New Atheism and the art of civilised dialogue

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Sabahat Ali Rajput, Missionary, Mexico

Civility is not the cleanness of one’s shave, the knot on one’s tie or the smile he wears before the masses, for by the blade of his tongue, the mace of his mind and the hatred of his heart, he may be no more than a snake in a suit. There are certain sentiments which are precious and sacrosanct to everyone. When these beliefs are insulted, especially publicly, a sinister seed of hatred and pain is sown. With time and the constant bombardment of such insults, the roots of this seed become entrenched in the mind and their unassuming branches begin to possess one’s actions. Such a wound drives the victim toward retaliating, perpetuating devastating chain reaction of resentment and frustrations between the parties.

Richard Dawkins has devoted an entire chapter in his book, The God Delusion to what he calls the “undeserved respect” that religious sentiments enjoy today. He writes:

“The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justification. The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe ‘religious liberty’.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 23, Bantam Press [2006])

The very first sentence is preposterously antithetical to the Islamic philosophy of intellectual dialogue. It is amazing to see how conveniently atheists like Dawkins take grossly ill-afforded liberties to dub all religions as one. So far as Islam is concerned, it demands rational justification as a prerequisite to faith and when elucidating its teachings, the Holy Quran itself puts forth numerous rational arguments in support of its statements. In fact, it calls upon those who seek an intellectual contest with the Holy Quran in the words, “Bring forth your proof and your evidence” (Surah al-Anbiya, Ch.21: V.25).

Hence, insofar as Islam is concerned, matters of faith do have a rational basis and scholastic dialogue requires backing evidence to substantiate one’s claims. However, to publicly mock and ridicule someone’s religious belief in childish ways is both juvenile and inane. Caricaturising sacrosanct personalities is one such example. While it goes against the dictates of good will and respect in general, it is also malicious because more often than not, such disrespectful expression is not limited to the confines of quill and ink – eventually, it has a physical impact as well.

Evan Davis, a well-known BBC Reporter, interviewed Mr Dawkins and, in the context of how people of different belief systems should interact, he asked Mr Dawkins, “What do you think the rules of the game should be?” Dawkins replied:

“I think the rules of the game are that you should be allowed to believe anything you like – and of course that’s right – but that you shouldn’t impose your beliefs on other people. And so, any creed that thinks it has the right to say, ‘Not only do we believe this, but you’ve got to believe it too or else’, I mean, that is a very very serious violation of everything that democracy stands for.” When asked about the burka ban in France, he surprisingly replied:

“I’m not in favour of the burka ban; it seems to me to be a violation of individual liberty. I mean, when I see woman in a full burka with just the slit, I feel personally offended. But it’s an important part of what I believe that what I feel personally is irrelevant, what I feel, nobody else should have to abide by what I feel. And that applies on the other side as well.” (Richard Dawkins on Islam, Jews, science and the burka, BBC Newsnight, Evan Davis speaks to Richard Dawkins, Published on 18 February 2015)

Professor Dawkins must be applauded for analysing the burka ban relatively unbiasedly and, based on the preservation of personal liberty, defending women’s right to wear what they please. However, while his belief that “nobody else should have to abide by what I feel” sounds fair enough, it can cause more problems than it resolves, if left to the whims and caprice of the public. After all, the feelings and sentiments of other members in society are of utmost importance.

It seems that Dawkins does not understand the destructive effects and consequences that can emerge when members of society publicly disrespect each other, especially where religion is concerned. By making statements such as, “Nobody else should have to abide by what I feel”, New Atheists lay the groundwork for various problems. Not considering the feelings and sentiments of one’s fellow men can be damaging on many levels, from fueling an increase in hate crimes, to even pushing individuals toward murder.

