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Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Islam and Free Speech: A Reply to A. Faizur Rahman
By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
28 October 2020
One has benefited immensely from the writings of Mr. Faizur Rahman and it is with the sole intention of taking forward the debate on blasphemy and freedom of speech that I write this rejoinder.
Reading the article, one gets the feeling that Mr. Rahman is more concerned with presenting the ‘good’ side of Islam rather than trying to understand and situate the horrors that accompanied the brutal murder of the French school teacher, Samuel Paty.
To be fair, the article condemns the murder of Paty, but like most apologist attempts, it absolves Islam of all responsibility in this motivated and premeditated murder. The trouble with this obsession with highlighting the good side of Islam is that most religions (including Islam) do not come only with a good side. Islam does not come in discrete packages where one can pick and choose the good and leave out the ‘bad’. Rather it is a ‘structuring structure’ which wants to influence and direct all aspects of a persons’ life-world. The problem becomes more acute because in the process of doing this, it also wants to dictate how non-followers should behave and relate with Islam. And not everything is good about this desire of Islam to affect and alter the cultural conditions of people. Some of it may be good, but others are completely undesirable in the present context.
Leaving out the problematic parts of Islam and concentrating on the good parts, as Mr. Rahman does speak of a certain dishonesty, which has become part and parcel of Muslim apologia. Nothing good can come out of a debate where the intention is to ‘defend’ Islam rather than to see how the religion is implicated in things and events which we no longer hold dear.
Rahman Sb. approvingly quotes Mustafa Aykol to prove that blasphemy was ‘invented’ as a criminal offence by medieval jurists. More specifically, Aykol argues that it was instituted by the Ummayads, hinting that most Muslims do not have high regard for these caliphs. The problem with this argument is that flies in the face of Islamic history and theology. Most of the Islamic jurisprudence is the product of Ummayad period. It is also true that rather than detesting the Ummayads, Sunni Muslims have long held them in high regard, for the simple reason that unprecedented Islamic expansion took place during this period. For many Sunni Ulama, this is in fact the golden period of Islam.
In order to prove the inherent good core of Islam which was corrupted by the Ummayads, Rahman goes back to the Quran, rightly arguing that there is no punishment specified against blasphemy in the holy text. While Muslims the world over revere the Quran as the literal word of God, most of them have second order knowledge of this text. The large majority depends on translations and interpretations of the Quran done by various scholars who simplify the message for the lay believers. The problem is not that the Quran cannot be accessed directly; the problem is that the text is at places so abstruse that an average reader becomes befuddled in trying to make sense of it. If this was not the case, then we would not have had the need to have a separate discipline to understand the Quran, as we have in most centres of Islamic learning.
The Quran is polyphonous; it not just speaks to different contexts but also at times appears to talk to different sets of audiences. It is not a surprise therefore that there are multiple readings of the same text; often linked to social and cultural contexts in which it is read. A Barelwi reading the Quran in India and a Salafi reading it in Saudi Arabia take very meanings from the same text. Therefore, trying to locate the Quran as the centre of Islamic experience is misleading, to say the least. The motivation of the young Chechen who murdered Samuel Paty cannot be shown to be un-Islamic just because Rahman Sb. thinks that the young lad did not understand the Quran properly.
We must also understand that while the Quran is basic to the formation of Islamic law, it is not the only text which informs the organisation of Islamic worldview. The biographies of the Prophet and the Hadith (which again was started by the Ummayads) are very important sources of Islamic law. In fact, the necessity to collect and compile hadiths arose precisely because the Quran was not sufficient to provide all the answers for the emerging Islamic caliphate. Not only were hadiths collected but they were also fabricated in large numbers to suit the interests of the powers of the day. Despite this, hadith is still an important source of Islamic law. So while Quran may be silent on the need to punish a blasphemer, the hadiths are clearly in the affirmative, even specifying how the person should be killed.
Rahman Sb. also argues that the prophet of Islam forgave all those who insulted and made fun of him. Certainly, he is not just relying on the Quran for this information but also on other sources of law from which we get information about the life of the prophet. But the same sources also tell us that the prophet of Islam ordered and supervised the killing of enemies, including women. The assertion that a general amnesty was declared after Muslims captured Mecca is simply fallacious. While Mr. Rahman is certainly entitled to his own hermeneutics of Islam, he must know that he stands on a very weak ground. The hegemonic reading of the Quran and allied texts, done by important seminaries and disseminated worldwide argue the exact opposite of what Mr. Rahman intends to do. There is enough in Islamic texts which justify killing for blasphemy. The dominant reading of Islamic law from Indonesia to Egypt affirms that a blasphemer must be killed. Quoting the Quran, and that too, selectively, is certainly not going to save us from this malaise.
