Cartoons and Freedom of Expression

As many of you will know, there’s currently a furore around South African cartoonist Zapiro’s depiction of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The South African Muslim leadership has united in condemning the incident; as well as strongly discouraging the community from reacting violently – because we cannot defend our Prophet by acting in a way he would not sanction (for that merely perpetuates the false stereotype of Muslims as violent, extremist maniacs).

But at the root of it all is the issue of freedom of expression. The cartoonist firmly sticks to his right of this freedom, and goes further to assert his right to satirise religion. The latter point, I believe, is indicative of the Western liberal mindset which holds nothing sacred, and views everything as ‘fair game.’ Such is a consequence of the collapse of religious values in the public sphere.

In fact, when it comes to sacredness, it seems that the only thing some people hold sacred is their secular constitutions – which, in many cases, they hold as more important than any Divinely-revealed code of life.

With regard to freedom of expression – and indeed any freedom – the point that many people miss is that there can be no freedom without a related responsibility. With each freedom comes a responsibility to exercise that freedom responsibly – i.e. without harming others.

With some cartoons, like the Danish ones and some which have recently come out on the Facebook group which called for “Draw Muhammad day” – this responsibility is forgotten.

Anyway, one of my favourite writers, Khalid Baig, very nicely summarises the issue of this freedom in the piece below.

After reading it, feel free to leave your comments on the whole situation and debate.

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Freedom of Expression?

By: Khalid Baig (Posted 20 May 2010)

With the latest in-your-face act of the Facebook, the issue is once again attracting headlines. Should Muslims react? How should they react? Where do they stand on the philosophical issue underlying all this?

In the media the issue has been framed as a clash between two camps. One camp stands for freedom of expression. The other wants to curtail it.  Needless to say the first camp is enlightened and virtuous. The other is a relic of the dark ages. The clash, in other words, is between a civilized and civilizing West – and Islam, that just refuses to be civilized.

Once you accept this framing of the whole issue, the outcome is already decided. “Are you for freedom of expression or not?” It is a loaded question, and just like the yes/no question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” – no matter how you answer it, you remain guilty.

Look at the typical Muslim response which begins, “We also believe in freedom of expression, but…” It matters little what you say after that. It is obvious that you are trying to add exclusions and limitations to a basic moral value while the other side is asking for no such limits. It is not difficult to see which side will come out ahead.

But this predicament is a result of uncritically accepting a false statement about the nature of the clash. For the real clash is not between those who are for and those who are against a freedom. Rather it is between two different freedoms. On the one hand is the freedom to insult. On the other is freedom from insult. Whether it was the Satanic Verses of the 1980s or the Cartoons of 2005 and their endless reproduction since then, if they stand for any freedom, it is freedom to insult. Pure and simple. Muslims, on the other hand, have stood for and demanded freedom from insult. Nothing more. Nothing less.

These are certainly opposing values. You can be for one or the other. And the question does arise, which one is a better value.

To see that let us imagine a society that truly believes in the first as a cherished moral value. It celebrates freedom to insult and guards it at all costs. Every member of it enjoys this freedom and practices it regularly. In a business everyone insults everyone else. The boss is insulting the employees, the employees are insulting the bosses. The salesmen are insulting the customers. The accountants are insulting the creditors. Everyone is enjoying the great freedom to insult. The same is true of the home. The parents are always insulting the children. The children are constantly insulting the parents. The spouses are incessantly insulting each other. And in doing so they all stand on the high moral ground because freedom to insult is such a fundamental freedom on which the society is built.

Actually, contrary to the claims of the pundits, if the Western society was truly built on this “cherished moral value,” it would have perished a long time ago — consumed by the fires of hatred and negativity generated by this freedom. No home, no neighborhood, no village, no business, no organization and no society can survive for long if it makes freedom to insult as a cornerstone of its freedoms. Clearly, most who advocate this freedom do not practice it in their daily lives. But they are making an exception in the case of Islam and Muslims. The driving force behind this is not any great moral principle but a deep rooted hatred born of ignorance.

Software professionals sometimes use a term called beature. It stands for a bug turned into a feature. A bug is a defect in the software. A feature, on the other hand, is a desirable attribute. A beature is a defect that is presented (thanks to slick marketing) as a feature. Freedom to insult is also a beature. It is the growing sickness of Islamophobia in the West which is being presented as a high moral value, packaged by the slick marketing departments as freedom of expression.