For instance, according to Psychology Today, two-thirds of all murders in the US are carried out by young men because of someone having publicly disrespected them. Criminologists have observed that numerous acts of violence stem from people being publicly disrespected. The United States witnessed a staggering rise in the number of “flashpoint killings” some years ago. Typically, the flashpoint killer was a young man who became furious after feeling that he had been disrespected in front of others. (Steve Taylor, “Slighting – the Dangers of Being Disrespected”, Psychology Today, 22 January 2012)

New Atheists posit that religious ideas and sentiments need not be respected because they are not backed by evidence. However, they do not just stop there. For example, Dawkins mentions that Andrew Mueller, a journalist, interviewed Sir Iqbal Sacranie, a “moderate” Muslim, about the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. Even after Sacranie tells Mueller that for Muslims, “the Prophet Muhammadsa is held in higher esteem, respect and regard than their own parents and children”, Mueller assumes falsely:

“… that the values of Islam trump anyone else’s, which is what any follower of Islam does assume, just as any follower of any religion believes that theirs is the sole way, truth and light. If people wish to love a seventh century preacher more than their own families, that’s up to them, but nobody else is obliged to take it seriously …”

Firstly, the conclusion that Andrew Mueller draws is a typical example of how New Atheists’ attitudes toward Islam are corrupted by premature bias. Mueller’s statement, that “the values of Islam trump anyone else’s” demonstrates how rigidly New Atheists hold on to their totally false and preconceived notions of Islam. Rather than focus on the actual point, which is the reasoning behind why Muslims were hurt and offended by the cartoons, Dawkins presents such quotes as suggest lies and falsehoods about Islam.

Secondly, arguing that “nobody is obliged to take it seriously” is fundamentally against the dictates of basic human respect. To go out of one’s way and publish derogatory drawings of a man held as the holiest person in mankind’s history by almost two billion people, just because freedom of speech allows it, is both impudent and unbecoming of any decent human. Especially when it would prove a source of humiliation, embarrassment, offense and outrage to people all over the world, it is but elementary to avoid tactics which fan the flames of disorder and violence. This is not to excuse any violence in response to written expressions of hate.

However, how many men will simply walk away if someone, God forbid, caricaturised their mothers in an unbecoming manner for the world to see in papers? Even after knowing that the Prophetsa of Islam is held with greater reverence by nearly two billion Muslims than their own mothers, how can one continue to brazenly declare that “nobody else is obliged to take it seriously”?

Islamic philosophy of communication

Islam pointedly rejects the expression of arrogant and condescending attitudes towards one’s fellow man and calls for a brilliant balance betwixt humility and dignity. It enshrines the sentiments of loving for others what we desire for ourselves and describes a Muslim as one from whose hands and tongue others are secure and safe. In fact, every interaction between Muslims begins by pronouncedly offering a prayer of peace for the other. Such is the spirit of communal good-will between Muslims and this is before any other exchange even occurs. Beyond this, the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa gave such enormous emphasis to speaking kindly and using dignified language that he deemed it an action which could save one from the hellfire (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab-ul-Adab).

By using the words “Kalimatin tayyibatin” (a pure word which is intrinsically and extrinsically useful and free of malice and rancour), the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa intended to convey a great many things. The words “Kalimatin tayyibatin” have been used and subsequently defined by the Holy Quran in a superbly comprehensive manner, which casts open vistas of understanding about the style in which a Muslim should always conduct his/her speech, discourse, dialogue and, in fact, all communication with his fellow man.

Curiously enough, the Holy Quran describes a good word as the following:

اَلَمۡ تَرَ کَیۡفَ ضَرَبَ اللّٰہُ مَثَلًا کَلِمَۃً طَیِّبَۃً کَشَجَرَۃٍ طَیِّبَۃٍ اَصۡلُہَا ثَابِتٌ وَّ فَرۡعُہَا فِی السَّمَآءِ

تُؤۡتِیۡۤ اُکُلَہَا کُلَّ حِیۡنٍۭ بِاِذۡنِ رَبِّہَا ؕ وَ یَضۡرِبُ اللّٰہُ الۡاَمۡثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّہُمۡ یَتَذَکَّرُوۡنَ

“Dost thou not see how Allah sets forth the similitude of a good word? [It is] like a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches [reach] into heaven. It brings forth its fruit at all times by the command of its Lord. And Allah sets forth similitudes for men that they may reflect.” (Surah Ibrahim, Ch.14: V.25-26)

In these words, Islam appeals to the loftiest excellences of human communication and challenges mankind to adopt such a towering caliber of speech that it becomes like a tree of life which is firmly entrenched in the soil of true and long-lasting goodness. This illustration is astonishing for several reasons.

