Freedom of speech or a licence for abuse?

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Qamar Ahmed Zafar, Missionary, London

“Sticks and stones may break my bones” … Really?

The only reason that I am able to write this article, the very reason that you are permitted to read this article is that everybody is granted freedom to express their thoughts and likewise, to listen to the thoughts of others. This is in essence, called free speech. However, is it really free, or does it come with a hefty price tag? This question may have been asked occasionally in the past century; however, it has boomed in the past few years due to recent events.

What’s your view on free speech? Don’t fret! You’re free to say!

Many see the freedom of speech as a gateway to success and improvement, however some see it as an open invitation to insults and treason. So where does one draw the line? When does expressing yourself become “free speech” and when does it become a “licence for abuse”?

In this day and age, people are searching for independence and are desperate to be the people they want to be. Many protests for their rights and a vast majority write articles and post blogs in order to get their point across to the wider society.

However, why does it seem that to find independence, one must trample upon the other to do so?

Placing the boundaries

Society claims that people can say whatever they like; however, at the same time, such laws have been enforced that prevent anybody talking out against certain aspects of a nation; leaking national intelligence to other countries is also considered a crime.

Alongside this, society is putting new laws in place to ensure that extremist views are taken out of the “free speech” box and are ensured to be shoved down the shredder. So the question is, if society can place laws that prevent people from damaging certain “revered” persons and can ban people from harming the feelings and defence of their own country, then why aren’t such laws put in place to protect the revered people of faith, such as prophets and saints? Some claim that they exist, but if they do, then why aren’t they being implemented?

The fact of the matter is that we now live in a global village where societies have been interlinked to a new extreme, so new laws should be considered regarding “free speech” that ensure that this new global village doesn’t become a global wreck.

Today, if somebody questions the Holocaust or the Apartheid, they are held as criminals. Why is it also not the case when such criticism is thrown upon people’s faith and their beloved leaders? Don’t get me wrong!

I totally agree with the fact that there should be laws preventing treason. The Holy Quran itself declares:

“For persecution is worse than killing.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.192)

However, I believe that on this very basis, there should also be laws preventing people from enraging other people and hurting their feelings.

Article 10 of The Human Rights Act

Many people may not know it, but the law actually does limit free speech to an extent where peace is maintained. However, the question is, who is implementing it? With the recent outrage of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and Danish cartoons of 2006, who is taking a stand to ensure that Article 10 of The Human Rights Act is put into play? Nobody.

Here is a glimpse of Article 10:

Freedom of Speech is permitted in the following areas:

  • Political expression (including comments on matters of general public interest)
  • Artistic expression and commercial expression, particularly when it also raises matters of legitimate public debate and concern

Freedom of speech is prohibited in the following circumstances:

  • When it interferes with the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety
  • When it causes disorder or crime
  • When it damages health or morals or the reputation and rights of others
  • When it includes the disclosure of information received in confidence

The UN Declaration of Human Rights

Not only are human rights’ activists setting laws for the freedom of speech, in fact the UN itself has “freed” speech and has also set its limits, but the question here is also the same: Who is implementing these laws?

Article 18

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Article 19

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

These are the rules which permit man to speak, worship and act freely; however, even this, according to the UN, has its limits:

Article 29

  • Everyone has duties to the community in which the free and full development of their personality is possible
  • In the exercise of their rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society
  • These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations

From this, it becomes clear that although the rights do exist, not enough is being done to ensure that these laws are implemented. The law prohibits free speech when it can spark “crime” or “disorder” and also prevents free speech when it damages the “reputation” and “rights” of others.

As mentioned earlier, free speech has allowed many people to openly insult and enrage people of other faiths and organisations. The world is aware of the recent cartoons drawn by Charlie Hebdo, not only of the Holy Prophetsa of Islam, but of many other prophets alike.

