No religion has mandated killing others as a requirement for its sustenance or promotion.- Dr. Abdul Kalam.
This may appear to be an oversimplification, but recent killings in France, Vienna, there are six major questions we need to ask ourselves. Are terror killings acceptable? No, whatever be the cause. The second is the right to freedom of expression. A definite and loud yes. The right to criticise? Another definite yes as it follows from the right to free speech. The freedom to offend? The answer to this iffy and complex question is: perhaps. The fifth is freedom to practise one’s religion, adhere to one’s faith or practise no religion. The answer is yes. The right to get hurt by criticism? Yes. But the right to kill for that? A resounding no.
It is evident from the responses to the latest killings in Paris and Vienna in the name of Islam and its Prophet that even the “moderate Muslim” still “doesn’t get it”. After every fresh act of gruesome murder or terror attack by Muslims, the “moderate Muslim” does cursorily condemn the killing but quickly rushes to absolve Islam of any blame.
He culls out certain verses from the Qur’an and some handpicked ahadis (plural of hadis, the tradition of Prophet Mohammed) to emphatically affirm that “Islam means peace”. The problem with this argument is that the extremist Muslim perpetrators of, and the masterminds behind, all the violence in the name of faith also quote from the same Qur’an and hadis compilations. The Islam-means-peace chant offers no solution because it fails to address the recurring question: If Islam means peace, why is there so much violence across the globe in its name?
Is Islam a religion of peace or violence? It is neither a religion of peace nor of violence, argues Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American scholar of religious studies and author of several books on Islam and Christianity. “Islam, like every other religion”, says Aslan, “is what its followers make of it.”
“Whatever else Islam, as any other religion, may be, it is also that which is interpreted, lived out, aspired towards, ignored and debated among ordinary individuals and communities,” writes Farid Esack, a theologian and Imam from South Africa.
The moderate Muslim could begin to be taken seriously were he to honestly address the reality of the many lived Islam instead of obsessing with the myth of “true” or “real” Islam. Because he refuses to do so, the world ends up seeing him for what he really is — an Islam apologist seeking refuge in whataboutery, searching for “root causes” everywhere except in his religion (lived and textual), “exposing” Western hypocrisy and double standards and asking what he believes to be the mother of all questions, “Is there to be no limit to freedom of expression, what if someone insults your father?”
Whataboutery: What about violence by Buddhists…? A simple answer: Yes, far too many Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have hate in their hearts and blood on their hands, but they don’t kill in the name of the Buddha.
The root cause: Look for the root cause in geopolitics, colonialism, neo-colonialism etc., look anywhere except religion. This is a line that moderate Muslims have borrowed from many left intellectuals about whom Ghassan Hage, a Lebanese academic based in Australia, has this to say on Facebook: “If your first reaction to the vile Islamo-fascist terrorist attacks in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine and Nice is to go through the violent and racist history of French colonialism and postcolonialism, etc, you are ethically bankrupt.”
Limits to freedom of expression line: Here the moderate Muslim is in his element, “exposing” the link between the contentious cartoons of Prophet Mohammed today and the historical hostility of the Christian West towards Islam and its Prophet. The cartoons, we are told, are part of a “sustained, insidious propaganda” to incite hatred for the Prophet and fuel Islamophobia in the guise of free speech. Also “exposed” is the hypocrisy and double standards of the West in the selective exercise of free speech only vis-a-vis Muslims. To this one is tempted to respond: Look, who is talking.
Perhaps, it will be news to the moderate Muslim that France, like much of Europe, has laws against “hate crimes” such as racism and xenophobia — which includes anti-religious hate crime. Surprise, surprise, France even has hate speech laws. Those laws protect individuals and groups from being defamed or insulted because they belong or do not belong, in fact or in fancy, to an ethnicity, a nation, a race, a religion, a sex, a sexual orientation, or a gender identity or because they have a handicap. The laws forbid any communication which is intended to incite discrimination against, hatred of, or harm to anyone because of his belonging or not belonging, in fact or in fancy, to an ethnicity, a nation, a race, a religion, a sex, a sexual orientation, or a gender identity, or because he or she has a handicap.
So, yes, even France sets limits to freedom of expression. But there, the basic principle is this: Ideas do not have rights, people do. As the French see it, you, your father and your mother are protected against hate speech because you fall under the definition of people. God, gods, goddesses, prophets fall under the definition of ideas, and ideas are not to be protected from “defamation”. This is so because, universally, the freedom of expression is believed to be meaningless without the “right to offend”. For the French, the right to offend includes not only the right to express doubt, question, criticise, ridicule, mock and provoke but also the right to insult and outrage. Did not Prophet Mohammed greatly offend people of his own clan/tribe by saying things which they considered to be highly blasphemous?
Not just you, moderate Muslim, many in the West also consider the Prophet cartoons as highly offensive, and in bad taste. But there are ways of saying and your total silence on the response of certain heads of Muslim-majority states points towards the sickness in lived Islam of which you seem to be a part. The problem is this. Not one of these “statesmen” has dared point out that the butchery in Paris and in Vienna is rooted in the widespread Muslim belief that Islam calls for the death penalty for blasphemy and apostasy. Remember, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, who was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, in January 2011 for daring to suggest a review of his country’s infamous blasphemy law.
Like those heads of state, you too, moderate Muslim, dare not get to the root of the Muslim sickness, or publicly demand the end of blasphemy and apostasy laws anywhere and everywhere. Why then blame others, if to them you sound like nothing more than an Islam apologist?
Apparently anyone who wants to win the war against violent extremism and save the soul of Islam, not to mention transform a stagnant Middle East, should be in favour of this process. After all, Christianity had the Reformation, so goes the argument, which was followed by the Enlightenment; by secularism, liberalism and modern European democracy. So why can’t Islam do the same?
Reforms are of course needed across the crisis-ridden Muslim-majority world: political, socio-economic and, yes, religious too. Muslims need to rediscover their own heritage of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect – embodied in, say, the Prophet’s letter to the monks of St Catherine’s monastery, or the “convivencia” (or co-existence) of medieval Muslim Spain.