Firstly, the roots of a tree draw upon the water in the subsurface of the ground and through the incredible mechanism of reverse osmosis move against the natural tug of gravity to supply water to the tree. The most impressive trees like the sequoia and large oaks are able to transmit up to 500 gallons of water a day – so much water in fact that the colossal volume of water vapour they emit as a result contributes to condensation and encourages rainfall, which in turn becomes a blessing for all life in the forest.

Hence, the first characteristic of a “good word” in Islam refers to such speech as draws upon the water of true and vestal goodness. If the subsoil of a person’s mind is truly pure, then the water that is unearthed to express one’s thoughts will also be pure and wholesome.

On the contrary, if the subsoil of one’s heart is without the water of human compassion and universal love, then that will reflect in his speech just the same.

The second salient characteristic in this example is the ingenious process of reverse osmosis. Just as gravity naturally pulls the water downward in a tree and reverse osmosis defies gravity in an epic struggle against the elements, heaving the water upward instead, so too does a good word demand that a believer fight against his animal self which seeks to drag down with it the water of human compassion and goodness.

Hence, the first quality of a good word is intrinsically intertwined with the soil of the human heart and the water of human empathy and respect, for it is this which irrigates the garden of delightful and beneficial speech that gives life to the people who hear it.

Secondly, no matter how much the gravity of the baser (carnal) self seeks to pull a believer down, he pushes upward and against it with this water of extraordinary benevolence and warmth, just like a tree forces water upward against gravity. The third major role of a tree’s roots is one of anchoring the body of the tree for its structural upkeep and resilience against powerful winds and other climatic factors which threaten to compromise its mechanical as well as operational integrity.

Hence, a good word is one whose roots are firmly grounded in truth and the placement of which is aligned with rationality and human reason. If the soil which contains the roots is too over-laden with clay or the oxygen and moisture levels are not favourable, the roots of a tree will not continue to grow, which consequently will weaken its structural potency.

Likewise, a good word must enjoy the soil of truth in whose nature it is to grow and flourish and must be aligned with the dictates of rationality and wisdom, which are no less than oxygen and nutrients to a tree.

The forest of pristine speech and communication

And so, Islam invites each believer to become a “Shajaratin tayyibatin” (pure and noble tree) within him/herself, so that the Ummah becomes as though a lush forest of good words, pure speech and beautiful communication. The trees of a forest envelop the ground with their shade, which is also why paradise is referred to as Jannah or a place covered by the cooling shade of trees. Just as trees take in carbon dioxide and other pollutants and respond with oxygen, so too does a believer hear unkind words and respond with speech, which gives life – whether that is by educating the attacker about the truth, pointing out the error of his ways or restraining him from hurting another.

As trees offer restorative nectars, splendorous beauty and invigorating fragrances, so too are Muslims challenged to become a sumptuous and verdant community of the trees of righteousness in their communication and speech. So lofty are the standards of human interaction to which Islam invites man that upon reflecting on the profound qualities which constitute Islamic etiquette, one is left thinking a thousand times before they utter any words at all.

It is this very idea which the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa conveyed, when he said, “Speak only if you have something good to say, otherwise, remain silent.” (Sahihain – Sahih al-Bukhari and Muslim)

This is how Islam has also championed the genius of silence and encouraged its application over hurtful or non-beneficial speech. As any person who has ever regretted saying something will gladly observe, sometimes, the best thing to say is nothing at all.

