Opinion: Free speech and walking into the rain

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Attiya Shaukat, UK

Humour and jest play a role in every close relationship: teasing jokes aimed at a spouse, child, or a close friend which makes them laugh heartily, strengthening the existing ties of mutual affection.

Humour is a universal phenomenon present in every culture. But its expression varies: a joke funny in the Pakistani culture doesn’t always produce the same hysterical laughter to an English-, Chinese- or Deutsche-speaking audience. In British culture, humour often expresses itself in the form of sarcasm, puns or by self-deprecating expressions.

Whenever I meet one of my oldest English friends from my days at school, our conversations invariably end up with elements of the above humour. My friendship with Emily (a pseudonym to hide her identity) is more akin to sisters and it’s easy to tease the idiosyncrasies of each other in a playful way, knowing that there is no malice intended.

However once, I was guilty of hurting Emily’s feelings out of jest. I insulted her about something she took pride in – I, out of immaturity and ignorance, blurted some nonsensical comment. I cannot recollect what was said, but it must have hurt, as she walked out from my home into the rain. I ran after her. We were both in tears when I caught up with her, as I sought her forgiveness. I too, however, have been at the receiving end of Emily’s slur in the heat of the moment – but the moral is, over time, you learn the etiquette of boundaries in social interaction.

I understand that our French neighbours express humour satirically as a way of expression. Even the Charlie Hebdo magazine describes itself as an “angry magazine” who mocks. Each to their own, no doubt. But there are limits to a joke, just as we experience in our daily life relationships.

In most civilised parts of the world to mock race, gender and advocate anti-semitic views is rightly against the law. So, why should it be any different when it comes to mocking a religious leader? For most Muslims, the personage of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, is loved more than one’s own parents, children and siblings. Any depiction of him by jest, is extremely painful for a Muslim.

For those who cannot understand this religious or cultural expression of respect, can at least understand that deeply breaking the heart of 1.8 billion people cannot be “humour” in anyone’s eyes. Most decent humans have a respect for their loved ones. This trait is found in people of faith or no faith. But Islam furthers this dimension of respect, to a level that is not to be found in any other religious teaching or political level.

Muslims are taught to respect the beliefs of others, not to abuse the gods of another people:

“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)

Perchance, if anyone does mock Islamic teachings, then no physical punishment is prescribed for such a person. Simply put, there is no blasphemy law in Islam at all.

In fact, Muslims are told if such a situation arises, then a Muslim should simply get up and leave such a gathering:

“And when thou seest those who engage in [vain discourse concerning] Our Signs, then turn thou away from them until they engage in a discourse other than that. And if Satan cause thee to forget, then sit not, after recollection, with the unjust people.” (Surah al-An‘am, Ch.6: V. 69)

Unfortunately, some so-called Muslims do not know their own religious teachings and instead act in accordance with their own political agendas, which makes life a living hell for 99.9% law abiding Muslims. To top it off, it doesn’t help when world leaders incite hate speech instead of facing real issues such as rise in poverty and failing economy. Scapegoating peace-loving Muslims, by insulting what they love is crossing boundaries of human decency.

This is a time to walk into the rain and for two cultures to embrace in solidarity and friendship.

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