The recent case of the burning of offices belonging to Charlie Hebdo in Paris, has bought attention back onto Islam and Muslims, and a repeated cycle of tired questions about Islam’s apparent intolerance and inability to deal with criticism. It should be stressed that at the time of writing this article, it is not clear who was behind the firebombing of the offices.
Even most Western thinkers would agree absolute freedom does not exist. Most proponents of freedom, except the most radical liberalists, accept that such a notion is unworkable; hence they accept constraints, mainly around security, sanctity of life and that which infringes the freedoms/rights of others.
The net effect of this is that freedom of expression is by no means established on a uniform basis and is subject to bias, often manipulated for political expediency.
Proponents would argue that despite these criticisms the right to be able to express opinions criticizing established forces of power (government, politicians and business leaders) is one of the enduring facets of Western values. Certainly contrasted with repressive regimes this may compare favourably, but is by no means a universal value.
Muslims find that in more cases than not, freedom of expression is used today as a cynical way to foment hatred towards Islamic values and feeds into a climate created by politicians and media who have a specific political agenda.
The freedom of expression can so quickly slip into a freedom to persecute, masked as a ‘legitimate’ freedom to hate. Some recent examples highlight this point:
1. Jyllands-Postens, the now infamous Danish newspaper, initially sparked a furore by printing derogatory pictures of Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad (saw). Yet, it is not so well knows that In April 2003, the newspaper rejected a set of unsolicited Jesus cartoons submitted by Christoffer Zieler, so going against their protestations that it was all about free expression.
In fact, shortly after publishing the Muhammad (saw) cartoons, Jyllands-Postens scrapped supposed plans to publish holocaust-denial cartoons simultaneously with Iranian paper Hamshahri. It seems its belief in the right to criticize only extends to selected issues.
2. On July 2nd 2008 Maurice Sinet was sacked by Charlie Hebdo (ironically) after it published a sharp paragraph by Sinet on the rising fortunes of the 21-year-old Jean Sarkozy, who was elected that year to local office in a Paris suburb. The article made remarks about the apparent intention of Jean Sarkozy to “convert to Judaism”, after marring a Jewish heiress of a French retail giant.
Explaining the dismissal of Sinet, Charlie Hebdo commented that he (Sinet) had “crossed the line between humorous insult and hateful caricature”. This is not an argument you would expect from Charlie Hebdo!
Sinet, a lifelong provocateur whose previous targets have included Muslims, went to the police after a website published a call for him to be murdered, his lawyer commented at the time. Ironically, this was not widely reported by the media, yet similar cases involving Muslims are often highlighted to suggest that intolerance to criticism is unique to them.
3. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that one of Facebook’s lobbyists (Adam Connor) commented that it (Facebook) may block content in some countries, but not others. He stated:
“We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we’re allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven’t experienced it before.”
This position, in relation to Facebook’s intention to break the Chinese market, is remarkably different to its position when it decided to hold a Facebook event called ‘Everybody draw Muhammad, May 2010’; Facebook cited its unreserved support for right to express any opinion, no matter how offensive others may find them.
It seems from this statement that some regions (or peoples) are “freer” than others. While Muslims are told to “get over their touchiness”, others are not expected to!
We must be clear: Islam does not advocate of system of intolerance. In fact, the rich history of Islam demonstrates the right of people to account the ruler, to protect the society and to safeguard values. Current Muslim societies should not be used as a benchmark, since they are not based on the Islamic system.
Islam does not so much give a right to citizens to account and speak out to authority – it places a mandatory duty upon every capable Muslim to do so. So, press freedom to investigate, question and scrutinize political authority is established within the Shari’ah.
However, the privacy of private citizens is not a fair target for the press. Slandering them, or exposing their personal failings and misdemeanors is not right, even if they happen to be rich and famous – unless it impacts on their integrity for political office or other similar matters.
A cursory reading of history demonstrates that throughout the ages, scholars and movements have kept its rulers in check by reminding them of their obligations. Scholars such as Abu Hanifah who refused to bow to the will of Al-Mansur, Qadi Abu Yusuf (whose book on land taxes included a chastisement to the ruler of the time) and Ahmad ibn Hanbal led the way while the West was still living through its medieval phase.
What is clear from the examples above is that Muslims are not “just too touchy”. There seems to be a markedly different set of standards applied to Islam and Muslims. In fact, it is hypocritical to label Islam as intolerant, while successive Western governments try to restrict the rights of Muslims to wear niqabs, hijabs and even pray in public spaces.
Europe in particular needs to come to terms with its own secular intolerance.
Muhammad Gulam Jilani is a commentator on economic, political and cultural issues. He works as a management consultant and is currently the director of an international management consultancy