The greatest tree of nobility in action

The pristine example of the Holy Prophetsa of Islam lucidly exemplifies and demonstrates for us the application of the above-mentioned analogy of a good word being a pure tree. From the soil of goodness to the roots entrenched firmly in truth, to the life that his words gave, the following example beautifully paints a picturesque example of a true shajaratin tayyibatin.

When a Muslim proclaimed before a Jew that the Prophet Muhammadsa is greater than Mosesas, the Jew was offended by this and brought the case to Prophet Muhammadsa. According to the established attitudes of New Atheists, Prophet Muhammadsa should have simply brushed the matter aside, quoting freedom of speech as a justification.

According to them, the Muslim had every right to profess his belief in the superiority of Muhammadsa over Mosesas. Yet, the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa, who was a paragon of sympathy and mercy, saw that the Jew was hurt and his universal love and empathy for all of mankind compelled him to admonish the Muslim, saying:

لَا تُخَيِّرُونِي عَلَى مُوسَى

“Do not give me superiority over Moses.”

This is yet another example of how Islam fosters the ideals of going beyond the basic level of justice and seeks to be benevolent and considerate of others’ feelings at every level.

Secondly, the fact that the Jew went to the Holy Prophetsa to complain about this matter, itself discloses that he knew full well that the Prophetsa was a man of boundless sympathy, who would understand the pain of his fellow man. This is yet another timeless lesson for today’s self-styled civil elites on how to deal with issues where one’s freedom of speech clashes with other people’s sacred views.

The very fact that the Jewish person made recourse to the Holy Prophetsa indicates that he expected mollifying treatment from him for his aggrieved religious sentiments. It also reveals the incredible level of sympathy, love and respect that the Prophetsa had for the beliefs of those who did not share his views. It is a lesson to all followers of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa to not look at others with condescension and arrogance, and a profound message to peoples of all eras that wherever someone makes an upsetting remark about another’s religious leader, a statement of apology or the retraction of that statement should be expressed out of respect for the person.

After all, if a person makes a crude and offensive remark about another’s mother, is it not basic civility to at least offer an apology or withdraw the comment? Then what about one who is held with even greater reverence and dignity than one’s mother? Regrettably though, when it comes to the anguish that Muslims suffered at the publication of the infamous Danish cartoons, New Atheists like Dawkins are apathetic and indifferent.

Thus, referring to the pain felt by Muslims at the publishing of these ignoble cartoons, Dawkins writes:

“The ‘hurt’ and ‘suffering’ consisted, remember, not in any person enduring violence or real pain of any kind: nothing more than a few daubs of printing ink in a newspaper…” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 27, Bantam Press [2006])

It is mortifying to note how quickly and conveniently a man of Dawkins’ gargantuan educational calibre can forget the power of the pen when seeking to justify vilifying and provocative expressions of hate against Islam. One must bear in mind that Dawkins has been at the forefront of opposing the notion of doing good for the sake of God and instead, promotes the idea that man does not need religion to be moral.

Yet, the above example is sufficient to demonstrate without a shadow of doubt that there is a disparity of several light years between the civility of Dawkins, an ambassador of atheism, and the “seventh century preacher”, peace and blessings of God be upon him, who he believes was no more than a war-monger and a savage. Yet, the light of this Prophet’ssa compassion continues to outshine even those who lay claim to the highest echelons of civility 1,400 years later.

New Atheists are supremely skillful at releasing the poison gas of hatred against Islam into the minds of the masses. They ride the wave of Islamophobia like no other and this lays the perfect groundwork for a divided society. According to the Pew Research Centre, what was once simply hate speech against Muslims has escalated in recent years to threats, vandalism and even physical assault, totalling over 300 cases of physical assault on Muslims a year in the United States. This venomous anti-Islamic rhetoric plants time-bombs in the hearts of people which detonate whenever any extremist decides to commit acts of terror.

In the UK as well, anti-Muslim hate crimes also reportedly saw a five-fold increase following the London Bridge attacks (“Anti-Muslim hate crimes increase fivefold since London Bridge attacks”, The Guardian, 7 June 2017. Accessed 16 December 2019. www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/07/anti-muslim-hatecrimes-increase-fivefold-since-londonbridge-attacks).

