Opinion | Freedom of expression and the holy Koran

Spokesperson for Critical Muslims argues that the West and Muslims need to practice mutual respect

The debate over the recent propaganda film about Islam, ‘Innocence of Muslims’, can be viewed in different lights, just as the 2006 Cartoon Crisis could be. Some claim that this is a clash between Islamic and Western civilisations. Others say the debate is about the unfettered right to free speech and artistic freedom. Finally, there are those who argue that the film is the physical manifestation of Europe’s right-wing politics and the belief, forged with the birth of Orientalism and embodied by the 9/11 attacks, that Islam is a threat. 

The 2006 Cartoon Crisis and the recent film evoke such strong reactions from Muslims around the world because they depict Islam as primitive, misogynistic and violent while casting their prophet in a negative light. They attack the essential element of what Muslims feel lies at the heart of Islam: that the prophet was a merciful revolutionary who challenged all forms of discrimination, be it racial, national, social, religious and not least sexual. The Muslims’ prophet is the living symbol of all that is just and good, and he is the supreme role model for Muslims just as Jesus is for Christians.

The film also challenges the idea of the Koran as holy scripture. The sacredness of the Koran does not stem from some passive dogma, nor does it require that people refrain from taking an active, critical and interpretive approach toward its contents. Many modern scholars have, in fact, urged both men and women to interpret those passages of the Koran that are open to interpretation in the context of their era and society.

The Koran’s sacredness comes from the deep sense of adab (‘decorum’ or ‘respect’) shown by Muslims for the Koran and the customs established by the prophet Mohammed. Adab, which can also be translated as ‘good manners’, ‘sensitivity’ or ‘sense of propriety’, is observed by active Muslims and by many non-Muslims. But just as you don’t have to be a Muslim to understand adab, you don’t need to be a Muslim to express wildly irrational emotions about religion. In the 1970s, Denmark’s Jens Jørgen Thorsen touched off an international firestorm with his plans to make a sarcastic film about Jesus. The Pope condemned the project and the Danish embassy in Rome received bomb threats. The fact of the matter is religion has always and everywhere been an emotional flashpoint.

The 2006 Cartoon Crisis and the 2012 film crisis illustrate the potential for conflict when one group has the right and power to define universal principles for all groups. The Western concept of globalisation, for example, is not the same as the Muslim conception of globalisation. For many practicing Muslims, the idea that the Koran is a sacred scripture is just as fundamental as freedom of speech is for those in the West. However, this isn’t the same as saying that practicing Muslims don’t consider freedom of speech or a critical approach towards religion to be important.

What offends many Muslims is that their religion is made relative. For some, compromising the Koran’s sacredness at all is too high a price to pay to become part of the global community. Ironically, some Muslims’ alternative conclusion, that Islam and freedom of speech are incompatible, is a win for both the European far right and the Muslim far left, which argues that Islam and democracy are mutually exclusive since only God can create laws. As the monopolisation by the West of values like democracy and freedom of speech turns something universal into something ‘non-Islamic’, we dig artificial divides between Islam and democracy, them and us, faith and secular thought.

Mutual acceptance

Muslims need to accept that there are different attitudes and interpretations of Islam and its message, but they can’t give up the right to use reasoned arguments to combat all forms of hateful speech and propaganda disguised as ‘art’.

Non-Muslims, for their part, need to accept that some Muslims have a relative approach to freedom of speech. They can accept the Koran as sacred and they can embrace freedom of speech. Being able to accept two universal principles at the same time is, in my view, essential. For Muslims, this means arguing that both principles are important, and that they are compatible. If Europeans and non-Muslims want to establish good relations with the new Middle East and with Muslims in the West, we need to accept points of view that differ from our own and we need to be aware that others have different values and sensitivities from our own. The freedom of speech is not an unconditional right to say whatever you want; it is not a right to spew hateful propaganda.

In my opinion, we should contest the recent film about Islam with silence and with tolerance. Such was the way the prophet Mohammed reacted when he was subjected to hate, ridicule and physical assault. He sought not man’s acceptance, but God’s. Thus, the Koran tells us: “But indeed if any show patience and forgive, that would truly be an exercise of courageous will and resolution in the conduct of affairs.” (42:43)

The reaction to the new film about Islam should not be discussed in terms of freedom of speech and the sacredness of the Koran, since both are important for most Muslims, nor should it be discussed in terms of the clash of civilisations, since such conflict often takes place within the same civilisation. The film and the reaction to it should be discussed in terms of the particular form of a dangerous anti-Islamic rhetoric that is fostered by select far-right political groups in Europe, and which is a clear and present example of modern anti-Semitism.

The author is a sociologist and writer. She is also the founder and spokesperson for Critical Muslims.