Different Opinions As Blessings
Contrary to the practice of authoritarian regimes in Muslims lands, Islam stands for unfettered freedom of expression. The ultimate goal of all speech, according to Qur’an and Sunnah, is to vindicate truth and protect human dignity. Muslims have the right to protest, accept or reject ideas, and even contest the Islamic teachings. The Prophet encouraged it by saying, “Differences in my Ummah are a blessing”, and our predecessors openly discussed and debated their affairs without any fear or restrictions, whatsoever.
The Qur’an calls freedom a sacred human right bestowed by God, as expressly stated in the following verse: “Say, “The Truth is from your Lord”: Let him who will, believe, and let him who will, reject (it)” (Al Kahf 18:29). As such, even when we know something is true and it is from the One on-high, it is not imposed on us and we are given the right to freely accept or reject it.
It does not allow compulsion in any form or shape, and belief must remain completely one’s own choice: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error, whoever rejects Evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks. And God hears and knows all. ” (Al Baqarah 2:256).
One of God’s attributes is Al-Haq - The True and Right One. Muslims should follow this attribute, stand by the truth, and work for the causes of truth in order to attain good: “O You who believe! Fear God, and (always) say a word directed to the Right: That He may make your conduct whole and sound and forgive your sins: He that obeys God and His Messenger, has already attained the highest Achievement.” (Al Ahzab 33:71).
The Qur’an instructs us to be with those who are truthful and uphold truth: “O You who believe! Fear God and be with those who are true (in word and deed).” (Al Tawbah 9: 119).
And it warns us against speaking ignorantly on a subject without any knowledge: “And pursue not that of which you have no knowledge; for every act of hearing, or of seeing, or of (feeling in) the heart will be enquired into (on the day of reckoning).” (Al Isra’ 17:36).
We should avoid suspecting others, not to spy on anyone, and not to backbite: “O You who believe! Avoid suspicion as much (as possible): for suspicion in some cases is sin: and spy not on each other, nor speak ill of each other behind their backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, you would abhor it …But fear God: For God is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.” ( Al Hujurat 49:12).
However, freedoms are tempered by moral and legal constraints, except in cases where injustice is committed, such as told in the following verse: “God loves not that evil should be noised abroad in public speech, except where injustice has been done; for God is He who hears and knows all things.”(Al Nisa’ 4:148). Thus what may spread evil should be avoided, except in a situation when a person is seeking justice.
Based on the above considerations, Islamic jurists have deduced that everyone has the right to exercise freedom of expression as long as it does not intrude on the freedom and dignity of others. And no one is granted the right to use abusive or offensive language in the name of freedom of speech.
This is the right course that Islam prescribes and is adopted by any society based on rules and regulations and follows for what is impermissible in speech and other behaviors of a person. Almost all countries have laws against incitement to commit crimes, and have restrictions on libel or slanderous speech and obscene conduct.
Furthermore, while Islam considers protection of conscience and dignity of an individual of utmost importance, the good of society takes precedence.
Limit of Free Expression in the West
Despite in theory advocating absolute freedom and much hullaballoo about it, this is what the Western societies and their governments actually do to protect their societies. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Official Secrets Act protects information related to national security, and officials working with secret information are required to sign a statement that they agree to abide by the restrictions of this act. In the United States, a clash between the conflicting aims of national security and freedom of expression came to a head in 1971 in the ‘Pentagon Papers’ case, when the New York Times ignored the government’s demand to avoid publication of a document dealing with its military involvement in Vietnam. Although the US Supreme Court decided in favor of the newspaper, it implicitly acknowledged a national security exception to the First Amendment right of self-expression. And in subsequent years the Court has upheld the government’s national security claims in several cases presumably concerning national security where CIA agents were involved.
It must be realized that the West is based on secularism - or exclusion of religion and religious considerations, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Islam on the other hand, is based on belief in God and living a life based on that consideration, and its transcendental values do not suffer from human frailties and ever-changing whims of individuals or society. Hence Islam considers insulting God and Prophet Muhammad as blasphemous. Indeed, Muslims venerate all prophets, and it is Muslims who protest whenever Jesus Christ is attacked in any form - movies or otherwise.
It is sad to see increasing incidents attacking Islam and its prophet in the Western countries that cause outrage among the world Muslims. Those who do so claim they are upholding the freedom of speech. The hypocritical stance of this claim is obvious, as discussed above.
The Jamal Khasoggi Case
Any description of freedom of speech must address the recent case of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist who lived in Virginia on permanent visa. He disappeared inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 when went there to get papers to marry his Turkish fiancé. The Turkish officials suspected within hours that he was killed by a 15-men Saudi hit-squad that arrived in Istanbul in two private jets. Saudi Arabia first denied Khashoggi’s killing in its consulate, but then under international pressure admitted he was killed there during investigations that went ‘wrong.’ Evidence collected by the Turkish prosecutors showed Khashoggi was strangled immediately after entering the consulate and his body dismembered, according to a premeditated plan. The CIA reported that the killing of journalist was done at the behest of Saudi crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman.
Bin Salman outmaneuvered his rivals to become the de-facto leader of Saudi Arabia. Although he projects himself as a progressive reformer, he is responsible for brutal aerial bombardment in Yemen and causing a humanitarian crisis. Human rights organizations, such as the Amnesty International and Reprieve have recorded gross violations of international law by bin Salman. The Reprieve in its report said that he “has overseen the executions of 16 people on average per month since his appointment.”
Pertinent to discuss here are the open letters sent by American Muslims to the U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama when they assumed office. The letters drafted by Muslim and non-Muslim experts warned them about the support America provides to the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East that are the worst violators of human rights and do not tolerate any sort of opposition. In the letters American Muslims said change is coming to 1.2 billion Muslims and advised that U.S. work for its long-term interest and now for its own sake must hold these regimes responsible for upholding democracy and human rights.
Siraj Islam Mufti, Ph.D. is the author of Muslims At The Crossroads published in 2012, just after 9/11. He could be reached at [email protected], or by twitter @sirajmufti.