Why Muslims should embrace free speech, even if it includes insults to their Prophet


3:24 pm - January 7th 2015

by Sunny Hundal    


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Late last year I was invited to speak at the LSE Islamic Society on Islamophobia and the media. Rather than preach to the converted, I decide to challenge my audience by making the case for more free speech, even if included insults to their Prophet.
In light of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo today that has killed over 10 people, I think posting this would be relevant.

—-

Thanks for inviting me. I want to start with this picture. What I find funny is that Muslims and Sikhs are conflated so easily. They all look brown!

The other interesting point to note is how much things have changed. This was acceptable then [in the 1970s] in a way it isn’t now. At least, not about Asians so broadly…maybe Roma.

I found many more such drawings, and to me they do illustrate that Britain has changed a lot since the 70s when the National Front marched unafraid on the streets, and cartoons like these were printed without an eyebrow being raised.

The challenges now are different than the ones our parents faced.

One of those is around free speech – the issue I want to raise today. After all, it was LSE where the recent controversy around the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed was sparked off.

In 2005 I was invited to a debate on Channel 4 after a theatre in Birmingham had to abandon a play because a large mob of angry Sikhs had gathered in protest outside, and some had broken the windows. All this because they said it insulted their religion.

The play – Behzti (‘shame’) – didn’t insult Sikhism, it had a scene where a woman was rapes in a Gurdwara (temple) on stage. Community leaders said the writer, a Sikh woman, was an attention seeker. They said she wrote it deliberately to inflame tensions. They wanted it stopped. I wrote and argued that it should stay open, not only because she was trying to raise an important topic, but because they had no right to close it down. But it was shut down because they were worried about threats and broken property.

I believe we should cherish the right to free speech. We should even understand the importance of the right to criticise, and even insult, religion.

Do I believe in insulting religious people just because they’re religious? No. Do I go around insulting or denigrating religions. No. My mother goes to the temple every day!

What I want is for us to be tolerant of people who insult religion.

Why, you ask. After all, many see the Prophet Mohammed as their family. Why should you tolerate someone who insults your family? Good question.

The problem is we cannot live in a relatively free society without the freedom of speech and freedom to insult each other’s beliefs. In fact, WE – people who are in the minority when it comes to our race or religion – should appreciate and cherish this freedom even more.

Freedom to criticise religion is the same as freedom to practice religion. One cannot exist without the other.

Think about the people who are on the streets spreading Dawah. Think about your right to say that you choose your faith over others because they are false. I want YOU to have the right the right to reject other religions. What if there was no freedom to criticise religion? Well, you couldn’t reject other religions. You couldn’t have people on the streets practicising Dawah.

If the mainstream clamp down on free speech or freedom to criticise religion – its always the minorities who lose out first. If Britain had a law against blasphemy – the first people in jail would be half the imams in the country.

If you appreciate the fact that Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims broadly have the same right as Christians, then you should embrace freedom of speech. If you think people shouldn’t be locked up for expressing fringe and perhaps unpopular opinions, then you should embrace free speech.

And let’s be clear about what I’m referring to here. What about anti-semitism? What about anti-zionism? Be as anti-zionist as you want – you should cherish that right.

Freedom to incite violence against a group of people because of their background – no. Not against Jews, Muslims or Sikhs. But demonising a group of people because of their backgrounds? Well, if we allow that for Jews, it will happen to Muslims too.

Freedom to reject or criticise Islam, Judaism or Sikhism? Yes.

The right to be offended? Yes. You have that right. The right to protest or boycott someone if they insult your religion? Yes. That’s democracy. But the right to censorship? No. Threats of violence against people who do? No. A law against insulting religion. DEFINITELY NOT.

People don’t automatically have the right to shut down a play, close down an exhibition, stop a book being sold, or stop someone from speaking peacefully just because they don’t like it.

Why should you defend this freedom? Because you want… in fact you NEED the right to protest against the government… to speak out and say things the mainstream might find unpopular. The right to expose wrong-doing, even if others don’t like it. When freedom of speech is curtailed, it is always used against minorities first.

I leave you with this. I was talking to a friend yesterday and she said the Prophet Mohammed was the first leader to introduce a pluralist constitution where Jews had the right to their own religion and did not have to believe in Islam. She added, by extension, they were rejecting Islam and rejecting the teachings of the Prophet. It was blasphemy. Yet the Prophet understood the importance of that right.

——

To my relief the audience clapped after, and many students came up to me after to say they agreed with me.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Religion

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Reader comments


It’s all well and good to talk about not beating your breast after enduring a painful mental abuse. Shouldn’t you be targeting the offenders rather than the offended. I support criticism & rejection but I don’t support insults and mockery.

While I agree they should, there’s a big percentage who won’t.
Just listen to the Muslim callers into radio stations who don’t agree with any attacks or violence, but think that we need blasphemy laws to stop people’s feelings being hurt?
That’s just the way it is I think.

