Thoughts on Islam, Charlie Hebdo, and freedom of speech

As was inevitable, the attack on Charlie Hebdo, which left twelve people dead, including a number cartoonists and a Muslim police officer, has forced us to to revisit the free speech debate. Some people will continue to demand uncompromising and absolute free speech, and others will call for limits to it. Nobody will acknowledge the grey between the black and white, which is where most of us stand. Many of us are suppressing our feelings because we want to appear rational.

It’s upsetting when people die, especially when their lives are considered collateral damage in the cause of defending a principle we strongly believe in. I have no doubt that some of us feel guilty that people had to die “needlessly” in the name of defending free speech. Martyrs may be glorified, but even in Islam, dying a martyr is rarely the preferred way of upholding freedom. Death is a price, not a preference.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was right to say that the atrocities committed in Paris were more insulting to the Prophet than a few offensive cartoons. Charlie Hebdo clearly revealed the ideology that drives a group like ISIS, and the tragedy was a perfect example of the kind of brutality and terrorism ISIS is capable of. According to its twisted beliefs, the shootings were not only completely justified, but they restored the honour and sanctity of our Prophet. Yeah, right.

The unfortunate truth is that what happened at Charlie Hebdo will exacerbate tensions between groups. The channel of communication between Muslims who are offended by the insulting cartoons and depictions of the Prophet and those who participate in and support their publication will only break down further. The desire for understanding and tolerance, for the moment, will be pushed aside. For now, there is only anger and a desire to release it accordingly, without regard for the physical and/or psychological harm doing so will cause on those who are vulnerable.

Like many others, Charlie Hebdo has forced me, once again, to question my beliefs. I’m still in the middle. That doesn’t mean I’m confused; it means I don’t fully agree or disagree with one perspective. On one hand, people should be free to say whatever they like. That is, after all what freedom is about: having the choice to do, say, and think as one likes. On the other hand, denigrating the name of a man as great as Muhammad, who is the greatest human being ever to have walked the face of the earth, brings me to tears. I cannot accept his name being dragged in the mud because it supposedly upholds a clearly flawed, man-made principle (yes, I am talking about free speech). When it comes to Prophets – Jesus, Moses, Zoroaster, Muhammad, and others – damn free speech. I owe my life to these people. Even as a writer, I will not tolerate anybody insulting them in order to cause offence. If that is free speech, I don’t want any part of it.

When Prophet Muhammad began publicly preaching Islam, he was mocked and persecuted, even by family members. Abu Jahl, the Prophet’s uncle, once poured camel entrails over his nephew’s head whilst he was praying. The Prophet did not respond, and never ordered that Abu Jahl be punished.

Another time, the Prophet, fearing persecution, sought sanctuary in Taif, a city state near Mecca. He was welcomed by children who, upon encouragement from their elders, threw stones at him. The Prophet later recalled this day as the most bitter of his life. Again, he did not take revenge.

There are many lessons one can learn from these two stories, but I won’t discuss them, as I would be digressing. I just want to say this. What took place in Charlie Hebdo was terrorism, pure and simple. It was evil, barbaric, unjustifiable, and wrong. I would participate in any march or protest against this act of terrorism, and I will defend an individual’s right to speak freely without fearing physical harm and death. However, I refuse to proclaim “je suis Charlie” because doing so as a Muslim would be like saying I am Abu Jahl, I am a child from Taif. I refuse to pour camel entrails on my Prophet. I refuse to throw stones at my Prophet. I will not make any effort to defend the right of those cartoonists to publish such offensive, provocative filth. Yes, filth. I oppose terrorism, and I oppose giving anyone permission to insult my Prophet. I don’t care if this appears as hypocrisy. I don’t care if it is perceived as inconsistent with being a writer or a believer in free speech. I don’t care if taking such a stand will be interpreted negatively by those who think in terms of black and white, who say I am either one or the other. I will not lend my voice to a cause that insults the Prophet, nor will I support anyone who inflicts harm on another in his name.

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