting more pogroms against Jews, but they are callously trying to demean an entire race/religion by ignoring a horrific genocide– at least, that’s why it should be illegal. At yet, there are uncomfortable facts that say otherwise. For instance, European leaders regularly kowtow to China, a country that not merely denies, but celebrates Mao Zedong and his numerous human rights abuses, as well as the “Great Chinese Famine” killed over 20 million people as a direct result of his economic policy. Denial of other genocides, such as in Bosnia or Rwanda is also not illegal, despite the fact that such denial certainly exists. In truth, the real reason denying the Holocaust is illegal is the concept of the “solidarity of Western civilization”, which has, post-WWII, been extended to include Jews. The concept is simple, a modernized form of medieval tribalism: Western nations, societies, and peoples are all intrinsically prized over others. Western communities are one united force, and the lives of those who belong to it, or are favored by those belonging to it are valued more than others. (A pertinent example of this would be the disproportionate focus by the media on non-Muslim victims of Muslim insurgent groups such as ISIS, all but ignoring mass Muslim casualties). It is also they, and they alone who are granted such privileges of “freedom of speech”.
But why, you may ask, why are ‘Westerners’ granted rights that others are not? Is it racism? Nationalism? In fact, it is not any of these things, and the reason is quite simple: Liberal societies only ‘freely’ allows speech that is within the confines of liberalism, and Western society has been indoctrinated by nothing but Liberalism since the Enlightenment.
This is not tolerance. History’s most notorious dictators also ‘freely’ allowed speech, so long as it was within the boundaries of their ideology. There is absolutely nothing spectacular about this whatsoever. The reason Western societies have been able to keep up the facade of “tolerance” for so long is simply because precious few philosophies have emerged in the West that have been able to successfully challenge Liberalism. In the 50s, there was Communism and the associated ‘House of Un-American Activities’ which ruthlessly targeted any person of influence who so much as uttered the phrase “class warfare”. Today, we have David Cameron calling normative Islamic beliefs like the Caliphate “extremist” (and promising he would fight extremism like “world wars”). Burkas, hijabs, and even the Holy Quran itself are being banned all across Europe. Politicians and public figures now openly celebrate magazines and tabloids for running filthy, depraved, and utterly perverted caricatures of the Prophet, and then complain that they are somehow not being allowed to “freely mock Islam”. For example, it was interesting to see how, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the media showed only the most inoffensive (to a non-Muslim) images, deliberately covering up the virulently racist, bigoted and crude content the magazine was known for, in order to further peddle their narrative. It was also intriguing to see how, despite covering President of France, Francois Hollande’s rigorous ultimatum to Muslims to accept “fundamental French values”, such as freedom of expression, not a peep was heard from the media about Hollande supporting the banning of French comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala for antisemitism in 2014, nor of his country’s blocking of pro-Palestinian protesters (despite allowing pro-Israeli ones). I wish I could say that such double standards, such palpable hypocrisy is a betrayal of ‘Western values’, but it isn’t, because there is no such thing as ‘Western values’. There are values that are held by Westerners, but this does not translate into some concept of core values and beliefs intrinsically tied to Western identity. Simply speaking, there is no Book, no code of law that definitively defines Western ethics. Therefore, ‘Western values’ merely serves as a convenient response, often whipped out by Liberal politicians to silence their Muslim populations and get them to conform.
So what is Islam’s position on freedom of expression, and how is it superior to secularism’s perspective? Islam forbids blasphemy absolutely, not only of Islam, but also of non-Islamic and downright un-Islamic belief systems (Quran 6:108) in order to ensure societal cohesion. In other words, hate speech and inflammatory dialogue is prohibited, especially when it relates to religion, because an Islamic state recognizes the overriding presence and authority of the Divine, unlike a secular state, which instead assigns divinity to the man-made (materialism). Also take care to note that intellectual criticism is not considered ‘blasphemy’, and is instead to be vigorously engaged in debate (Quran 29:46). Political dissent is also under sacred protection in an Islamic society, unlike a liberal one. This is at the heart of the Quranic concept of shura (not to be confused with democracy, which some have unfortunately attempted to link together in modern times). The Quran recognizes the tyranny and evil that springs from a dictatorship, absolute monarchy, or a “democratic republic” such as we have in the United States (Quran 27:34).
As can be shown, the Islamic position on freedom of expression is far superior to the secular incarnation, as it guards the Sacred from mockery, ensures societal accord, as well as prohibits the deification of the material, thereby restricting political despotism, very much unlike the West.
“Say, ‘Would you acquaint Allah with your religion while Allah knows whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth, and Allah is Knowing of all things?'” (Quran 49:16)
“And if you ask them, they will surely say, ‘We were only conversing and playing.’ Say, ‘Is it Allah and His verses and His Messenger that you were mocking?!'” (Quran 9:65)