Free Speech and Fatwa

By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

This appears to be a year of anniversaries. If it was Iran’s Revolution last week, the media spotlight this week has been on the fatwa the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued against Salman Rushdie 20 years ago.

A great deal has been said and written over the past two decades for and against the Satanic Verses as well as the fatwa condemning its author for his cheap offensive targeting the Prophet. And today as the world revisits the storm Rushdie’s little, dirty book and Iran’s fatwa unleashed back then, a lot of chest thumping and hand wringing is going on in the West.

Rushdie’s defenders are back with a vengeance and both the rabid right and liberal Left have joined forces to take on the ‘extremist Islam’ that is apparently a clear and present danger to the hallowed ideals and values of great Western civilization. At a time when anything to do with Islam and Muslims looks fair game, the Rushdie saga appears to offer another great opportunity to all Islam bashers. Some cleverly cloak it in a critique of Iran and all the troubles it appears to be unleashing across the Middle East.

Some target the alleged inherent intolerance of Islam and its followers in the name of debating free speech. The rest simply do not need an excuse to open another front in the ‘war on Islamist terror’. Seems we are the world’s favorite punching bag. Just try using the same freedom against the Jews and see the instant results.

Last week British journalist and columnist Johann Hari wrote a rather nasty piece dripping with hatred for Islam in the Independent, a fine newspaper I’ve long admired.  Of course, he does it in the name of defending free speech and human rights.

Hari’s article that was reproduced in the Statesman published from New Delhi and Calcutta generated lot of heat and dust in India, home to a large Muslim community.

As a result, the Statesman’s editor and publisher were arrested for “hurting religious sensibilities”. As a journalist, I empathize with the Statesman folks because they were penalized for no fault of theirs. But were the people who came out on the streets in protest wrong to do so? I wouldn’t think so.

The Independent columnist was certainly out of line when he attacked Islam in his piece titled, ‘Why should I respect these oppressive religions?’ But if you think Hari is equally irreverent to all religions, you’d better think again. The whole piece is devoted to Islam and its ‘oppressive’ practices and teachings.

Hari, who was last year awarded the Newspaper Journalist of the Year award by Amnesty International, is all worked up that world bodies like United Nations are curbing the right to criticize religious beliefs. In fact, Hari’s harangue begins with the lament that the “right to criticise religion is being slowly doused in acid.”

The writer is upset that the UN Human Rights Council has accepted an old demand by Muslim states to check the “abuses of free expression including defamation of religions and prophets.”

In fact, Hari bewails the fact that with the UN conceding the Muslim appeal against attacks on religious beliefs and symbols in the name of free speech, writers like Salman Rushdie can no longer have the ‘freedom’ to target Islam and its Prophet.

He goes on to complain that “today, whenever a religious belief is criticized, its adherents immediately claim they are the victims of "prejudice" –- and their outrage is increasingly being backed by laws.”

But that’s how it should be, shouldn’t it? What kind of freedom is it that gives you a right to hurt others and abuse their sacred beliefs and convictions?

Arguing that nothing should be sacrosanct in a free society and that he is not attacking Muslims but their faith, Hari says: “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do!”

That’s some argument and that’s some logic! Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve never lived and worked in the West.  So I’ve really got no idea what makes the Johann Haris of this world reach this conclusion. But I’ve heard that line of reasoning before. Like when Sheriff Bush and his deputy Blair reassured us that their war was not against Muslims but against a “hateful, evil ideology”.

That is the cleverest thing to say; or perhaps the dumbest!  Because history would tell you that if they are looking to humiliate you, they’d first attack what you believe in.

Which is what Hari has been trying to do for some time. Which is what those behind the Danish cartoons sought to do when they abused the man who is loved and revered by a billion believers more than their own lives.
This is what the Dutch MP Geert Wilder, who has made a documentary titled Fitna comparing the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, has been trying to accomplish. Wilder was denied entry into Britain this week sparking angry protests by his apologists like Hari.

This is what Rushdie’s supporters have been trying to do in this tired, old debate about the freedom of expression.

But is this really about free speech and civil rights? Is it really that hard for our European friends to see we are not liberal enough to enjoy the balderdash that goes about in the name of freedom?

This does not mean we are against free speech or human rights. They are as important to us, if not more, as they are to the champions of freedom like Johann Hari. But no freedom is absolute. And every right comes with responsibility. Your right is wrong when it violates other people’s rights.

If playing with people’s beliefs and trampling on all that they hold sacred is freedom, then we’re better off without it. 

And when one talks of beliefs and sensitivities, one doesn’t just mean our own but all faiths. We must and we do respect all religions and scriptures. 

In fact, the religion Hari calls ‘oppressive’ warns us you are not Muslim if you do not believe in all the holy books and messengers that came before Islam. Which is why the denigration of Jesus and Moses is equally unacceptable to us. 

This is how as it should be. All religious beliefs and scriptures are a collective heritage of mankind that should be cherished and celebrated. Religion should be a source of strength and peace and unity. It can indeed unite us, if we learn to respect each other’s beliefs and convictions.

All this recent talk of bridging the Islam-West gulf is very noble. I greatly admire the well-meaning initiatives by Saudi King Abdullah and others in the West to prevent the civilizational conflict that Samuel Huntington obsessed over all his life. But it takes two to make peace. You can hardly have a dialogue when the other side continues to abuse you.

– Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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