Well, whether or not freedom to insult is a Western value, Islam has nothing to do with it. It lays emphasis on its exact opposite: the freedom from insult. It values human dignity, decency, and harmony in the society. The freedom of religion it ensures includes freedom from insults. While it does not shy away from academic discussion of its beliefs and showing the falsehood of non-Islamic beliefs, it makes sure that the discussion remains civil. In those discussions it wants to engage the intellect of its opponents; in contrast those who itch to insult their opponents – who are interested in satisfying their vulgar emotions. Thus while Islam’s most important battle is against false gods, it asks its followers to refrain from reviling them. (Qur’an, Al-anam, 6:108). It also reminds its followers to stay away from harsh speech. “Allah loves not the utterance of harsh speech save by one who has been wronged.” (Qur’an, Al-Nisa, 4:148). Prophet Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, who is being reviled by the scum of the world, taught Muslims to never let the low moral standards of their adversaries dictate their own moral standards.

As a result of these teachings, Muslims can never even imagine insulting any Prophet — from Adam to Moses to Jesus to Muhammad (peace be upon them all). Even when they ruled the world, Muslims treated the religious leaders of non-Muslim with respect – even during battles. In the Baghdad court, Jewish and Christian scholars engaged in open discussions with the Muslim savants. Needless to say, they had not been attracted by the freedom to insult – but its exact opposite. Freedom from insult is a fundamental value that assures peace and harmony. It leads to healthy societies. And Muslims are very proud of their impeccable record here.

What is true of a home or a village is also true of the world – as it has become a global village. Now, more than ever before, the world needs the harmony and tolerance that can only be assured by the freedom from insults.

5 thoughts on “Cartoons and Freedom of Expression

  1. “…indicative of the Western liberal mindset which holds nothing sacred, and views everything as ‘fair game.’ Such is a consequence of the collapse of religious values in the public sphere”

    I agree 100%. There is nothing wrong debating issues, and drawing conclusions from them. But to insult and ridicule in the name of “Freedom of Expression”? It’s like going to war in Iraq over Weapons of Mass Destruction that never existed.

    And many people (including some Muslims) will say that the cartoon was not offensive. My answer to that is that in Islam, it was unanimously agreed unpon that there would be no depictions of either Allah SWT or the Prophet/s SAW. The mere fact that he was depicted was disrespectful and an insult to Islam and goes against what we believe – regardless of the message the cartoon relayed.

    I believe that NO religion should ever be ridiculed. You don’t see us mocking other prophets of God, because they are our Prophets too and we respect and revere them. People have no respect anymore and then use excuses like “Freedom of Expression” to flaunt their immorality. Is nothing sacred anymore…

  2. It’s far too easy to hide the religious intolerance and propoganda project behind the concept of ‘freedom of speech’, islam & muslims
    form an easy target against the background of ‘the war on terror’.

  3. i agree with all here.

    but it is also a lesson for us as muslims to be able to stand up for ALL our prophets (Pbut). it is sooo easy for us to be united to defend the Prophet Muhammad SAW, which is understandable because he is the best of mankind, but we should also make a huge hoohaa when they depict other prophets.

    i think we will have more of a standing then when we do that, since people cannot then say that why must we make concessions for muslims and no other people of faith…

  4. oh yes, and it also would hit home the fact that Muslims accept all prophets and that Muhammad SAW was only the final messenger of all the messengers, coming with the same message to all of creation.

  5. With regard to the ‘the religious intolerance and propoganda project’…well, that’s quite a conspiratorial claim – but not one that i dismiss (watching “The Arrivals” will do that to you 😉

    (but i don’t believe all of it 🙂

    Yes, we do form an easy target – but some might say we deserve it. When Muslims stray so far from their deen, the results are the disintegration we see nowadays; the disunity and infighting, and the attacks on our deen.

    Our current state of weakness was already foretold in hadith – as was the future (i.e. how this ‘battle’ turns out in the end). So all of this should not surprise us.

    But we do need to wake up and return to our deen. it’s the only way to prosper…and actually, when times get REALLY tough (you know, when a certain one-eyed monster emerges ;), it’s the only way we’ll survive.

    Dreamlass: i agree – we must defend the honour of the other prophets; particularly Jesus (pbuh) who is mocked at so much more frequently than Muhammad (pbuh). They make action figurines of him, jokes about him, and i think there was even a play where he was portrayed as homosexual….

    we appear to be selfish because we don’t make such a big deal about that when we should. in a way, i think we are selfish – because though we may also be outraged at those portrayals, we don’t unite and mobilise and have big public campaigns against those things.

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