Something happened recently that I did not see coming.
In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the recent terror attack in France, and made the following comment:
“[T]here are very few (if any) Muslims that would advocate for the freedom to publicly insult Muhammad. Or to put in Voltairian language, no devout Muslim would ever say: ‘I disagree with your insulting of the Prophet Muhammad, but I will defend to the death your right to insult him’. “
Well, it seems that there is at least one well-known Muslim here in Australia who is happy to publicly advocate for the freedom to publicly insult Muhammed.
And he made this point very strongly in the January 14 edition of The Australian newspaper. Keysar Trad, a prominent Australian Islamic figure, was pictured holding up the latest edition of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, complete with a cartoon representation of Muhammed (Please note: I’ve removed the picture of Muhammed, so as to not cause unnecessary offense to Muslim readers).
Here are my brief reflections on this unexpected event.
1) Mr Trad has made a powerful statement about the importance of free speech.
Make no mistake: being photographed with a (mocking) cartoon of Muhammed (especially by a major national newspaper) would not have been an easy thing for a devout Muslim to do. As I argued in a previous blog post, Islam does not hold to the western view of freedom of speech, and thus Mr Trad would have been going against his Islamic worldview in doing this.
A hypothetical secular equivalent might be gay actor Stephen Fry being photographed with an offensive ‘God hates Fags‘ billboard message from a gay-hating group like the Westbro Baptist Church. Obviously, this would not be an easy thing for him to do, either. But it would send a very powerful message that free speech is very important: even more important than not being (deeply) offended. And by being photographed with Charlie Hebdo in hand, Mr Trad has sent precisely that message.
Kudos to Mr Trad for making such an important point!
Hopefully, his views on freedom of speech will permeate to many more Muslims in our country (not that we should expect other Muslims to be photographed with Charlie Hebdo in hand!).
2) However, it remains to be seen how many Muslims in western countries agree with Mr Trad’s view.
Freedom of speech is already contested in many western societies, and the growing size of Islamic communities in western countries will only lead to more heated discussion as to what should be the limits of freedom of speech. That is, should it be acceptable to publicly criticise, and even insult Muhammed?
Many Muslims would strongly argue against such a freedom, both at a community level, but also internationally.
Writing in USA Today, Robert Blitt, an international law specialist formerly with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, writes:
The Islamic State and al-Qaeda are by no means the most powerful purveyors of the destructive idea that Islam demands unqualified protection against perceived insult. In the aftermath of the Paris attack, reputable Muslim groups around the world have denounced the violence, but important bodies such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Arab League, as well as many of the individual states comprising these groups, must bear responsibility for nurturing an environment that breeds violence in the name of defending Islam.
The OIC, whose member states range from moderate U.S. allies such as Jordan to adversaries such as Iran, describes itself as the world’s largest international body after the United Nations. For more than a decade, “the collective voice of the Muslim world” has spread the belief that any insult directed against the Muslim faith or its prophet demands absolute suppression. Quashing “defamation of Islam” is enshrined as a chief objective in the organization’s charter.
Translated into practice inside Islamic nations and increasingly elsewhere, this toxic vision breeds contempt for freedom of religion and expression, justifies the killing of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and casts a pall of self-censorship over academia and the arts.
If traditional Islamic voices, as represented by groups like the OIC, have their way, then Mr Trad’s brave gesture will have been nothing more than a candle in the wind for the cause of freedom of speech in the West.
3) According to the Christian Worldview, freedom of speech is necessary for human well-being.
According to the Christian Worldview, words have power. It’s no coincidence that in the opening chapters of the Bible, we see God creating the world through His speech (e.g. Genesis 1:3,6,9 etc). One of the first recorded human actions in the Bible involves speech, with Adam naming the animals (Genesis 2: 19). Thus human beings are designed to speak. Indeed, it’s through our words that we run the world: we raise children using our words; we run companies and countries using words; we start families (i.e. marriage) using words; we search for truth and justice using our words. Indeed, the central message of the Bible, namely the Gospel, is communicated via words, and this Gospel has the power to reconcile humanity to God.
Words are powerful.
Moreover, because words are so powerful, this power is best distributed amongst many people, rather than concentrated in the hands of a few select groups/individuals. If the members of a society are given freedom to use the power of their words, then they will have the power to resist oppression, speak out for justice, and search for truth. As somebody once said, ‘give me the right to speak, and with that, I will be able to defend my other rights‘.
And so it’s no surprise that a lack of freedom of speech correlates very strongly with a lack of human rights and human wellbeing, as seen (for example) in the Islamic world.
That is why we need to defend freedom of speech.
That is why we can thank Keysar Trad for doing just that.