“… freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values… I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech…there is no speech that justifies mindless violence.”
These were Obama’s words in his recent speech at the UN General Assembly, preaching Muslims about Western values. Every time the Muslims’ beliefs are offended, they are lectured in chorus by voices from Western governments and media to accept it as freedom of speech. Western politicians and media would have everyone take it for granted that liberal ideals are universal, and that only a backward and barbaric people, with no sense of reasoning, would reject them.
It is this very condescending presumption that the protests against the recent anti-Islam film have challenged. Why should Muslims be forced to accept liberal values? Why should Islam be judged against a secular liberal yardstick? After all, if we cut through all the rhetoric about freedom and democracy, we find liberalism to be a shallow ideology premised on a flawed worldview which, far from being universal, is contextually bound to certain realities at a particular time in European history.
Liberalism views humans as competitive and selfish beings, originally born in a state of absolute freedom, but needing to concede some of their liberties when living together in a society, as exercising unrestricted freedom would otherwise lead to conflict. The state is therefore viewed as a necessary evil whose role is merely to preserve the liberties of individuals.
Ethics is measured by benefit and harm. The purpose of life is to pursue happiness. And happiness is to possess wealth and enjoy worldly pleasures.
To understand these points, consider, for example, the below statements by some well-known Western thinkers:
“Man’s first feeling was that of his own existence, and his first care that of self-preservation…But from the moment one man began to stand in need of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared…” [Rousseau, A discourse on the Origin of Inequality]
“…every law is contrary to liberty…” [Bentham, Principles of the Civil Code]
“…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self protection.” [Mill, On Liberty]
“The end of all political associations, is, the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression.” [Paine, The Rights of Man]
“…actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness… By happiness is intended pleasure…pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends…” [Mill, Utilitarianism]
“Each portion of wealth is connected with a corresponding portion of happiness…Of two individuals, possessed of unequal fortunes, he who possesses the greatest wealth will possess the greatest happiness.” [Bentham, Principles of the Civil Code]
The problems with such an outlook on life are quite grave. Firstly, any society built on such philosophical foundations would create self-centred individuals, who only care about their own interests and look at others as rivals. It is needless to say that such principles cannot produce a cohesive society and neither can it secure true and lasting happiness for its members. The social decay in Western societies, with its high rates of crime, family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide provides sufficient testimony to this fact.
Secondly, while it is understandable that the thinkers of the Enlightenment era, opposed to the oppression of the Church, wanted to formulate an entirely new way of life, the theories that they have propounded are by no means universal. They were a response to a historical experience specific to Europe, and therefore, cannot and should not be imposed upon others.
In contrast, Islam gives us a more wholesome view of life. It views humans as created beings, endowed with reason by their Creator, which places responsibility upon them to search for the truth about life and its meaning. It holds that, through the use of reason and the natural inclination innate in human beings to sanctify someone higher than themselves, they can recognise their relationship with their Creator and worship Him:
“Lo! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and (in) the difference of night and day are tokens (of His Sovereignty) for men of understanding.” [Qur’an 3:190]
The Islamic society is a unique one where its members are not merely concerned about personal freedom and utility maximisation. Rather they look after each other, and even account each other, based on God’s commands. They do not have absolute freedom of speech if that means the right to insult others, regardless of their race or religion. Likewise, they do not have the freedom to remain silent either when they see oppression in society because God commands them to hold oppressors to account.
The below analogy provided by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) beautifully describes the Islamic society:
“The example of those who maintain Allah’s limits (hudood) and those who surpass them is like the example of those who share a boat. Some would occupy its upper deck and some its lower deck. The occupants of the lower deck would have to go to the upper deck to have access to the water. If they said, why don’t we drill a hole in our part (to directly access the water) and do not cause any inconvenience to those above us. If those on the upper deck let them do what they wanted then all of the passengers would sink. However, if they prevented them from doing so then all would be saved.”
Unlike secular liberal democracies, laws in the Islamic state are not perennially subject to review and change. The Caliph implements divine laws, but does not legislate himself. The people obey him as long as he rules by God’s laws, and hold him to account if he deviates from them. Abu Bakr, the first Caliph after the demise of the Prophet (peace be upon him), said in his inaugurating speech, “Obey me as long as I obey Allah and His Prophet, when I disobey Him and His Prophet, then obey me not.”
Moral values are determined by divine guidelines, not human prejudices, nor short-sighted perceptions of harm and benefit. The purpose of life is to submit oneself completely and wholeheartedly to God. By doing so, when one attains nearness to God and His pleasure, that is considered the ultimate state of happiness.
“Beautified for mankind is love of the joys (that come) from women and offspring; and stored-up heaps of gold and silver, and horses branded (with their mark), and cattle and land. That is comfort of the life of the world. Allah! With Him is a more excellent abode. Say: Shall I inform you of something better than that? For those who keep from evil, with their Lord, are Gardens underneath which rivers flow wherein they will abide, and pure companions, and contentment from Allah. Allah is Seer of His bondmen.” [Qur’an 3:14-15]
Therefore, there is an unbridgeable gulf between Islamic and liberal values and world views. And no Muslim, in their right mind, would trade the sublime Islamic ideals for the superficial liberal ones. When seen from this angle, a few things start to make sense.
Firstly, the shallowness of liberalism means its proponents do not have a strong case to make for humanity to accept it. Hence, the need to resort to cheap tactics, such as insulting others’ beliefs. If that does not work, then sending troops to occupy other countries, dropping bombs on their homes, and setting up torture camps can do the job!
Secondly, the anger and frustration seen on Muslim streets are not mere acts of hooliganism. It is a stance against Western efforts to impose its way of life on Muslims. Though some people may not see much point in American flags being burned, to the protesters, it is a symbolic rejection of U.S. interference in their affairs, and of everything that the U.S. and the West stand for.
These issues lie at the heart of the angry reactions seen on the streets, from Benghazi all the way to Sydney. Therefore, anyone concerned by the protests against the offensive anti-Islam film should look beyond the rhetoric of politicians and sensationalist media reporting, and instead engage in a sincere discussion about these deeper underlying issues.
Shafiul Haq is an activist and a student of politics at the University of Melbourne.