The cartoonists, who enraged the worldwide Muslim community by drawing these cartoons, have broken both of these boundaries, thereby committing a criminal offence. This is not to say that the reaction of the Muslims was justified; in fact, the most balanced reaction for such an event has beautifully been displayed by Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaa in his Friday Sermon on 16 January 2015, wherein he advised all ardent lovers of Prophet Muhammadsa to simply recite Durood as mentioned in the Holy Quran:

اِنَّ اللّٰہَ وَ مَلٰٓئِکَتَہٗ یُصَلُّوۡنَ عَلَی النَّبِیِّ ؕ یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡا صَلُّوۡا عَلَیۡہِ وَ سَلِّمُوۡا تَسۡلِیۡمًا

“Allah and His angels send blessings on the Prophet. O ye who believe! You [also] invoke blessings on him and salute [him] with the salutation of peace.” (Surah al-Ahzab, Ch.33: V.57)

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra also faced such people who insulted the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa.

In reply to their actions, he initiated gatherings in which speeches were made by scholars of the community in remembrance of the life of this great prophet. These were the measures taken by true Islamic leaders in the face of insults; they were replied to with honour and dignity. This gathering is now known as “Jalsa Sirat-ul-Nabi”.

More recently, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has responded to such attacks with the “Muhammad Speech Contest”.

In fact, if we look to the Holy Quran, it is clear that there is no worldly punishment for any sort of blasphemy; rather, patience and determination is promoted in the face of ridicule:

“… and you shall surely hear many hurtful things from those who were given the Book before you and from those who set up equals [to God]. But if you show fortitude and act righteously, that indeed is [a matter] of strong determination. (Surah Al-e-Imran, Ch.3: V.187)

“… and those who suppress anger and pardon men; and Allah loves those who do good. (Surah Al-e-Imran, Ch.3: V.135)

Islam proposes peace no matter what sort of insult one may face. In fact, when a Muslim is insulted or taunted by an ignorant person, the Holy Quran admonishes that a Muslim should only reply with words of peace:

“And when they hear vain talk, they turn away from it and say, ‘Unto us our works and unto you your works. Peace be to you. We seek not the ignorant.’ (Surah al-Qasas, Ch.28: V.56)

“And the servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on the earth in a dignified manner, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!’” (Surah al-Furqan, Ch.25: V.64)

Once, Hazrat Abu Bakrra, who would later become the first Khalifa of Islam, was being inflicted with vehement verbal abuse from a non-Muslim. The Holy Prophetsa was seated nearby. Listening to the abuse, Abu Bakrra bore it patiently and in silence. Observing this, the Holy Prophetsa smiled. Eventually, having had enough of the non-Muslim’s tirade, Hazrat Abu Bakrra began to reply, at which point the Holy Prophetsa stood up and walked away.

Later, Hazrat Abu Bakrra enquired of the Holy Prophetsa, “O Prophet, whilst this person was abusing me, you remained seated and smiled, but when I replied, you stood up and walked away. Why?” The Holy Prophetsa replied, “While you remained quiet, the angels were replying on your behalf, but when you spoke, the angels went away and Satan appeared instead. Therefore, how could I have remained present?”

From this, it is clear that there is no excuse for violent retaliation to ridicule of one’s belief; rather, the true response is a reply of peace.

The bright side of free speech

Let’s walk into the light for a moment and become optimists, for there are many good traits of free speech. For example, if we just look at the Ahmadiyya Community in Pakistan, they are not allowed to openly profess that they are Muslims.

Similarly, in Syria, Druids are killed for proclaiming their faith. Apart from this, if we look back into history, women were not openly allowed to have their say or vote and black men and women were also excluded from the voting system.

The law of freedom of speech can and has given such people their right to worship, to vote and most of all, to live. Free speech has also allowed criticism, which, in some cases, can be a cause of improvement, for example, politicians criticise the ideologies of others as to take out any flaws and the Ahmadiyya Community holds a national shura in which debatable matters are addressed. However, even this has certain boundaries.

