By: Sherif Rizk
**Editor’s Note: At the end of this article, I am going to make a small request from you. I would ask that, if you agree with at least one thing in this article, that you fulfill this request**
As the dust settles on the emotional aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo/Paris attacks, new questions have begun to emerge. And, unlike other terrorist incidents in the past few months, the question is not one of national security, but on freedom of speech/expression.
There have been numerous posts on social media sites lately decrying the double-standard that supposedly applies when talking about freedom of speech – that attacking certain identities like sexual orientation, colour of skin, and sex/gender are decried as intolerance, racism or sexism (respectively), but attacking a prophet is considered “freedom of speech”, and therefore, should be tolerated.I would argue that this is not a good comparison –the ridicule of a religious prophet, no matter how holy he is deemed to be, is not the same as ridiculing a personal aspect that one is born with. Ridiculing someone for a personal quality like the colour of their skin, or their sex, is something that this individual is born with, meaning that they have no way of changing that aspect about themselves. To ridicule that would be absurd. However, a personal quality like someone’s religion is, ultimately, a choice. Like many other choices in life, choices can be subjected to criticism, much in the same way that we criticize the decisions of lawmakers, or how we can criticize the decisions made by healthcare practitioners who make mistakes by way of litigation.
The Disconnect: should Muslim standards apply to all?
The disconnect I see is this: the Muslim faith calls for a ban on any depiction of the prophet, while non-adherents of that faith see no reason why that ban should apply to them. The real issue is that adherents of the Muslim faith wish to see the same standard that they hold themselves to apply to others. Yet, this is not fair. I have chosen not to abide by the rules of your faith, yet I am still being asked to follow its tenets. If one were to apply this logic to all religions in the world, that would result in a strange, contradicting view of how I should conduct my life.
Make no mistake: my religion is my choice. Your religion is your choice. And anyone who does not follow a particular religion does so as a choice. And, by living in a free and democratic society, you have every right to make that choice. It is also under the same free and democratic principles that you have the right to speak out about that faith (or choice not to have a faith) through freedom of expression, a right among the bundle of rights one is entitled to in society.
So, it is with all due respect, that I iterate to my Muslim friends that, despite your strong and sincere belief in this tenet of your faith, it cannot be reasonably expected of non-Muslims to abide by this aspect of your faith.
Some of you may look at this and say “but what about the other religions? Why do they benefit from protection, when we do not?”.
The fact is, other religions are subject to criticism and ridicule all the time. For some of them, it may even be considered blasphemous to their religion – for example, Christians believe that to swear by Jesus’ name is a sin, as listed in the ten commandments (yet, many people, Christian and non-Christian, use this term openly and freely). Christians may not like this, but it is each person’s choice to utter those words under the laws of freedom of expression, and despite Christians’ belief to the contrary, they have no right to prevent someone else from using that term.
With regards to the Charlie Hebdo incident in particular, Islam was not the only faith to be ridiculed by that magazine. Christianity, Judaism, and even Buddhism have also been repeated targets of this magazine, and other shows/cartoons. So, as a religion, Islam is not the only religion to be mocked or ridiculed.
The slippery slope of blasphemy laws
Let’s suppose we try an equal approach to all religions (not just Islam): should the insult or contempt of any religion be made illegal in some capacity, to be codified into the formal laws of Western societies?
To answer this, one should look where such laws already exist and are exercised: the Middle East. One of the prominent features of Middle Eastern laws are its dubious “blasphemy laws”. Similar to its strange cousin, defamation laws, it is distinct in that it criminalizes overly harsh criticism (read: rejection) of religious deities, despite the fact that those same deities are supposedly all-powerful figures that do not need legal protection!
The parameters of defamation laws are already difficult enough to deal with – legally speaking, it is difficult to link someone’s criticism of another individual with actual, substantial losses that this individual suffered. For example, if I were to write on this blog that Donald Trump eats babies for breakfast, and he sees this post and is arguably so upset with it that he decides to sue me, he would have a difficult time proving that he has suffered any loss of business, or a loss of reputation, as a result of such a post!
This difficulty becomes even more complex in the case of blasphemy laws: how can one prove that a harsh criticism of a deity has resulted in a loss of anything for that deity? Do we not believe that the deity is an all-powerful being, who does not need the protection or adoration of his human creation?
The reality is that blasphemy laws protect men of religion from being offended, and NOT the actual deity that the laws supposedly protect. And men of religion – whether priests, imams, rabbis, or monks – are still members of society, subject to the laws of this society, and are not entitled to additional protection due to the choice they made to follow this particular religion, or don the garb of that religion.
Thus, to say that we should adopt anti-blasphemy laws, regardless of how religious the society may be, is antithetical to the fundamental core of the idea of powerful deities, and the freedom to criticize choices.
Where do we go from here?
Still, there is a reality that we must own up to: how do we regulate speech that is critical of deities? Are religious individuals not entitled to some form of protection?
The question should not be one of “protecting” religious individuals from critical speech – but rather, it should be one of rewarding, or promoting, constructive and profitable speech. There is a bible verse that speaks to this idea of “profitable” speech:
“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable” (1 Corinthians 10:23)
This verse has always intrigued me because it is not just a statement on spiritual conduct, but I view it also as a legal expression. And if there has ever been a time where this expression is relevant, it is now – in the days that have followed the terrible shootings that took place at Charlie Hebdo’s offices (and other places) in Paris.
We have a choice of how to react to such terror. We could argue and debate over the merits of each side of this coin we call freedom of expression, and we would walk away without agreeing on much. But, in order to affect true progress, I believe it is best that we implement laws that reward “profitable”, or “good” speech, as opposed to protecting people from offence. We should be rewarding those who use this freedom to do good in this world, and to build bridges where ideologies alone cannot.
At the end of the day, there was nothing illegal about what Charlie Hebdo did. What they did was lawful. Yet, as we saw from the reaction of Muslims around the world, what they did was certainly not profitable (from a moral sense – I know they turned a nice financial profit from this whole fiasco). So, I will choose to have profitable speech instead of just free speech.
Today, I want to say to all of my Muslim readers that I respect you, I respect your faith, I admire your love for your prophet, and I do not see your faith as fanatical. I see the good in you, and I see the desire you have to make this a better world. You are human beings, just like me, who want to build a prosperous world where we can live side-by-side, and co-exist despite our differences. We are not enemies, and I refuse to look at the actions of a few as an indication of what you believe. While I may not agree with what some of you are saying or doing, I am not going to associate that with the actions of all Muslims. I will stand with you.
At the beginning of this post, I said that I would make a small request of you. I want you to join me in a small social experiment. Share this article to show that the power of constructive, positive speech exceeds that of satirical speech. Show that the power of tolerance, acceptance and forgiveness can overcome the extremes that have recently clashed heads. Show that the real winners out of the Charlie Hebdo incident are not satirists or extremists, but the middle ground that seeks to use its free speech rights to build bridges.
Share it…and let’s see how strong our freedom of expression can be!