A few years later, 2017 saw a 26% spike from the previous year, while just last year following the Christchurch shootings, Britain recorded an astonishing 593% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. New Atheists have been planting this emotional land-mine into the hearts of their audiences since 9/11. In their condemnation of this attack, which had nothing to do with the religion of Islam, they do their level best to convince the world that Islam is at the root of all evil.

When it comes to granting Islam the crown of the most dangerous religion of them all, perhaps no one else deserves more applause than Sam Harris, author of End of Faith. A critical analysis of Sam Harris in The Guardian (a UK based paper with a circulation of over 150,000), for instance, reveals the very calculated and deliberate plan of New Atheists to dub Islam as the most lethal ideology in the world.

Glenn Greenwald, a former columnist at The Guardian, writes: “The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening:

‘While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.

“He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice Western Christians (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Jews:

‘It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.’ In his 2005 End of Faith, he claimed that ‘Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.’ This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that ‘we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.’ He has also decreed that ‘this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda.’ ‘We’ – the civilized peoples of the West – are at war with ‘millions’ of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between ‘civilized’ people and Muslims:

‘All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.” (“Sam Harris, the New Atheists and anti-Muslim animus”, The Guardian, 3 April 2013. Accessed 16 December 2017. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/ apr/03/sam-harris-muslim-animus)

Sensitivity to religious sentiments vs. freedom of speech While freedom of speech is unquestionably a fundamental human right which must be safeguarded with great care, there are times when it must be interpreted according to the situation. What happens when one fundamental human right infringes upon another basic human right?

Dawkins himself admits to the serious dilemma that is faced when two different freedoms contradict. When asked, “A (religious) community sets up a school … but doesn’t subscribe to your views (on evolution, etc.) Now, is that a freedom of speech thing for them, to be able to teach what they want, or not?” Dawkins replied, “That is very difficult, because there, we’re trespassing on the tussle between the freedom of speech of parents to impose their views on children and the freedom of children to be educated without having erroneous views … imposed upon them.” (BBC Newsnight. “Richard Dawkins on Islam, Jews, science and the burka”)

There are times when the freedom to express aloud one’s thoughts and opinions diametrically opposes the basic requirements of respect – this is often referred to as being “politically incorrect”.

With the upsurge of New Atheism, this overlap, or contradiction, between two fundamental human rights has rekindled an age-old debate; this time about the “hypersensitivity” of religious sentiments versus the right to criticise religious belief openly. Thus, Prof Dawkins writes:

“A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts – the nonreligious included – is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.” (Ibid)

He wastes no time in quoting a famous excerpt from an extempore speech delivered by Douglas Adams at the University of Cambridge:

“Religion … has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’

“Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows – but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that’s holy?

“Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be” (Ibid)

So far as Islam is concerned, all three of these points are either baseless or misdirected. As usual, New Atheists try to stultify religious beliefs by wrongly equating the venerable with the commercial. There are always reasons for why certain things are considered offensive to religious people, just as there are reasons why certain things are considered offensive to non-religious people – it is whatever they consider politically correct.

Extremists are an infinitesimal minority

The first statement that Douglas Adams, in his speech quoted by Dawkins, attributes to believers, is “Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!”

The average Muslim is very unlikely to forbid a critic of his faith to rationally analyse Islamic teachings or ask critical questions about Islam, and instead of providing a clarifying answer, just declare that he’s not allowed to discuss the subject. Even if he does, he would be acting independently of the teachings of Islam. By the same token, there are admittedly extremist factions who hold this view, but we must not forget that these are the extremist factions; they do not represent Islam or the average Muslim’s beliefs. Insinuating that the average religious person forbids others from critically analysing his beliefs, just “because” it is against the fact and is a self-serving exaggeration.

