Charlie Hebdo and the Islamic Debate About Free Speech

Harris Zafar
Written by Harris Zafar

Wednesday's brazen attack in the offices of French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has left many people the world over shocked, saddened and even infuriated. As the smoke cleared and we learned about the 12 people killed at the hands of three individuals wearing commando uniforms, brandishing automatic weapons that were fired indiscriminately within the office, we were left with the horrific reality that these individuals were killed for the single fact that they used their free speech to publish provocative content. As a Muslim, I was left having to grapple with -- and answer to -- questions about the Islamic stance towards free speech, and whether this attack is a natural consequence for mocking or abusing Muslim sentiments.

Many of us are no strangers to Charlie Hebdo, as they have worked their way into controversy for some years, especially when they chose on multiple occasions to publish insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, with the expressed intention of offending Muslims. And of course if Charlie Hebdo has the right to insult, then Muslims have a right to feel offended. But the question becomes how Muslims should react and respond to this offense.

As hurt as I was to learn that 12 people lost their lives (and 12 families lost loved ones) due to this unjustifiable and unconscionable terrorist attack, I then experienced anger when I learned of the response of a known radical cleric in the United Kingdom named Anjem Choudary. This obscure leader of a tiny group of radical Muslims has espoused some of the most despicable words one could imagine and almost appears as if he is hell-bent on intentionally maligning the faith of Islam and its prophet.

Why should I care about his article? Well, in less than 12 hours of it being published, it had already been shared on social networks nearly 8,000 times, with 300 comments posted by readers. So this obscure insignificant lunatic has been given a platform, and his voice is being heard. In his despicable rant, he claimed "Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression," alleging that anyone guilty of abusing the Prophet Muhammad is required to receive "capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State."

Purporting to be an Imam, he did not make even the slightest hint that there was anything wrong with commandos brutally killing these people. Instead of expanding on how Islamic scripture explicitly instructs Muslims to respond to insulting speech, Choudary concluded stating "It is time that the sanctity of a Prophet revered by up to one-quarter of the world's population was protected."

In truth, it is time for hate-mongers like Choudary, who clearly have no true attachment to God or the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, to be confronted by the true teachings of Islam. Islam offers the balanced approach, not only instructing believers to self-govern their own speech but also how to respond to unseemly speech.

The Quran strongly discourages indecent behavior and speech, or the hurting of others' sensitivities, regardless of whether it is done with or without a "valid" reason. Prophet Muhammad called his followers to human decency, integrity and sensitivity through self-restraint -- a virtue which encompasses forgiveness, patience, abstention from injury, truth, sweetness of speech, benevolence and freedom from malice.

But Islam does not support people who violently censor free speech. Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Quran both through direct instruction, as well as recalling how Muhammad was insulted to his face and never retaliated. The Quran records that he was called crazy, a victim of deception, a liar and fraud. Through this all, the Prophet Muhammad never retaliated nor called for these people to be attacked, seized, or executed. This is because the Quran clearly states to "overlook their annoying talk," and to "bear patiently what they say." It instructs that the most one can do is to avoid the company of those who continue their derogatory attacks against Islam. There simply is no room in Islam for responding to mockery or blasphemy with violence.

But perhaps most pointedly, the Quran tells believers not to be provoked by those who seem to attack Islam, stating very clearly "let not a people's enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice."

This is supported by the actions of the Prophet Muhammad himself. When he was once returning from an expedition, an antagonist used insulting words against him. Although a companion suggested that the culprit be killed, the Prophet Muhammad did not permit anyone to do so and, instead, instructed to leave him alone.

How tragic that some so-called Muslims have forsaken the words of the Quran and the prophet they claim to somehow defend. Muslims are not allowed to respond to violence. Rather, they must have the same courage as the Prophet of Islam to face such insults in the eye and respond with forbearance and calm, righteous speech.

So when you hear extremists such as Anjem Choudary claim that people who mock Islam are required to be killed, tell him to go read the Quran and educate himself on the faith to which he claims allegiance but of which he remains ignorant.

Originally published in Huffington Post on January 1, 2015.

Follow Harris Zafar on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Harris_Zafar

About the author

Harris Zafar

Harris Zafar

Harris ZafarPublic speaker, writer, news commentator about Islam. Adjunct Instructor. National Spokesperson of one of the oldest Muslim organizations in US: Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

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