The grossly hypocritical nature of this elusive concept is however quite apparent for all to see. Europe, for instance, imposes legal and social limits on freedom of expression; publication of anti-Semitic cartoons would almost everywhere be liable to legal prosecution. In some of the European countries it is against the law to say that Hitler did not murder millions of Jews. But, it appears that it is quite acceptable to ridicule Islam and the Messenger of Allah (saw).
Nevertheless, many Muslims today find this slogan of freedom of speech appealing primarily because of the oppressive, decadent environment in which they find themselves in the Muslim world. Therefore, this concept is taken at face value to be a universal concept.
The reality is that there can never be complete freedom of speech. Laws will always be required that would limit freedom of speech in order to preserve society at large. A clear example of this is the preservation of national security. The Official Secrets Act exists in the United Kingdom for the protection of official information, mainly related to national security. People working with secret information are commonly required to sign a statement to the effect that they agree to abide by the restrictions of the Official Secrets Act. In the US, the clash between the conflicting aims of national security and freedom of expression came to a head in 1971 in the ‘Pentagon Papers’ case. ‘The New York Times’ had ignored the government’s demand to halt publication of a document dealing with the US military involvement in Vietnam. As a result, it was enjoined from continuing to publish portions of the document. Although the Court’s decision went in the favor of freedom of speech and the press, it did implicitly acknowledge a national security exception to the First Amendment’s ban on prior restraint. In subsequent years, the Court has upheld the government’s national security claims in several cases that involved former CIA agents who had written memoirs.
Even the philosophers of liberalism had to admit that there exist inherent discrepancies within the concept of freedom and its application at state level. One strand of liberal thought argues that freedom of speech should not be limited because once this happens, the society would inevitably move towards tyranny and censorship. The other line of argument states with equal force that a government’s involvement with the action of individuals should never be removed because this would eventually lead to anarchy and a life that Hobbes described in Leviathan as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Moreover, some feel that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent ‘harm’ to others. But there has always been a problem in defining ‘harm’. Does prostitution, for instance, fall under this domain? Most liberals would also include ‘offense’ as a major factor that should legitimize the exercise of power over the actions of the individuals living in a society. Again the issue arises as to which actions are to be considered ‘offensive’. Should pornography, for example, come under this category? Some have argued that pornography is not only offensive but is also harmful. Such contradictions lead to a never ending debate as to what does/ does not constitute ‘harm’ or ‘offense’. Thus what we find is that the slogan of freedom of speech is one of the most used slogans in the world, and yet no one is quite sure what it entails or where the boundaries (should) lie.
But for the Muslims, the issue should be quite clear: Islam does not allow the adoption and propagation of ‘Freedom of Speech’ as propagated by the west since this would include the promotion of such ideas that clearly contradict Islam, such as usury, obscenity under the guise of entertainment and separation of Islam from life’s affairs.
This is not to say that Islam does not allow the Muslims to express their opinions freely. It is allowed for a Muslim to express his opinion about anything or any issue, but this opinion must be derived from Quran and Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (saw). Numerous examples can be cited from the Islamic history where freedom to express one’s opinion not only existed but was also encouraged. The companions of the Prophets (saw) openly disagreed with each other on various aspects of Islamic rules. The Khaleefah Harun al-Rashid provided financial incentives for anyone who would teach, learn, propagate or debate issues of the deen. Islam has given the Muslims the right to express their opinions, even if they contradict the opinions of the ruler or that of the majority of the Muslims. It has made it obligatory upon the Muslims to express their opinions and criticize the ruler if he abuses his authority by ordering something that displeases Allah (swt). The Messenger of Allah said, “The master of martyrs is Hamzah bin Abdul Muttalib and a man who stood up to an oppressive ruler, ordered him (to do good) and forbade him (from doing evil) and was killed by him.”
Looking at the glorious history of Islam, we find that the Muslims excelled in every sphere of life: science flourished under the Islamic rule. The Muslims were the most advanced in the world in various fields such as mathematics, geometry, medicine, natural sciences, etc. In terms of economics, they were the most prosperous ; Khaleefah Umar bin Abdul Aziz at one stage of his rule could not find a single poor person to give zakat to during his rule in 7th Century C.E. The Muslims also excelled in agriculture; in the 8th and 9th century, Iraq under Islam had a population of 30 million, 80% of whom were farmers with modern irrigation systems from the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The ration of yield of seed for wheat in the Muslim world was 10:1 compared to 2.5:1 in Europe. With regard to showing tolerance towards the Non-Muslims, Prophet Muhammad (saw) had said “Whoever hurts a Non-Muslim citizen of an Islamic state hurts me, and he who hurts me annoys Allah (swt).” (Bukhâri). With this kind of mentality towards Non-Muslims, it is hardly surprising that the Christians of Ash-sham (Syria) fought alongside the Muslims against the Christian Crusaders who had attacked the Islamic State.
The question that needs to be asked is, ‘What was it in the Muslim world that had fostered such tolerance, authenticity, creativity, and human flourishing?’ It certainly was not the current notion of freedom that is prevailing in today’s world but rather it was the result of the implementation of Islam on society. Unlike man-made systems, Islam is in total harmony with the reality of human nature since it is revealed by the One (swt) who created human beings. Therefore, the aims of Islam conform to the reality of human society. Islam has designated certain aims for society which include protection of mind, belief, private property, security and state. Only when such aims exist in a society can human beings progress in every sphere of life. To safeguard these aims, an Islamic society will restrict freedom of expression as espoused by the west since it acknowledges the fact that society is not just made up of individuals and what an individual does will have an impact on society at large. Islam makes no apology for doing this. In actual fact, liberal societies, despite their claims of being free and tolerant, are also forced to take certain steps to safeguard society. Hence they have laws restricting the ‘amount of freedom’ that can exist in society. In addition to this, their laws continually twist and change to suit their interests and are often interpreted in a manner that clearly reflects their prejudice and enmity towards Islam as shown in this recent example. The concept of freedom of speech is therefore laden with ambiguity.
A society, by its very nature, demands the existence of certain rules and regulations as to what is and what is not acceptable in speech as well as in other spheres of life. But the fundamental question is where these limitations should be set. We either base our society on philosophical principles that tend to rotate in a vicious circle, or alternatively, as those who believe in Allah (swt)’s supremacy, we turn to the Guidance sent by Him (swt). For us the choice has already been made: We have set you on a plain way of commandment so follow it, and not the desires of those who have no knowledge (45:18).
Basing our opinions on this premise, we Muslims throughout the world, need to discuss and debate on the issue of what is the way forward for us.
Umm Ibtihal teaches applied linguistics/TEFL and have worked in various institutions in the UK and Pakistan. She is currently working at a university in the Middle East where among other courses, she teaches comparative cultural studies.