Secondly, the misleading phrase, “Extremist Islam” is an ideological venom which does not at all represent Islam’s actual teachings. If the purpose is just to malign any religion, or to point to its extremist coterie of fanatics – who must be far astray from the genuine teachings of that religion – then the qualifier “extremist” could potentially apply to any religion with a fanatical fringe which misuses the name of that religion as a cover for its own nefarious agenda. Just because there is a miniscule minority of Muslims (less than 0.001%, according to Gallup’s biggest poll conducted across 35 countries, of over 50,000 Muslims) (http://twocircles.net/2008feb26/politics_not_piety_ dictate_radicals_muslim_world_poll.html) who commit atrocities in the name of Islam, attributing their evils to the faith does not at all mean that Islam does, in fact, teach those things. If a group of people decided to get up and (God forbid) detonate a bomb in the name of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, it would be a grave injustice to ascribe the bombing to the Richard Dawkins Foundation, just because the bombers claim that they did it in the name of this foundation.

Likewise, when barbaric savages claim that the unthinkable evils they commit are Islamic, one cannot blame Islam, unless Islam actually teaches that. In response to the second sweeping claim made by Adams – it is a ridiculous notion on several grounds. Firstly, the statement itself is totally false.

“To have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe…” is not holy. Atheists have an opinion regarding how the universe began and whether it was created as well, or at all, for that matter. Their having a belief regarding the beginning of the universe does not make it holy at any level. It is when one attributes the creation of the heavens and the earth to a supreme being, that it can be called “holy”.

Difference of opinion is a mercy

In Islam, discussing differently held opinions regarding the origin, creation or non-creation of the universe is not forbidden at all. In fact, according to Dr Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate in Physics (1979), an eighth of the entire corpus of the Quran invites its followers to ponder over and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth (“The Future of Science in Islamic Countries”, alislam.org, 15 February 2017. Accessed 16 December 2017. www.alislam.org/library/science/future-of-sciencein-islamic-countries).

In fact, in verses 4 and 5 of chapter 67, the Holy Quran openly invites its readers to look for any flaw or incongruence in the creation of the universe by the Gracious God, then invites them again, and again, and yet again – a total of four times in just two verses. Debate and dialogue have always been central to the Islamic thought-process. Since the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa himself, his Companionsra and those who came after them would discuss amongst themselves and express difference of opinion on a variety of topics.

At times, they were even corrected or bested in discourse and dialectics by eminent women like Hazrat Aishara and later by Hazrat Rabiah Basrirh. (The New World Encyclopaedia. Johannesburg: 20th Century Distributors, 1956. Under Rabia Basri) (Widad As-Sakkakini, First Among Sufis: The Life and Thought of Rabia al-Adawiyya, the Woman Saint of Basra, London: Octagon Press, 1982)

What many may not know is that immediately following the famous statement made by the Holy Prophetsa of Islam, that “[my] companions are like the stars…” he deemed the intellectual dialogue and difference of opinion of his companions a mercy for the entire Muslim world. (Al-Mazhkal Ila As-Sunanil-Kubra Ila Baihaqiyy)

The institution of consultation, where the different viewpoints of the companions were taken into consideration before almost every major decision was made, dates to the early days of Islam. Hence, respectful dialogue has always underpinned the intellectual, moral, and secular success of true Islam.

Thirdly, Mr Adams’ statement that “there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other” is a notion to which – in principle – Islam fully agrees. Every person has the right to have an opinion under the freedom of thought and under the freedom of expression, also reserves the right to express himself; his fellow man also reserves the right to have an opinion contrary to that.

