This article was published in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ on 2nd October 2012. It can also be read here. This was of course prior to the Charlie Hebdo attack but remains pertinent in the debate on free expression.
I will never forget my first visit to Hyde Park. I was then an A level student, accompanied by a cousin who introduced me to some of London’s famous spots.
This included Speakers’ Corner, described as the spiritual home of British soapbox oratory, where we heard impassioned preachers and activists shouting out their views, mainly about God and governments. It was all quite fascinating and seemingly harmless – until I got a real shock.
“Muhammad was evil!” screamed a towering, dishevelled man before a handful of listeners. With his deep Irish accent, he launched into a scathing attack on the Prophet, describing him as an anti-Christ and impostor possessed by demons.
As a Muslim raised with a great love for the Messenger of God, I could not let this go. Young and inexperienced as I was in public debate, I still plucked up the courage to confront and lock horns with this menacing figure. It was not an attempt to impress the crowd with any knowledge or eloquence, but a genuine urge to prove the speaker wrong. The exchanges lasted just a few minutes, by which time the audience had also multiplied, but since the ignorant fellow had only abuse to offer me, there was little purpose in engaging him further. I decided to walk away.
The experience left me with mixed emotions – aggrieved that such false and repulsive things could be said about the Prophet, but also grateful that I was able to defend him.
That pain, though, returns each and every time the Prophet is maligned – so you can imagine my feelings when ‘Innocence of Muslims’ was released. Just as in Geert Wilders’ film ‘Fitna’ and the various cartoons printed in European newspapers, Muhammad has been depicted as, among other things, a terrorist and womaniser.
The filmmakers have succeeded only on two fronts – provoking a violent reaction in the Muslim world that was their clear intent, and exposing their own agenda of misrepresenting Islam. Through a cocktail of mistranslations of the Qur’an, de-contextualised passages and complete fiction, they have painted a horrifying picture of the early Muslims as a barbaric, bloodthirsty mob rather than the peaceful and God-fearing believers they actually were.
The movie fails to acknowledge the 13 years the Prophet and his followers were persecuted so ruthlessly, when they did not retaliate once, before matters reached such an extreme that self-defence became essential. Had the Muslims not done so, an end would have been put to the faith.
It also ignores the extraordinary spiritual, moral and intellectual reformation Muhammad wrought among the Arabs – the eradication of female infanticide, abstention from intoxicants and zeal for learning, that even inspired Europe’s renaissance era. The Prophet replaced ignorance with enlightenment, converting savages into saints – an unparalleled revolution that has led many a thinker to regard Muhammad as the most influential person in history.
Of course, such facts have been conveniently omitted from this latest vulgar caricature. Contrast this vacuous attempt to undermine Islam – typical of those devoid of insight and intelligence – with the testimony of many intellectuals who have studied the life of the Prophet objectively, such as George Bernard Shaw who observed about Muhammad:
“He must be called the Saviour of Humanity. I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world, he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it much needed peace and happiness.”
“I became more than convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for his pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle.”
It is this Muhammad who has won the hearts of billions, including the many converts who had previously entertained misconceptions about the faith. Yvonne Ridley, the journalist who was captured by the Taliban, on returning to Britain decided to study the Qur’an, and had been expecting “chapters on how to beat your wife and oppress your daughters” but “instead, I found passages promoting the liberation of women.” She was also surprised to discover that “just about everything that Western feminists fought for in the 1970s was available to Muslim women 1,400 years ago.”
Of course none of this would make any difference to the anti-Islam brigade, for whom everything and anything is justifiable through that great cornerstone of democracy: freedom of expression. There is little doubt about the benefits of this liberty, which allows for an open flow and exchange of ideas and opinions. There is some truth in Voltaire’s celebrated statement too: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
But one must also ask – is it morally right to abuse such freedom by disregarding the sensibilities of others? Particularly when it entails malicious attacks on personalities, beliefs and traditions revered by billions of people.
Far from being a mark of intellectual progress, the right to offend seems to have made our world all the more cynical and hostile, leading to greater intolerance and increasing tensions, both on an individual and international level.
This issue isn’t just about whether Muslims are easily offended; neither is it confined to religion. It is human nature to feel hurt when any person or view dear to you is insulted. Why, then, intentionally play with people’s emotions when you know the reaction it might get? The artist may defend their entitlement to unrestricted expression, but shouldn’t the victims of their venom also enjoy a right to have their sentiments respected?
Roald Dahl made a profound point when he said: “In a civilised world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech.”
It needs to be stressed, though, that however much anyone has crossed the limits in ridiculing any belief system, followers have no right to take the law into their own hands. Islam, for one, gives no such permission. Several people in the Prophet’s own time passed derogatory remarks about him, yet were never punished for doing so. In fact, when the chief of the hypocrites (who habitually mocked the Prophet) died, the latter led his funeral prayer. Such was Muhammad’s magnanimity.
It is unfortunate that many Muslims have forgotten this. When the Pakistan government recently declared a national ‘Day for the Love of the Prophet’, thousands demonstrated their ‘love’ in the inevitable way – by behaving like criminals, looting, damaging and burning properties, including a church. How ironic, considering Muhammad came to forbid such conduct, and specifically instructed believers to protect churches. What a tragedy today’s Muslims are failing their Prophet, and with a corrupt leadership at the helm they are prepared even to kill when Islam is challenged. Indeed, with a Pakistan minister announcing a $100,000 reward for the murder of the filmmaker, why wouldn’t they be?
There are better ways of dealing with blasphemy. When Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published, and Iran’s Ayatollah issued a fatwa for the writer to be killed and other Muslims publicly burnt the book, my father Mohamed Arshad Ahmedi wrote a rebuttal to promote the true life and character of the Prophet.
The supreme head of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, has told his followers to turn increasingly to prayer and through their personal example embody the noble qualities of the Prophet. That, he explained, would be a more effective and lasting answer than riots and burning flags or effigies could ever be.
Whether it is Christians believing in Jesus or Sikhs following Guru Nanak, people of all faiths can demonstrate the same commitment to their founders whenever they are defamed – not resorting to aggression or violence, but personifying the beautiful teachings they brought; teachings of love, respect and goodwill; teachings that the abusers of free speech could learn much from.