The other part of Mr. Rahman’s article is an ingenious attempt to wilfully misread the problem at hand. Throughout the world, there are laws which are anomalous, and the western world is no exception to this rule. The current problem in France is not the result of a skewed application of such laws but because of a resurgent Islamist politics which ends up beheading those who think differently. There cannot be any discussion on French law without first decoding the motivations of such killings. And those motivations are purely religious; they are enacted because the person believes in a particular religious ideology. The bigger concern therefore should be to counter such tendencies and condemn this religious motivation. Rather, what we get in Mr. Rahman’s article is to point fingers at the hypocrisy of French law which does not take into considerations the feelings of Muslims. Will Mr. Rahman accept India as a Hindu theocratic state if majority of people in this country feel like having it? Law certainly should not be hostage to feelings of people, but should be based on rationality and wisdom.
Mr. Rahman points to two issues in order to bring out the purported hollowness of France’s commitment to freedom of speech. He argues that there is a law which protects citizens (who are alive) from defamation and wants its extension to cover people who are long dead. Through this, he hopes that those defaming the prophet by making films and cartoons can be prosecuted. Rahman Sb. completely misreads the situation. The prophet is no ordinary being; in fact he is not just a person, but represents an idea. Mr. Rahman is telling us that certain ideas should be above any criticism. This is a huge expectation. Europe is partly built on the tradition of critique. And everything is kosher within this tradition. The sweep of this tradition was such that the critique of Christian faith was not just done by secularists but also by church officials themselves. It is only recently that such criticism has been applied to Islam because today it is an important presence in Europe. If such a law is enacted then it will be applicable to all religions, which will mean negating centuries of scholarship against this institution. Or is Mr. Rahman asking for an exclusive law applicable only to defaming Islam and its prophet? Either way, instituting such a law would be disastrous for the simple reason that no society has progressed without ceaseless questioning of the world around them. In fact, one reason why Muslim societies are regressive is because of the existence of such laws which prohibit the free exchange of ideas. Certainly this state of affairs is most conducive for an authoritarian regime. In a fascist state, one doesn’t think; one just believes.
Rahman Sb. also points out that although one can offend religious sensibilities, but there is a European law which criminalises the denial of holocaust, thus the application of ‘freedom of speech’ is selective and a design to target Islam and Muslims. This oft-repeated clever argument misses the point that the two are not comparable.
One is about a certain set of ideas, the other is about the horrible sufferings of Jewish people. There is nothing wrong in critiquing ideas or even making fun of them. Judaism, Christianity and Islam for example, have continuously critiqued and ridiculed another set of ideas called polytheism. It is rather rich therefore of Islam to expect to be treated differently by another set of ideas, in this case, secularism. Ridiculing people or communities, on the other hand, should and must be severely restricted. Denying the holocaust is not just getting trapped in conspiracy theories, but is an insult to the lives of six million Jews who perished due to the madness of racial purity. And it started with caricaturing of people: Jews were talked about as evil, scheming, pests and eventually this propaganda became the common sense of a lot of people. When you reduce a community to the level of pest, there is not much remorse that one feels when the community is obliterated. Rahman Sb. would do well to remember that such a law is needed to prevent the recurrence of such brutality. Laws must be understood in their context and the purpose for which they are made. There is already a holocaust denying industry and one hopes Mr. Rahman is not part of this fantasy.
Mr. Rahman has also suggested that Samuel Paty could have had the same argument in class without showing those cartoons. We need to understand that the classroom space is sacrosanct and that teachers must be understood as the only ones who have the authority to decide what is best suited to his or her pedagogical strategy. In India and elsewhere, we have teachers being assaulted for teaching what they deemed fit for the class. I am sure Mr. Rahman would not condone the behaviour of Hindu right wing mobs who have assaulted teachers, accusing them of hurting their feelings. If these thugs, whether Hindu or Islamic are to decide what should or should not be taught in our schools, then we should just say good bye to all criticality which comes with schooling. The need of the hour is to protect teaching spaces from such right wing assaults; not to police them, as Rahman Sb. seems to be suggesting.
Islam demands respect from others while at the same time being extremely disrespectful to other secular or religious traditions. Respect is always earned. Islam needs to earn it through an open embrace of all epistemologies, be they of different religions or sexual orientations. But in order to do so, it first needs a deep introspection of its own theological underpinnings which reeks of supremacism.
Those who want to ‘rescue’ Islam need not just limit themselves to the ‘inherent goodness’ of the Quran, but also see how the same Quran has been used to marginalise, exclude and subdue others.