It Is Not Freedom of Expression

The terms ‘Freedom of Speech’ and ‘Freedom of Expression’ have been exploited to their maximum in many societies in the recent past. In the name of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, people of different nations in the West, in particular, have ridiculed the fundamental and sacred beliefs of Muslims in various ways. Burning copies of the Holy Qur`an, using abusive language against the prophet who was sent for the whole humanity, Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and making objectionable and condemnable cartoons of the said prophet are among the top such exploitations of the mentioned terms. 

This piece aims to explain that the way Muslims see their religion is different from the way non-Muslims see Islam or their own religions. For instance, it is common in many religions to make cartoons, animated movies, films, and drama serials on the main characters and preachers of their respective religions. However, Islamic scholars in particular, and a majority of Muslims in general consider it forbidden, a major sin to even draw a single physical or facial feature of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), let alone any cartoon or caricature of him. 

This is a reason even the famous film ‘The Message’, which describes the struggle and the challenges the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) faced in the efforts of preaching Islam among Arabs, has carefully not shown the face of the holy prophet, as it would have surely hurt religious sentiments of Muslims across the globe. It could also cause outrage among them. People in the West, in particular, and other societies in general, should understand this and stop derogatory acts against the fundamental beliefs of Muslims in the name of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. 

A large section of Muslims in general considers the international community indifferent toward the breach of their sentimental and fundamental beliefs. They see the international community`s silence over Israeli apartheid in the occupied lands of Palestine, Indian genocide against Kashmiris, and American invasions of Afghanistan (2001- 2021) and Iraq (2003) as a few reasons for their consideration. A sharp rise in Islamophobia in recent decades has further multiplied the sentiments of being marginalized among them. For instance, a Muslim is immediately labeled a terrorist for a crime for which a Christian or follower of any other religion is considered mentally ill. It needs to be understood and is common sense that Muslims are not immune to mental illness. 

What sows more seeds of alienation between Muslims and the rest are derogatory remarks about the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), whom they consider the prophet for the whole of humanity. Though the continuous insult of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Holy Qur`an – the sacred book of Islam, are also a failure of Muslim majority states and their leaders too. Still, such insults keep the thought of ‘us versus them’ alive, which is against the very tenet of a Liberal World Order, where every individual is supposed to matter. 

Imagine the Islamic Republic of Iran banning the wearing of hijab in public. Many countries in the West will surely hail such a step, though it might cause unrest within Iran. However, the international media won`t react the way it reacted to the killing of a young girl there recently. Iran may also get appreciation from a large segment of academia. We might not be surprised if the US President Joe Biden himself congratulates Iran`s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on such a bold decision. Now imagine the same Republic banning the wearing of jeans and t-shirts in public, calling it something against its culture. Many or almost all the Western nations will surely condemn such a step, the response of the international media is pretty much guessable in such a case, and we won`t be surprised if the US President Joe Biden himself condemns Iran and it`s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for such a bizarre decision. 

Something similar has been happening around. Nations that are banning the wearing of hijab, calling hijab not a part of their culture, are either appreciated or the international community remains indifferent to such bans. A few examples are France, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Netherlands, Bulgaria, Sri Lanka and India, where wearing hijab has either been prohibited in public or in schools. Unsurprisingly such bans have hardly received any criticism, let alone condemnation from the power quarters of the globe. Though it is affirmed by the majority of Islamic scholars as also mentioned in the Holy Qur`an that wearing hijab is a religious obligation in Islam. Banning hijab surely creates a distance between Muslims and that very society that bans it.

Burning copies of the Holy Qur`an and making caricatures of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in the name of freedom of expression are also factors that cause an emotional dent in the religious sentiments of Muslims around the world. Holy Qur`an itself disallows mockery of prophets, as believing in all prophets is also a fundamental belief of Muslims, as well as disrespecting sacred beliefs of non-Muslims and their scriptures, which they consider divine and sacred. 

As far as terrorism is concerned a famous 512-pager ‘Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings’ by Shaykh ul Islam Dr. Muhammad Tahir ul Qadri, who has some 450 published works and over 6,000 lectures mostly on theological subjects, declares terrorists and suicide bombers unbelievers. He also states that as per Gallup polls conducted post 9/11, 93 percent of Muslims around the world called the 9/11 attacks unjustified, while 7 percent defended the attacks for political reasons, not religious ones. The fatwa also states that major Muslim religious leaders publicly spoke immediately after 9/11 and still speak against the attacks on Pentagon and the World Trade Center but they hardly get attention, if at all they get any, from the international or Western media. 

Dr. Timothy Winter also known as Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, stands 44th on the list of the world`s 500 most influential Muslims 2023. He is currently serving as a lecturer of Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and as Director of Studies in Theology at Wolfson College. He calls Osama Bin Laden and his right-hand man Ayman Al Zawahiri unqualified and un-Islamic vigilantes and violators of basic Islamic teachings. He clearly states, “A jihad can be proclaimed only by a properly constituted state; anything else is purely vigilantism.” He further emphasizes that groups like Al-Qaeda use “lists of anti-American grievances and of Koranic quotations referring to early Muslim wars against Arab idolators,” which is against the methods of Islamic scholarship.

In short, Muslim scholars and a majority of Muslims should not be represented by less than some 0.01 percent of them. Imagine all the 1.9 billion Muslims following Al-Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State version of Islam, will the world even exist? The answer is a plain no. Because if every Muslim starts believing that suicide bombing and killing non-Muslims is an easy and confirm route to Jannah then at least each one of them will die killing at least four non-Muslims with them. Which will ultimately ensure no human existence on Earth. But if it is not happening then it simply means that those 0.01 percent or even less than that cannot and should not represent all of us. Like a single person Yogi Adityanath should not represent all the Hindus around the globe. Similarly, all Christians cannot be considered adventurists and war-mongers just because Adolf Hitler was one of them nor all the Jews can be labeled occupiers, and murderers because Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennet are Jews. 

To conclude, the way Muslims see Islam is different from the way non-Muslims see their religions. There are numerous fatwas that prohibit drawing any feature of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Holy Qur`an is Islam`s divine scripture, which is regarded as the most sacred book among Muslims. A great number of Muslims and Islamic religious leaders consider wearing hijab an obligation in Islam. Therefore, mockery or derogation of the said personality, burning copies of the said scripture, banning hijab, and seeing Islam as a violent religion that supports terrorism, are anything but freedom of expression. 

For this reason, the Muslim World in particular, and the international community in general should communicate on such sensitive matters before adopting or supporting any such policy, statement, or act. A terrorist should be labeled a terrorist irrespective of his/her affiliations with any religion or ethnicity. Insult to religious sentiments of any religious group should not be considered or treated as part and parcel of freedom of expression, and face coverings should be allowed to those who do so for religious reasons. Because the ultimate aim is to make a Liberal World Order possible, where everyone is a global citizen, and where every individual matters.

[Photo by Felton Davis, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

The author is a research fellow at Balochistan Think Tank Network, Quetta, Pakistan.

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