Freedom and falsehoods

Despite recent injustices, Islam has always been a champion of free speech.

So much injustice has been done to Islam over the issue of freedom of speech. Certain quarters choose to champion the cause of freedom of speech by indulging in acts whose primary objective is to tarnish the image of Islam through unfounded claims and to demonise it or demean the Prophet Muhammad through what they describe as literary or artistic works. Muslims have been put on the defensive time and again: from Salman Rushdie’s despicable novel through the ugly Danish cartoons all the way down to the irresponsible remarks by Pope Benedict XVI.

Muslims had every right to be offended because, as they saw it, these were not innocent exercises of freedom of speech but deliberate abuses that said nothing but untruths about Islam and its Prophet. The resort by some Muslims to violence, however, has damaged their cause even further. Islam has been the victim both of deliberate abuse and of irrational and ignorant responses to such abuse.

In fact, Islam – as shown clearly by its history – has always been involved in the struggle for freedom of choice and of speech.

For thirteen years since receiving the first Qur’anic revelation, in Mecca in 610 CE, the Prophet Muhammad responded to the “elders” who rejected his call to worship the One and Only God, Allah the Creator, by challenging them not to “obstruct the way” between him and the people.

“Let the people choose” was his slogan. Instead, the elders of the tribe of Quraysh, who feared the loss of their power and prestige, used every resource at their disposal in order to prevent any public discussion of what the Prophet had to say about the paganism the Arabs inherited from their forefathers. And it was not just paganism but a way of life littered with some of the most heinous atrocities committed against the weak and the vulnerable. Prophet Muhammad’s message was perceived as a revolution, a rebellion aimed at liberating minds and souls from human-imposed shackles and restrictions.

There is no better proof to the fact that Islam stands for freedom of thought and of _expression than the esteemed status “the seeking of knowledge” is assigned in both the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions. The first word of revelation was “iqra”, meaning read or learn or recite. “Learn in the Name of your Lord who Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood; learn in the Name of your Lord, the Most Bountiful, Who taught (the use of) the pen and taught man that which he knew not.”

Before Islam came to them, the Arabs prided themselves on being an illiterate community; very few of them learned anything apart from poetry and enough elementary astronomy to be able to cross the desert at night. Still, very few of them ever left Arabia or interacted with the bastions of civilisations to the north and the south. While the Arabs despised Jews and Christians, the Qur’an called them the People of the Book, and linked itself to their religious traditions.

Despite having been revealed first to the Arabs, the language of the Qur’an spoke in universal terms to the global human community. From day one, this was not meant to be a religious tradition for a particular racial or ethnic group, but rather one for the whole of mankind, claiming a direct link to all preceding divine missions from Noah through Abraham and Moses all the way down to Jesus.

As an eternal guarantee of the human freedom to choose, the Qur’an declared that “there is no compulsion in religion” and that no person’s conversion to Islam would be acceptable if not out of an absolute free will. Yet Islam spread out of Arabia in all four directions in record time, and the Ummah rapidly grew into a huge community.

There is no evidence whatsoever that conversion was coerced, although incentives might have been introduced by political regimes at times either in favour of conversion or in an attempt to discourage it. Rather, what attracted millions of people was the liberating message of the new religion, which declared that “an Arab is no better than a non-Arab, a white is no better than a black, and a yellow is no better than a red.”

The two great empires of the day, that of Byzantium and that of Sassania, had been oppressive powers that suppressed and persecuted the nations that came under their influence. Wars of attritions between the two empires augmented the suffering of millions of people who were being turned into fuel for a conflict that raged for several decades. Not only did the rising Islamic power provide a better alternative but it also emancipated many nations that had been enslaved by the two decaying powers.

It did not take long for Islam to provide humanity with great centres of civilization where scholarship flourished like never before. Philosophers and scientists – Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Sabian alike – turned cities such as Baghdad, Cordova and Seville into minarets of enlightenment for the benefit of all humanity not only innovating but also building on the legacies of the Hellenistic and Persian civilizations. Without the contributions of such centres of learning, Europe would today still be in total darkness.

Today, most Muslims live in countries that are governed by despots who, like the elders of Quraysh, fear for their prestige and influence. In majority Muslim countries the police and intelligence services have no job other than muzzle people and make sure that nothing but what pleases the autocratic ruler is said or even whispered. It is not unusual for a person to lose his or her life for speaking out in public in contradiction to the wish of the despot. The largest number of prisoners in any given Muslim country happens to be prisoners of conscience. Few criminals or thieves are in prison because the real thieves are those in power.

In fact, much of the struggle that has been going on in Muslim countries from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans is about freedom. People are fighting for the freedom not only to say what they wish but even the freedom to dress the way they like. It is here that the roots of ’terrorism’ happen to be. The reason why some people resort to violence in Muslim countries is the lack of space for discussion about issues that matter and the brutality with which people who dare speak out are met.

Those of us Muslims who live in the liberal West appreciate more than anybody else the great bounty of being able to say what we like and to be able to lead the way of life we choose. It is because of this that many of us are gravely concerned that one of the repercussions of the US-led war on terrorism is that the liberal West is undermining one of its most treasured achievement. The defence of freedom of speech in the USA and Europe is becoming increasingly selective. This was supposed to be a political right to be employed by those who are governed against those who govern. Now, authorities in the alliance for war in Afghanistan and Iraq are heading in the direction of stifling the public so as not to question policy or criticize the perpetration of blunders. What is of greater concern is that leading authorities in the liberal west are the backers of some of the most autocratic regimes across the Muslim world.

Freedom of speech is not about the right to publish offensive cartoons or to claim about Islam what is false and unfair; it is to stand up to tyrants and oppressors and prevent them from doing in our name what we abhor and detest. What is frequently claimed to be freedom of speech today is nothing but abuse intended, at most, to settle scores or find fame – or perhaps infamy.

Dr Azzam Tamimi is the director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought (IIPT), London.