Love for all, hatred for none

This world is in need of love, peace and brotherhood. Anything that prohibits the promotion of these attributes cannot be a helpful tool for society and neither must it be encouraged. To ensure that there is love for all and hatred for none, societies must be respectful and tolerant of each other by monitoring what they say.

What does Islam say about free speech?

Islam has always promoted the sort of free speech that maintains the respect and emotions of others, thereby creating a peaceful society. Not only does Islam promote such free speech, in fact, all prophets sent by God came with the same message. Even Prophet Mosesas was told by God Almighty to address Pharaoh in such a way that would melt his heart and not degrade him:

“But speak to him a gentle speech that he might possibly heed or fear.” (Surah Ta Ha, Ch.20: V.45)

Other than this, one can see that Islam has always promoted such speech that will bring people together. For example, the Holy Quran has advised man to utter only words of wisdom and such words that are a good admonishment and nothing that may hurt the feelings of another being:

“Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in a way that is best.” (Surah al-Nahl, Ch.16: V.126)

The Promised Messiahas also strived for only such speech in society that brings people together. This is what he instructed all nations and faiths to ponder upon in his book, Paigham-e-Sulh, whilst referring to this Quranic verse:

“Say, ‘O People of the Book! Come to a word equal between us and you.” (Surah Al-e-Imran, Ch.3: V.65)

What we really need

Now the question I ask is, is the right to free speech greater than the right to be free; free from grief; free from persecution; free from hate? Of course not! The very reason that people seek the right to free speech is to seek independence and the right to be who they want to be; this is ultimately to be happy and to be at peace.

However, if the very installation of free speech removes such aspects from society, then one must ponder over how it is being used. Peace is needed much more in this world at the moment than the right to be independent. This is because if there is no peace, then there will be no one left on this planet to even be independent. When people’s sentiments are tested and harmed, riots, violence and even wars ensue. This is exactly why the Holy Quran says:

“O ye who believe! Let not one people deride another people, who may be better than they, nor let women deride other women, who may be better than they. And defame not your own people, nor call one another by nicknames. Bad indeed is evil reputation after the profession of belief; and those who repent not are the wrongdoers.” (Surah al-Hujurat, Ch.49: V.12)

This verse prohibits man from insulting or mocking other people. Thus, it has set a boundary on the freedom of speech and rightly so. The Holy Quran further prohibits such “free speech” by banning any sort of insult towards the theology of others:

“And revile not those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus unto every people have We caused their doing to seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return; and He will inform them of what they used to do.” (Surah al-An‘am, Ch.6: V.109)

This verse sets everything clear. Insulting others will only lead to retaliation. This is a law and once this is understood, it is necessary to place boundaries on free speech so as to prevent riots and hate in societies.

“Nothing is sacred”

Freedom of speech has invited the “Nothing is Sacred” theory. This has devastated many faiths and organisations who take the sanctity of their places of worship and leaders very seriously, so much so that they would be willing to die for it. If it is known that mocking or insulting a certain place of worship or a certain leader will spark war, then this theory cannot and must not be accepted or promoted.

The cartoons that were drawn by Charlie Hebdo show exactly what kind of an outcry can erupt from such an action. The outcome is mayhem, turmoil, violence, chaos, hatred and further divide in a society that already seems to be drifting far away from each other.

The Pope may have raised some eyebrows when he compared ridiculing a person’s religion to cursing someone’s mother. He said that anyone who makes such an insult can “expect a punch” in return. The comments were made in response to questions regarding Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, which were not only insulting to Muslims, but to Christians as well.

“You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others”, said the Pope.

“There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others. They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to [someone] if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit.”

The Pope rightly put it when he said that if his assistant insulted his mother, then he should expect a punch in return.

The fact is that to Muslims, the Holy Prophetsa is even more sacred and beloved than their parents. So insulting him would obviously provoke the sentiments of Muslims to an even greater degree.

