Originally published in Onfaith
Wednesday’s brazen attack in the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo has left many people the world over shocked, saddened, and even infuriated. As the smoke cleared and we learned that 12 people were killed at the hands of three individuals wearing commando uniforms who brandished automatic weapons that were fired indiscriminately at the office, we were left with the horrific reality that these individuals were killed for the single fact that they used their free speech to publish provocative content.
As a Muslim, I was left having to grapple with — and answer — questions about the Islamic stance towards free speech and whether this attack is a natural consequence of mocking or abusing Muslim sentiments.
Many of us are no strangers to Charlie Hebdo, which has worked its way into controversy for some years, especially after choosing on multiple occasions to publish insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad with the expressed intention of offending Muslims. And, of course, if Charlie Hebdo has the right to insult, then Muslims have a right to feel offended. But the question becomes how Muslims should react and respond to this offense?
As hurt as I was to learn that 12 people lost their lives (and 12 families lost loved ones) due to this unjustifiable and unconscionable terrorist attack, I also experienced anger when I learned of the response of a known radical cleric in the United Kingdom named Anjem Choudary. This obscure leader of a tiny group of radical Muslims has spouted off some of the most despicable words one could imagine and appears hell-bent on intentionally maligning the Islamic faith and its prophet.
Why should I care about his article? Well, in less than 12 hours of being published, it had already been shared on social networks nearly 8,000 times, with 300 comments posted by readers. This obscure, insignificant lunatic has a platform and his voice is being heard. In his rant, he claims, “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression,” alleging that anyone found guilty of abusing the Prophet Muhammad will receive “capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State.”
Purporting to be an Imam, he did not make even the slightest hint that there was anything wrong with commandos brutally killing these people. Instead of expanding on how Islamic scripture explicitly instructs Muslims to respond to insulting speech, Choudary concluded, “It is time that the sanctity of a Prophet revered by up to one-quarter of the world’s population was protected.”
In truth, it is time for radical hate-mongers like Choudary, who clearly have no true attachment to God or the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, to be confronted by the true teachings of Islam. Islam offers the balanced approach, instructing believers to self-govern their own speech but also how to respond to unseemly speech.
The Qur’an strongly discourages indecent behavior and speech, or the hurting of others’ sensitivities, regardless of whether it is done with or without a “valid” reason. Prophet Muhammad called his followers to human decency, integrity, and sensitivity through self-restraint — a virtue that encompasses forgiveness, patience, abstention from injury, truth, sweetness of speech, benevolence, and freedom from malice.
But Islam does not support people who violently censor free speech. Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Qur’an both through direct instruction as well as recalling how Muhammad was insulted to his face and never retaliated. The Qur’an records that he was called crazy, a victim of deception, a liar, and a fraud. Through this all, the Prophet Muhammad never retaliated or called for these people to be attacked, seized, or executed. This is because the Qur’an says to “overlook their annoying talk” and to “bear patiently what they say.” It instructs us to avoid the company of those who continue their derogatory attacks against Islam. There simply is no room in Islam for responding to mockery or blasphemy with violence.
But perhaps most pointedly, the Qur’an tells believers not to be provoked by those who seem to attack Islam, stating very clearly “let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice.”
This is supported by the actions of the Prophet Muhammad himself. When he was once returning from an expedition, an antagonist used insulting words against him. Although a companion suggested that the culprit be killed, the Prophet Muhammad did not permit anyone to do so and, instead, instructed they leave him alone.
How tragic that some so-called Muslims have forsaken the words of the Qur’an and the prophet they claim to somehow defend. Muslims are not allowed to respond with violence. Rather, they must have the same courage as the Prophet of Islam to face such insults in the eye and respond with forbearance and calm, righteous speech.
So when you hear lunatics such as Anjem Choudary claim that people who mock Islam must be killed, tell him to go read the Qur’an and educate himself on the faith to which he claims allegiance but of which he remains ignorant.