Islam and Freedom of Speech

DISCLAIMER: Views expressed in this article are those of the author and they do not necessarily represent the position of UNM IGNITE.

In my opinion, there are two versions of Islam, liberal Islam and non–liberal Islam, with the difference being that the former is more lenient. I believe that liberal Muslims follow a more liberal interpretation of the Quran and Sharia Law. Non-liberal Islam is the more authentic Islam, based on my worldview and my upbringing. I do acknowledge, however, that this is subjective and does not apply to everyone. Suggestions for the reformation of Islam is based solely upon my personal view of Islam.

In recent weeks, we have seen terror attacks in France as a result of Charlie Hebdo’s drawings of Muhammad, the Islamic prophet. It all started a few years back with the Charlie Hebdo shooting, which saw 11 people injured and 12 people killed. The Islamic terrorists and their supporters who justified the murders said that Charlie Hebdo had no rights to ‘insult the prophet’.

The Nice church attack. (x)

Is it hate speech?

There is a problem with the phrase ‘insulting the prophet’, because anyone who knows French and has critical thinking skills would know that Charlie Hebdo’s drawings were not hate speech. For example, they drew a caricature of Muhammad saying ‘1000 lashes for those who do not laugh’. Another cartoon had ISIS beheading the prophet. Clearly, the message was that ISIS is way more extreme than Muhammad, to the point where they didn’t realise they were beheading their own prophet. Where is the hate speech in any of these? I didn’t see any, but let’s digress from this matter.

Moderate Muslims and Radical Muslims

On the 16th of October, teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded in the streets in an act of Islamic terrorism. The reason was that he showed Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon to his class. Not wishing to upset or offend his Muslim students, he allowed them to leave before showing the cartoons, and yet it still cost him his life. News sources reported that the Muslim students even pointed Samuel Paty out to the terrorist who wanted to behead him.

In the world of New Atheism, it has been pointed out by some that there is little difference between moderate Muslims and radical Muslims. A research by Pew Research Centre in 2013 showed that more than 60% of Muslims in Malaysia, Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt want the death penalty for those who left Islam. For this reason, I agree with New Atheism, which argues that there is little to no difference between ‘moderate Muslims’ and ‘radical Muslims’.

Samuel Paty. (x)

What is the cause of the problem?

Samuel Paty was not the only person who lost his life in the name of Islam. For example, terrorist attacks were reported in Nice and Austria, both done in the name of Allah. This raises the question of what the cause of the problem is. Some, such as Sebastian Kurz, the Chancellor of Austria, say that the problem is political Islam. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, said that Islam is in crisis. I believe that the problem is not political Islam; instead, it is Islam itself. I still remember learning in primary and secondary school that killing non-Muslims who insult Allah, Muhammad and Islam is justified. Malaysia has always championed itself as a peaceful, moderate Islamic country. Still, the kind of things taught in Malaysian Islamic Studies classes has always made me wonder if that is true.

When people are promised Heaven if they kill and die in the name of Allah and Islam, that will cause problems. Don’t get me wrong, Muslims have every right to feel angry at Charlie Hebdo for its illustrations. But they have no right to kill others just because of an offensive statement. The former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir, even tweeted that Muslims have a right to kill the French over their past colonial atrocities. Like many others, he later said that his words were taken out of context. I, for one, believe that the son does not bear the sins of the father. This means that the current French population are not responsible for their ancestor’s errors.

Screenshot by Yap Per Hung.

A solution to the problem, and its challenges

I have always believed that what Islam needs is a reformation. There are even many liberal Islamic organisations in Malaysia, such as Sisters in Islam, that condemn Islamic terror attacks. More moderate and liberal Muslims should condemn violence in the name of Islam. These organisations also call for a more liberal and progressive interpretation of Sharia Law. I believe that this is a good way to reform Islam.

However, reforming Islam won’t be easy. There are many Islamic reformers behind bars simply for promoting a better, more tolerant version of Islam. For example, Raif Badawi received 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes on the charge of blasphemy, simply because he advocated for a more liberal Saudi Arabia in his blog. In countries such as Malaysia, the masses often label liberal Muslims as ‘non-Muslims’ or ‘apostates’. This is why I believe that liberal Muslims are not part of the problem. I believe that this is because they ignore the stricter teachings of Islam and wish for a more modern version of this religion.

In many Islamic countries, blasphemy means the death penalty, such as in Pakistan and the northern states of Nigeria. This causes many liberal Muslims in these countries to be silent over fears of prosecution. However, things are not that bad. For example, there are Muslim-majority countries that are moving forward in a progressive way. An example could be seen in Tunisia, which is arguably one of the most progressive Muslim-majority countries. Additionally, a movement in Iran called White Wednesday defies the compulsory Hijab law; women go around without the Hijab on this day. We should celebrate and promote this kind of bravery at the international stage.

To conclude, Islam needs a big reformation movement. The solution to disagreement about drawing Muhammad should be healthy debate instead of violence. Besides that, a more liberal interpretation of Sharia Law should also be made a reality.

Written by Nasrul Haziq