All in all, freedom of speech should be limited up to the point of

A perfect example

When it comes to respecting others and making sure that the feelings of everybody in society are not hurt, we see that there is no better example than that of the Holy Prophetsa.

Once, a Jew got into a debate with one of the companions of Prophet Muhammadsa and they were arguing over who the greatest prophet was. At this time, in order to safeguard the emotions of the Jew, the Holy Prophetsa told his companion not to say that Muhammadsa is greater than Mosesas in front of the Jew. His exact words were, “Do not give me precedence over Mosesas.”

We see another example at the time of a Jew’s funeral. When the coffin passed by the Holy Prophetsa, he stood up out of respect. When the Companionsra of the Holy Prophetsa saw this, they reminded him that this was the coffin of a Jew. However, the Holy Prophetsa asked them, “Was he not a person?”. This is the sort of mindset one should have when it comes to free speech; one should understand that every person – whether Muslim, Christian, Jew, black or white – has feelings and they should not be hurt. This is necessary in order to maintain, love, brotherhood and peace in the society.

This isn’t all. The Holy Prophetsa also promoted freedom of speech so that the oppressed could have their say. Not only did he give freedom of speech as a right, in fact he even made it a great virtuous deed by classing it as Jihad:

“The word of truth in front of an unjust king is Jihad.”

The example of the Prophetsa in terms of giving freedom can be best seen from the constitution of Medina. In this constitution he gave Jews, Arabs and Muslims equal rights to worship freely, to have their say and to even decide their own punishments for certain crimes! Anybody who says that Islam discourages free speech must think twice!

The freedom to worship

Not only did Islam give humanity the right to say as they pleased within peaceful boundaries, in fact, it let everyone worship as they pleased. The Holy Quran states:

“There should be no compulsion in religion.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.257)

The Holy Quran further states:

“And if thy Lord had enforced His will, surely, all who are on the earth would have believed together. Wilt thou, then, force men to become believers?” (Surah Yunus, Ch.10: V.100)

And again, Islam promotes freedom of worship:

“And proclaim that the truth is from God, so whoso wishes may believe and whoso wishes may disbelieve.” (Surah Al Kahf, Ch.18: V.30)

All in all, it is evident that the Holy Prophetsa illustrated the perfect way to implement the freedom of speech and this day and age should really think about doing the same to ensure peace.

In the modern day, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community believes that Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas of Qadian was commissioned by Allah the Almighty to be the Promised Messiah and Mahdi. He states:

“Through the blessing of their pure discourse, those with pure speech ultimately win hearts and minds, whereas those of wicked disposition have no skill other than creating discord and conflict in the land in a disorderly way … experience also bears witness that such offensive people meet a sorry end. God’s sense of honour ultimately comes to pass for His beloved ones.” (Chashma-e-Ma‘rifat, Ruhani Khazain, Vol. 23, pp. 385-387)

Since the demise of the Promised Messiahas, his successors, divinely appointed under the system of Khilafat, have been steering his community under these guiding principles. The Fifth Successor of the Promised Messiahas, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaa states:

“Islam advocates that do not respond to the low and base allegations of the opponents because to do that would make you just as cruel. If you can forgive, then forgive; that is better …

“Whereas there is freedom of speech and tolerance in Islam, there is also the respect for mankind and forbearance.” (Freedom of Speech and Tolerance in Islam; Address delivered in Baitul Futuh Mosque on 25 March 2006)

Nothing more to say

We’ve seen that free speech can be beneficial in giving the voiceless a voice and when used in political or organisational terms. However, we have also seen the turmoil it can cause if free speech is used to harm the emotions of others.

So, at the end of it all, is free speech really as good as it sounds, or is it like an appealing Jack in The Box just waiting for you to open it so it can jump out at your face?

Now I’ve had my say … What’s yours?

1 COMMENT

  1. There is definitely a fine line when it comes to free speech. For some, those comments are impactful and motivational. For others, the same comments are hurtful. How can society decide on a middle ground? Is there even a middle ground?

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