Quite, people do have the right to be offended. And, of equal importance, they don’t have the right *not* to be offended. This seems to oft be forgotten.

So does that necessarily imply a right to be offensive? If we accept (as I do) that Charlie Hebdon (et al) had the right to publish cartoons that were wilfully offensive towards many Muslims, then the answer must be yes. I can’t help feeling that many of those (vocally of the political left) who claim ‘je suis Charlie’ lack the consistency to defend the same freedom to offend those they like. I’m not sure, for example, whether someone who demands an end to ‘page 3’ gets to be Charlie.

Nowadays that’s bravely said, Sunny. You say you felt relieved after having said this and received applause rather than … what? … It’s worth examining your own mind as to all the implications of why you felt relieved and what you felt might have happened to you simply for saying something that to most people in England would seem very gentle and reasonable.

Many ordinary people who happened to have been brought up with some form of Muslim culture nowadays feel equally or even more anxious than you did when faced with the energy and zealotry of Salafism that has been propagated over the last 30 years by wealthy interests in the Middle East. Like a moderate vegetarian faced with a hardcore vegan animal rights campaigner, they doubtless are made to feel inadequate in their faith. Even when the hardcore start, as they inevitably do, killing people, the Moderate still feels unable to denounce the farther fringes of their own belief. That would appear a kind of betrayal.

Yet ultimately the Moderate will have to choose which side they are on. Are they on the side of the mainstream, to whom they may not feel they truly belong? Or on the side of the hardcore believer prepared for death and killing in the name of their Cause, the Faith?

The talking heads and apologists can bleat their sophistry and excuses about ‘islamophobia’ all they like, but ultimately the fence is the very worst place to sit and no one will be safe there.

This guy says it beautifully:

http://massimodelpapa.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/nel-mirino.html

5. Robin Levett

@Mohamed:

“I support criticism & rejection but I don’t support insults and mockery.”

Firstly, you seem to be missing the point. You don’t have to support insults and mockery to support the right to insult and mock. You are perfectly at liberty to disagree with what is said; and to express that disagreement in insulting and mocking terms.

Secondly; where do you draw the line between criticism, insults and mockery? There are Christians, for example, who would take the unexceptionable claim that Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the three major Abrahamic religions – share common roots and indeed have much in common, as an insult to Christianity. Do they get to draw that line?

6. Robin Levett

@crunchtime #4:

“It’s worth examining your own mind as to all the implications of why you felt relieved and what you felt might have happened to you simply for saying something that to most people in England would seem very gentle and reasonable.”

Sunny can answer as to whether he felt that rejection or something worse was his fear; but if you believe that everyone in this United Kingdom of ours would agree that what he said was reasonable then you are doomed to disappointment. Whether it’s football or any particular version or tradition of Christianity, there are many many adherents who reject the idea that insults should be met with anything other than actual or threatened violence.

Problem with atheists and so called liberal world is that they misunderstood prostitution of freedom with freedom.Freedom of speech as long as it suits your interests?! Understanding a religion, people must understand that there is emotional and intelectual bond between adherents, followers with prophet and GOD.Its similar to the bond with your immediate family. You can’t ask any one to tolerate anyone or to allow insults of those who they love or respect more than their life.

Remember religion is a system which provide intellectual, emotional, social, physical, financial etc solutions to human life. If you don’t like it for your reasons stop being loosers by mocking it , having fun to manage your frustration and use it as stress management pill for your pointless life.Do you think you are more intelligent , more human that prophets, try to build a better system than religion. You will come to know mocking is as easy as farting !

A Muslim, I didn’t like the content of Charlie Hebdo myself.
I thought it was pretty purile and looked even racist at times.
But even such a great liberal as David Aronovitch has suggested that people like you shouldn’t live in Western countries if you feel like that.
It’s a bit harsh I know. What do you think?

9. Robin Levett

@A Muslim #7:

“You can’t ask any one to tolerate anyone or to allow insults of those who they love or respect more than their life.”

Define “tolerate”, please. If it means “not kill (or even not prosecute) someone for expressing their view”, then of course I can expect anyone to “tolerate” such insults.

You might also reconsider whether you are entitled to a respectful attitude to your personal religion while you express yourself as you do in your second paragraph.

@damon
David Aronovitch is searching idiotic quickfix.The same muslims can say if west doesn’t want terrorist attack in west , stop poking your nose into muslim world. This is global information age, even if you expel all muslims from west and keep mocking, insulting belief,some adherents will cross the sea and do it. One who seek knowledge may criticise and find answers but one who insults or mock is diseased, low esteem, low life.

@Robin Levett
Tolerance is subjective. Look at the policy of this blog . it says homophobic comments will be deleted. Now I use freedom of speech and explain what is homosexuality scientifically.

Nature has bestowed as some sort of pleasure feeling in every metabolism within our body. Sphincter of anus provide this pleasure through relaxation to facilate excretion of feces. This has no role in reproductive system by wasting of sperms. Homosexual men manipulating this pleasure intended for excretion with sexual pleasure.

