Asif Arif, Lawyer, USA
By looking at this title, some will jump from their seats considering that, first, “There is no such concept as free speech in any Islamic country” and “the mere fact of comparing Western free speech in direct competition with the ‘Islamic concept’ is an insult to all Western countries to which Muslims migrate, escaping Muslim majority countries”.
Truth be told, so-called “Islamic countries” do not represent the rules or principles of law contained in the Holy Quran. Therefore, in this article, I will present the fundamental and organic teachings of Islam and compare them to modern, Western ideals of free speech.
The French Revolution and the Victory of Mecca
As the country that claims to be superior in such areas, let’s analyse the constitutional free speech laws of France.
The French Revolution shattered the royal family of France and instituted the Republican regime. In 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was adopted and Article 10 of the declaration declared that all were free. It gave freedom of opinion – a freedom the Church was not ready to give prior to the revolution. This specific declaration was introduced into the current French constitution in 1975 through the decision of the Constitutional Court.
Although the principle was written and professed in theory, historians often forget that the period that followed this revolution was the “The Reign of Terror” led by the infamous Robespierre. During this sensitive period, no such principle as free speech was actually awarded; the Terror’s Convention, considering the Republic being in danger, was using all malicious legal possibilities to get most of the individuals that were professing against the Terror’s regime convicted in a court that was mainly under the Terror’s hands.
During the specific period of the French Revolution, one philosopher, Voltaire, was famously defending the “universal principle of free speech” and advocated that all would have the freedom to ridicule politicians, leaders, religions and even God, stating that all blasphemy laws – from the period of Christian rule – would oppress the public.
Today, Voltaire is championed as the gentle defender of free speech, but does anyone care to read and talk about the prosecutions initiated by Voltaire himself when his work as a philosopher was being ridiculed? Voltaire initiated many prosecutions to his enemies such as Desfontaines or to other prolific writers that, in fact, severely criticised Voltaire (Les Ennemis de Voltaire, Charles Nisard) who would request the court to either burn publicly some of their books or stop their publications.
Voltaire, the grand defender of free speech was in fact the first to initiate prosecution when it came to critics of his books and theories.
A brief history of free speech in Islam
Prophet Muhammadsa was, on a regular basis, ridiculed. His enemies in Mecca would physically and verbally abuse and would encourage their youth to do the same. At times, he was physically beaten and at times, dirt and even the waste from dead camels would be thrown on him while he prayed. His claim to prophethood and his teachings, that opposed the narrative in Mecca, were ridiculed, mocked and led to physical persecution of his followers.
At that time, Muslims were in few numbers, had no influence and went through severe persecution. Disregarding the persecution, Prophet Muhammadsa always taught his Companionsra to show patience. However, the appreciation of the actual application of freedom is at trial when you are victorious against your opponents. When Prophet Muhammadsa returned victorious to Mecca, bringing an Islamic revolution, how did he act towards the enemies of Islam? To follow Voltaire’s path, one would have proclaimed free speech and then gone ahead to prosecute every single opponent of Islam. Prophet Muhammadsa not only forgave all the opponents of Islam, but also told them that the condition for receiving pardon was to submit themselves under the flag of Bilal (previously a black slave who had been severely persecuted by opponents of Islam in Mecca). Anyone who stood under the flag of Bilal showed their surrender, and this was accepted, no matter the atrocities they had committed previously.
No enemy of Islam was prosecuted that day, and everybody was free to live in Mecca.
The Holy Quran advises Muslims to stay clear of those assemblies where the name of the Prophetsa and other aspects of Islam are mocked. (Surah al-Nisa, Ch.4: V.141)
Going against all the clichés in mainstream media, the Quran teaches Muslims to stay away from these types of gatherings. Muslims are told to leave gatherings where mockery is taking place; to simply get up and leave. This is the actual essence of free speech in Islam.
The Islamic purpose of freedom is peace and absolute justice
Any individual who has studied the general theory of law and the history of constitutional law would agree that the general purpose of a freedom is to ensure peace and justice for all by letting citizens express their views, even if just a minority share that view in society. But this freedom always has some limitations. If article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen in the French Constitution proclaims free speech, it also set forth limitations relating to “public order” or defamation. If the European Convention of Human Rights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains such provisions about free speech, it also contains limitations about it. If the First Amendment is proclaiming free speech, it also contained a list of non-protected speech or less-protected speech.
The entire purpose of those limitations is to create a society where the freedom of someone is not hurting the freedom of somebody else and is not creating more harm than good. This risk-benefit test is fundamental to understand any concept of constitutional freedom. The question is whether the actual free speech is being applied in a consistent manner or is being applied in a discriminatory manner.
Sticking to France, recently, President Macron was depicted as Hitler because of the sanitary pass law that has been adopted recently by the National Assembly. Following this cartoon, the French President’s attorney team decided to file a complaint for defamation in court. When it came to Prophet Muhammadsa, many municipal councils in France decided to publicly post the extremely offensive cartoons on their office buildings. President Macron said that it was not “his place” to comment on the cartoons or to stop municipal authorities from publishing the cartoons of Prophet Muhammadsa – one is shocked at the hypocrisy and double standards of Macron
This application does not show consistency. It, in fact, confirms the attitude of Voltaire who was fervently calling for the right to ridicule God but when it came to people ridiculing him or his theories, he filed lawsuits upon lawsuits. There is nothing “revolutionary” in this attitude. The real revolution would have been in Macron’s condemning of showing cartoons of any prophet or holy figure because it hurt the feelings of genuine followers of various faiths.
Macron brought no revolution. He just confirmed that nobody can ever equal the grandeur of Prophet Muhammadsa and his standards of free speech.