Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Before I delve into this article on the Charlie Hebdo shooting, I would first like to make certain that, although this article is titled “A Muslim’s Perspective,” the opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by all 1.7 billion Muslims of the world, or the roughly 6 million Muslims in America, or even the handful of Muslims at Swarthmore. However, I would not be surprised if other Muslims held views similar to mine. Additionally, I’d like to note out that whenever I mention the name of the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh), the “pbuh” means “peace be upon him.”
There are two issues that I would like to address in this article: first, whether the killings at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris are justified by Islam, and second, whether the publications of Charlie Hebdo can be justified by freedom of speech.
On the first point: the killings that occurred in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo offices are NOT JUSTIFIED whatsoever. There’s a reason why so many Islamic religious leaders spoke out against the killings. Islam does not support any type of law-breaking, let alone storming into offices and killing people. From an Islamic perspective, if you choose to live in a certain country, then you must abide by its laws. If you are not satisfied with those laws, then activism and other peaceful methods are encouraged. Let’s look at an example. In fact, let us take an example from the life of the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh). I am not an authoritative Islamic scholar or jurist, but I will do my best from what I know and have read.
The Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. He began preaching Islam at the age of 40, and for 12 years he resided in Mecca. His preachings were met with fierce opposition. The Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) and his followers were harassed, insulted, and physically harmed while in Mecca. It was common for Meccan non-Muslims to throw stones at Muslims while they were praying or in public. It was persecution at its worst. Many followers of the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) were killed for their beliefs, and there were many death threats and assassination attempts against the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh).
What was Prophet Muhammad’s(pbuh) response? The Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) did not retaliate. He sought peaceful ways to end the hostilities. There are endless stories of the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) and his followers being peaceful towards hateful people. During the course of his lifetime, he signed many peace-keeping treaties to ensure good relations between his followers and those of other faiths. For example, the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah guaranteed ten years of total peace between the Muslims of Medina and the Quraish tribe (governors of Mecca), which had originally persecuted Meccan Muslims and had caused them to move to Medina for safety in the first place. Ultimately, my point is that Islam in no way, shape, or form endorses or allows the Charlie Hebdo killings. A religion does not automatically endorse or allow whatever is done in its name.
On the second point: Can the Charlie Hebdo publications be justified by norms of free speech? The right to freedom of speech enshrined in many legal systems is not absolute, just like many other freedoms we have. Libel, slander, and hate speech are just a few of the many cases where freedom of speech is regulated. Within Western secular law, the basic premise is that we ensure the most freedom we can for the individual without infringing on the rights of any other individual. The question is, where do we draw the line?
In my experience, the most popular argument I encounter when it comes to free speech and religion is that religion is an ideology and people should be allowed to criticize any ideology without restrictions. To this I say: criticize the ideology of Islam all you want. There are dozens upon dozens of thoroughly researched writings that criticize Islam as an ideology; there have been for many, many years. To this, I, as well as probably any other sensible Muslim with a decent understanding of Islam, do not object. Criticize the ideology of Islam all you want. If you want to write a whole book on why the prohibition of alcohol in Islam does not make sense, do so. There will be virtually no objection to anyone who does their research and proposes a well-grounded criticism of the ideology of Islam.
However, there is a line between criticism of ideology and mockery of individuals. As Mehdi Hassan, the political director for the Huffington Post UK, so brilliantly points out: “Please get a grip. None of us believes in an untrammeled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed. We differ only on where those lines should be drawn. Has your publication, for example, run cartoons mocking the Holocaust? No? How about caricatures of the 9/11 victims falling from the Twin Towers? I didn’t think so (and I am glad it hasn’t)… I disagree with your seeming view that the right to offend comes with no corresponding responsibility; and I do not believe that a right to offend automatically translates into a duty to offend.” He also mentions a “thought experiment” proposed by Oxford philosopher Brian Klug, one that is definitely worth reading, but will not be elaborated on for the sake of conciseness.
To get to the point: absolutely groundless mockery of anyone is unacceptable. That is actually the definition of defamation— which is legally punishable in many, if not most countries (of course, I do realize that defamation laws apply to living persons). Absolutely groundless mockery of the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh), a man that 1.7 billion Muslims love and admire so much, is especially unacceptable. I can assure you that those who work in the Charlie Hebdo offices most likely never read a biography of the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh), because if they did, they would realize that the character of the man they were trying to mock, could not justifiably be mocked in any way. When the enemies of the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh), who wanted to kill him for his ideologies, could not find any flaw with his personal character, how could people who barely know him or his life story mock him? By mocking the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh), there is no constructive criticism being made of the ideology of Islam. Instead, there is only the creation of distasteful and hateful material that causes more harm than good. The root of such actions simply boils down to bigotry and hatred, and I won’t even elaborate on the fact that in the country of publication, France, Muslims are essentially treated like second-class citizens.
Again, I’d like to reiterate the fact that publications that form well-grounded, well-researched, and thoughtfully written criticisms of religion are fine. In fact, they are good. They create a dialogue among those of different faiths and help us understand more about the faiths and beliefs in question. If someone were to write a thorough criticism about Islamic ideology and publish thousands of copies of it, I would be one of the first ones to read it. I may not agree with what that publication would have to say, but I would respect the fact that the author took out the time to thoroughly research the Islamic ideology and form a well-grounded opinion on it. However, the unjustifiable, bigoted mockery of an individual that is so loved by 1.7 billion people is unacceptable. There is a clear distinction between the questioning and criticism of an ideology and the baseless derision of an individual, let alone the Prophet(pbuh) of almost 25% of the world’s population.
So please, form as many well-grounded criticisms of the ideology of Islam as possible. All that I, and 1.7 billion other Muslims, humbly request is that the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh), whom we love and admire so much, whom I love and admire more than my own parents and more than my own self, not be groundlessly mocked.