This comment sound homophobic and will be deleted even though I stated only the fact. It describes tolerance of this blog. It won’t tolerate and affect of my so called freedom of speech. Religion’s tolerance is based on collective common interest of adherents. It is providing spiritual stability to billion, they won’t tolerate anything hurting their core of belief.

Remember human is not mere biological machine as most atheist presume.

11. Robin Levett

@A Muslim #10:

Why, oh why, is it always about sex?

“Tolerance is subjective. Look at the policy of this blog . it says homophobic comments will be deleted. Now I use freedom of speech and explain what is homosexuality scientifically.”

When you do, call me; until then, you are dressing up you religion’s moral choices in a poor facsimile of science.

“Nature has bestowed as some sort of pleasure feeling in every metabolism within our body. Sphincter of anus provide this pleasure through relaxation to facilate excretion of feces. This has no role in reproductive system by wasting of sperms. Homosexual men manipulating this pleasure intended for excretion with sexual pleasure.”

Nature intends nothing; it is not purposive in that sense. Any sensible reading of evolution teaches the lesson that what works, survives. Structures/processes do not evolve “for a (given) purpose”; they evolve because they give a reproductive advantage to their possessors. That presumably is why homosexuality survives despite centuries of repression by adherents to organised religion…

Oh; and anal sex is not exclusively, or even necessarily predominantly, a homosexual practice. While exact figures are not known, assuming 10% (or at least less than 30%) of men are gay, studies have suggested that more heterosexual men (around 30-35%) engage in anal intercourse with female partners than do homosexual men with male partners.

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-sex/201012/heterosexual-anal-play-increasingly-popular

“This comment sound homophobic”

Not homophobic; simply ill-informed.

“and will be deleted”

Errm, no; it’s still here for me to reply to it.

“even though I stated only the fact.”

As I say, when you get around to doing that, let me know.

“It describes tolerance of this blog. It won’t tolerate and affect of my so called freedom of speech.”

You are entitled to speak freely; you are not entitled to a platform or an audience for your speech. As it happens, Sunny has afforded you a platform, and we are (or at least I am) listening; you might want to bear that in mind before wailing about limits to free speech on a privately owned blog.

“Religion’s tolerance is based on collective common interest of adherents. It is providing spiritual stability to billion, they won’t tolerate anything hurting their core of belief.”

Why not? If they truly believe, of course…

“Remember human is not mere biological machine as most atheist presume.”

Do we? News to me. Could you cite to a study demonstrating that, please?

Generally, I get that you don’t want to indulge in gay sex; but nobody is forcing you to. After all, the fact that gay sex is not prohibited in enlightened societies doesn’t make it compulsory in those societies. You are perfectly entitled to follow the dictates of your religion and abstain; but what exactly gives you the right to seek to force others to do so?

If you don’t like homosexual sexual activity, don’t engage in it.

13. Confused_with_all_this

[[We believe in free speech but not your right to abuse our space. Abusive, sarcastic or silly comments may be deleted.
Misogynist, racist, homophobic and xenophobic comments will be deleted.]]

If only some artists applied these rules.

Why should I be allowed to insult Muslims but not gays?

@A Muslim. While I don’t mind chatting with you like this (because to be honest, I’m at a bit of a loose end here) the user name you use is highly conceited of you, and I would say, highly insulting to normal non-fundamentalist Muslims who don’t share your views. It’s like the name a non Muslim provocateur would use to stir up mischief. Or just an internet troll.

But anyway, you are free to have your opinions of course.
What do you think of that odious piece of rubbish called Mizanur Rahman? If you haven’t seen him, type his name into YouTube. He’s another who would insist that he’s just an ordinary Muslim.
The one called ”Life of a non-Muslim in Islamic State” is quite challenging.

16. Robin Levett

@Jim #14:

“Why should I be allowed to insult Muslims but not gays?”

Who says you’re allowed to insult Muslims but not gays?

@damon 15
I did’t say I am fundamentalist, non-fundamentalist, moderate , radical,good, bad or whatever muslim and didn’t say I represent all muslims.I said ‘A Muslim’ thats my identity ! Just like I proved you are hypocritical in approach about free speech, you should prove where I am insulting non-fundamentalist muslim. Please prove it !!!

A Muslim, you seem quite conservative to me.
In religious people (to me) that’s usually bad.
If I was a Muslim, I’d be at most a hardly believing one and might just call myself one for cultural reasons. Like many do I think. There was a very secular sounding woman on that Guardian panel with Sunny Hundal the other night. She identified as Muslim, but she should be free to take as much from that as she wants without someone wagging a finger at her etc. It’s a diverse religion obviously and there isn’t just one way to be a Muslim. Though there is a trend that would like a more Wahabi interpretation of the religion that I would be very much against. Most Pakistanis who came to Britain were Sufis I believe, but many of their children have become more austere. Which is not a good trend.


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