There has been much written about Islam and its relationship to democracy and its values. The Danish cartoons controversy is the latest in a string of perceived conflicts between Islam and the tolerance of expression. The other day I received a number of emails urging me to boycott Danish products and educating me on how to identify Danish products.
I will not boycott Danish prodcts. I also don't hate Denmark or its people for the offense of a few.
One has to wonder if all this anger, sometimes hate, over the Danish cartoons in justified. Of all the problems in the Arab and Muslim world, outsiders insulting the religion is, arguably, not in the top 100 concerns. Take for example illiteracy and economic development. The Muslim and Arab world have scary levels of illiteracy (too high) and economic development (too low). One only wishes these concerns get the attention they deserve.
A key question is: Is the anger, boycotts, and violence justified? What does the Koran state on this?
A basic legal principle is that when a controversy arises, one should first consult the relevant text. Here the relevant Muslim legal text is the Koran. My reading of the Koran makes me believe that the Koran supports tolerance for speech that is offensive, does not urge or mandate its censorship/ punishment, and does not urge the hate of those who utter offensive words.
On the face of it, my argument seems radical and nonsensical. This is understandable given that Islam seems to be clashing with the freedom of expression. The hallmark of this clash is the fatwa issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie for insulting the Prophet and the Islam. Lately, the re-emergence of the Danish cartoons controversy also reinforced the almost universal belief that Islam and freedom of speech are incompatible. The Organization of Islamic Countries’ effort to rewrite international human rights standards to limit the freedom of expression as to holy subjects only reinforces this belief. I believe it is culture and politics behind the outrage and the limiting speech efforts.
Granted, words are not “just words” in Islam. A person gets into the faith and outside the faith by words , and not by acts. While to become a Christian one has to be baptized, in Islam a simple declaration of “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad his Prophet” ushers one into the faith. Also, a verbal renunciation of the faith takes one out. There is no need for a clerical action to get in or get out.
In the Koran, there are a few words that are singled out and stand out for their offense. In Surah Maryam verses 88-90: “They say: (Allah) Most Gracious Has begotten a son! Indeed ye have put forth a thing most monstrous! As if the skies are ready to burst, the earth to split asunder, and the mountains to fall down in utter ruin. That they should invoke a son for (Allah) most gracious.” Despite the strong language here, there is no injunction to ban these words, punish those who utter them or even hate them. The Koran does not even say that God hates the people who utter these words either. Most significantly, neither the Prophet Muhammad nor the subsequent rulers banned this speech.
The Koran sets a high standard for the tolerance of offense. Shouldn’t we Muslims follow its example?
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