Do Muslims Have Equal Right to Free Speech?

Editor’s Note: This article was published in 2015. We re-highlight it following the recent republication of offensive cartoons against the Prophet (PBUH) by Charlie Hebdo.

Professor Julian Petley of Brunel University London in his bookCensoring the Word (London: Seagull, 2007) mentions that “all democratic countries possess laws that curtail media freedom in one way or another (the UK has over 60)” (p. 29).

Andrea-Tereza Nitisor in “Speaking the Despicable: Blasphemy in Literature” (2009) states: “Blasphemy laws still exist in the penal codes of many countries, including European states that boast secular democratic values” (p. 110).

Section 295-A of the Penal Code of 1860 that Bangladesh, India and Pakistan governments use to proscribe written words or to ban writers was introduced by British colonizers during the colonial period. All these facts do not suggest that the West is a site of, or advocate for, limitless free speech.

🎦 Watch Also: Charlie Hebdo.. Is It Really About Freedom of Speech?

Free Speech in the West

Western media outlets largely maintain a consistent policy of not maligning Judaism and Christianity and their holy symbols. What is more, most European countries have laws that criminalize Holocaust denial and ban hate speech (especially against the Jews).

In 2006 a Vienna court sentenced the British academic David Irving (1938 –) to three years in prison for denying the Holocaust of the European Jews. Imams in masjids in the West are under constant surveillance and sometimes secret agents monitor especially the content of their khutbahs (Friday sermons).

Recently, Russia has banned Ali Muhammed al-Salabi’s book Abu Bakr Siddique, the First Caliph. In the last one decade or so, the country’s Justice Ministry has blacklisted over two thousand titles including a number of classical Islamic books.

The above deliberation shows that free speech restrictions are not a Muslim monopoly, as they exist in many non-Muslim countries on earth. However, a binary of absolute freedom of expression in Western countries and its restriction in Muslim societies features quite prominently in the discourse of free speech ban and intellectual proscription.

Absolute Freedom?

Whether freedom of expression should be absolute or there should be some sort of cap on its exercise has generated lively discussion over time. Classical British scholars who intellectually fought against censorship and promoted freedom of expression do not support unbounded or irresponsible exercise of free speech.

John Milton (1608 – 1674) defended free speech and wrote Areopagitica (1644) to oppose the intellectually stifling Licensing Order that the British government passed in June 1643. However, he did not support unconditional right to freedom of expression and wanted religious and political authorities to be watchful over its possible misuse. As he states:

“I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors” (p. 151).

Another champion of free speech John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) “defines liberty as the right of the individual to think and act as they wish, providing that they harm no one else by doing so” (Petley p. 46).

Disrespect of Religious Symbols

In our contemporary time, the Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1911 – 2006) describes the limits of freedom of expression in an interview with Mohamed Salmawy thus:

“We need to differentiate between free speech and disrespect for religious symbols. Every man has the right to stretch his arms, for example, but not to the extent that he hits the face of the person next to him” (Al-Ahram Weekly On-line (9–15 Feb. 2006).

I put a similar analogy below which may help illuminate this debate further. Car drivers have to follow traffic rules. They must stop when traffic lights are red and can go when the lights turn green.

However, this rule is not absolute. Because even if the lights go green but there are cars ahead unmoving, the driver behind cannot exercise their right to go. That is to say, s/he is supposed to consider the presence of the car(s) ahead before s/he exercises their right to go even when the traffic lights are green.

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