Adams further posits that it is simply unfair that someone can depict political leaders in a negative manner, being critical of them without any consequence, but when religious figures are portrayed in a similar manner, it results in an uproar. Dawkins also writes in The God Delusion about this:

“I am not in favour of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. All politicians must get used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defence. What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 27 [2006])

John Stuart Mill – the famous social scientist, known as the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century (https://plato.stanford. edu/entries/mill), who laid down the fundamental groundwork of modern constitutions, has drawn a crucial line regarding freedom of speech, arguing that freedom of speech ends where it is causing harm to others:

“… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (www.econlib.org/library/Mill/mlLbty1.html)

The teachings of Islam have always championed freedom of speech and the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa, who was described by his dear wife Aishara as an embodiment of the Holy Quran, always practiced tolerance in the face of adversarial or personally undesirable speech by an opponent. Even as the democratically elected head of state in Medina, he never resorted to violence when facing verbal abuse from his adversaries. His regular response was tolerance and forgiveness; but whenever he responded to reasoned criticisms, he did so with verbal and intellectually reasoned rebuttals.

When, for instance, Kaab ibn Ashraf publicly hurled verbal abuse at the Holy Prophetsa (while the Prophetsa was the leader of the state), the only action he took was to ask Hassan bin Thabitra to compose a poem in response to Kaab bin Ashraf ’s indecent speech. (Al-Bidayah wa’an-Nihayah, Tarikh ibn Kathir. Accessed 16 December 2017. http://qurango.com/history.html, Vol. 5, pp. 326-336)

When freedoms become shackles

In addition to championing freedom of speech, Islam also draws a much-needed dividing-line where freedom of speech may become a source of harm for others. International human rights frameworks also agree with this necessary clause. For example, Article II, Section 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights states about free speech:

“… since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, [it] may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others…” (European Convention on Human Rights. Accessed 14 December 2017. www. hrcr.org/docs/Eur_Convention/euroconv3. html)

The UK also strictly prohibits unbridled freedom of speech on the basis that it creates destructive social divides and threatens the peace of the nation. The basic dictates of civility demand that each person in any society ensure that he or she does not utter such speech as might be injurious to his fellow human-beings – let alone spewing irreverent sentiments and opinions which cause entire nations or religious faith-groups to become offended and deeply hurt.

If individuals cannot abide by these basic principles of communal respect, then it is the responsibility of the government to not only guarantee an environment of emotional and social peace, but to do so “for the protection of the reputation and rights of others.”

Islam calls for members of society to observe tolerance and patience when dealing with those who refuse to observe the dictates of good manners and civility. This was precisely the unfaltering practice of the Holy Foundersa of Islam, who faced such severe persecution, torture and grief at the hands of his fellow countrymen, yet upheld an immaculate model of fortitude and patient perseverance in spite of it.

The Islamic solution

This path of tolerance is exhorted by the Holy Quran, which urges people to respond to hostile or disrespectful speech with peaceful conduct and even humility, where it is conducive to promoting peace and avoiding conflict in society. It observes:

وَ عِبَادُ الرَّحۡمٰنِ الَّذِیۡنَ یَمۡشُوۡنَ عَلَی الۡاَرۡضِ ہَوۡنًا وَّ اِذَا خَاطَبَہُمُ الۡجٰہِلُوۡنَ قَالُوۡا سَلٰمًا

“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)

The Holy Quran presents a truly balanced solution to the entire issue. It exhorts its followers to walk in the earth with such a demeanor as should avoid causing harm to people in society. The word haun, according to Aqrab-ul-Mawarid, means “to uphold mutual dignity, and act in a manner conducive to tranquility and peace.”

The Promised Messiahas has also translated the phrase to mean that “When ignorant people use harsh and upsetting language against them, they respond with a peaceful approach characterised by mercy and forbearance, meaning that instead of replying with harshness, they reply in a gentle and soft-spoken manner and instead of responding to foul language with the like, they respond with prayers.” (Barahin-e-Ahmadiyya, Vol. IV, Ruhani Khazain Vol. 1, pp. 448-449 [footnote])

And so, this is the sublime superstructure of peaceful and pure communication that Islam seeks to foster in society. The genius with which Islam has taught both sides of a conflict to conduct themselves is a shining testament to its desire for seeing true and long-lasting peace in society. At its root, Islam seeks to wash away misunderstandings and hate through transparent and respectful dialogue. After all, hatred is the opium of the ignorant – and love is the oxygen of true peace.

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