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Islam vs. Free Speech

Charlie HebdoThat many Muslims oppose free speech—often violently—is again made obvious by this week’s terrorist attacks in France. There, two groups of Muslim terrorists slaughtered sixteen people, twelve at or near the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical publication that ran “offensive” images of Muhammad.

This is hardly the first time that Muslims have responded to speech with violence; such violence is commonplace. Consider just a few other examples:

  • In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a “fatwa” calling on Muslims worldwide to seek to murder Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses.
  • In 2004, a jihadist murdered Theo van Gogh for producing a film critical of Islam’s treatment of women.
  • In 2005, when the Danish publication Jyllands-Posten published several cartoons of Muhammad, numerous Muslims worldwide openly advocated the murder of the cartoonists, some actively plotted to murder them, and thousands rioted around the world, causing the closure of embassies and slaughtering scores of people.
  • In 2010, Muslims threatened to murder South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone for portraying Muhammed in a bear costume.
  • Numerous Muslims have threatened to murder Ayaan Hirsi Ali and many other intellectuals who criticize Islam.
  • Muslim nations characteristically impose censorship—the violent suppression of speech by government. Last year, large majorities of people in Middle Eastern Muslim countries said “they’re in favor of censoring entertainment programs,” the Huffington Post reports.
  • In Saudi Arabia, government authorities recently flogged blogger Raif Badawi fifty times, sentencing him to a total of a thousand lashes and ten years in prison. His “crimes” include “insulting Islam,” the BBC reports.

Is such violence integral to Islam or coincidental to it? That is, do many Muslims murder, make threats, and advocate violence in response to speech because they accept the tenets of Islam, or is something else the cause?

It is not hard to find passages in the Koran advocating violence; for example, one passage has God saying, “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.”

Nor is it hard to find modern Muslims who believe their faith exhorts them to violently throttle speech that “offends” their religion. For example, in an article for USA Today, London-based Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary states:

Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires. . . . Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them. The strict punishment if found guilty of this crime under sharia (Islamic law) is capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State. This is because the Messenger Muhammad said, “Whoever insults a Prophet kill him.”

On Islam quotes a Muslim scholar who condemns the murders in France yet also explicitly allows for the death penalty for blasphemy, only carried out by government officials rather than by vigilantes:

[E]ven for those who believe that the penalty for blasphemy should be death: by unanimous consensus of ALL the scholars of Islam, this must take place after a legitimate trial, by a qualified judge, appointed by a legitimate Islamic state.

Note that this—government putting people to death for what they say—is taken to be a “moderate” and “peaceful” version of Islam.

Of course, Islamic texts say many things, and it is possible to cherry-pick from those texts to find support for freedom of speech, as Qasim Rashid does in his article for USA Today. Elsewhere, a headline at Reason magazine states, “Does Islam Prohibit Images of Muhammed? Nope. Does It Command Death to Blasphemers? Nope.” Yet the Muslim scholar quoted by the article, Ro Waseem, notes that, at best, Islamic texts on the matter are mixed:

The blasphemy and apostasy laws are found in the Hadeeth, sayings attributed to Prophet Mohammad, which were compiled two-three centuries after his death. Muslims know that no Hadeeth should contradict the Quran if they are to be accepted, given their subjective nature and reliance on the Quran for authenticity.

So certainly Muslims who wish to violently suppress freedom of speech via government—and even those who wish to do so outside of government—can find plenty of support for their cause within their religious texts.

But there is a more fundamental reason why so many Muslims oppose freedom of speech, beyond the contents of their religious texts: the very existence of freedom of speech is at odds with their faith-based worldview.

We need freedom of speech because the expression of our views is essential to the process of reasoning, which is the process by which we observe facts of reality and draw logical inferences from those observations. Freedom of speech enables us to express our views, hear the views of others, reassess our views in light of new evidence, and adjust our reasoning over time.

But Islam counsels its adherents to go not by reason, but by faith—the process of adopting views in absence of or in contradiction to evidence. Muslims go by faith because an alleged deity and his designated agents and texts say they should. If people get “knowledge” through faith—meaning, in the case of Muslims, through the words and deeds of Muhammad as described in Islamic texts—then rational inquiry, and the freedom to express the results of such inquiry, are beside the point. If Muslims hold that faith tells them what is right and wrong, good and bad, then they have no need of reason in such areas nor of the freedom to express alternative views in such areas, because according to faith there are no alternative views.

If faith delivers truth, as according to Islam it does, then reason is at best of no use, and when it opposes the conclusions of faith it is wicked: It undercuts Islamic authority and violates the tenets of Islam. Thus, it is no surprise that Muslim nations embrace censorship, that Muslims broadly support censorship, and that some Muslims take it upon themselves to censor speech through violent acts, as they did in France—and as they will do again.

Muslims will continue to react violently to “offensive” speech until one of two things happens: either they no longer believe their actions can successfully advance their aims, or they no longer take their religious faith seriously. Let us hope that Western governments take effective steps toward achieving the first objective, while Muslims themselves take steps toward achieving the second. Otherwise, Muslims will continue to spill innocent blood.

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