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Is it a Hobson’s choice between religious beliefs and free speech?

Over the past couple of weeks, there have been reams of analyses and volumes of interviews regarding the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris as well as the subsequent attack on a kosher hypermarket.

Pundits from all over the world have painstakingly dissected the stark differences between legality and morality, or between satire and sadism, as they opined on whether Islam as a religion - or Muslims as its followers - were innocent or guilty of those latest atrocities. 

Following an earlier blog Another Sobering Moment of Shock! on the pages of the Huffington Post, I would now like suggest four points that might perhaps manage Western - and French - indignation or Eastern - and Muslim - outrage. 

  • Charlie Hebdo does not only satirise Muslim religious beliefs. It has been doing so with Christianity too, from Jesus himself to the different Popes and other religious leaders. And it might well be that Christians will have reacted vociferously let alone violently a few short centuries ago. However, those Western Christians who get upset from such publications today usually vent their anger by holding prayer vigils or penning their thoughts in their e-bulletins rather than by killing or maiming those they consider as blasphemers. But Islam is five centuries younger than Christianity and so Muslims might with time overstep such bellicose reactions or emotive paroxysms when challenged by caricatures that are at times a pictorial reminder of some ugly social fault-lines. 
  • A lot has been written about the need to reform Islam. In my view, this is quite a reasonable expectation since the jurisprudence of Islam has stonewalled progress and refused to move with the times. However, in order to reform Islam, it is essential to reform Muslim minds first, and this is where preachers, rulers and community leaders should be brave and innovative enough to contextualise those verses or beliefs that ostensibly vindicate nihilism or foster nasty violence. They should also remind those younger Muslim generations who might harbour prurient eschatological tendencies that compassion and mercy are two key components in the Muslim texts that are - incidentally and essentially - recited by Muslim believers more than once every day. 
  • As a practising Christian myself, I do not believe that Jesus Christ needs to be defended by us insecure mortals. Rather, I would suggest that prophets are ontologically above satire or lampoons and their followers need not resort to ideological bigotry or wreak vengeance and hurl violence onto others in order to “defend” them. I understand that Jesus Christ is more than a prophet for me, as he is also our Lord and Saviour, but the analogy still stands inasmuch as giving prophets an exceptionalism that defines and distinguishes them at the same time. 
  • Finally, I refer to the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Davos last week where one overriding concern amongst many participants in 2015 was the bane of terrorism. Given the levels of polarisation, Western and Muslim leaders should together redouble their efforts at finding common denominators and cooperation enhancers that do not demonise Islam but strive to introduce more dialogue and cooperation with others.

However, it is disingenuous to pretend that Islamophobia is not in our midst or conversely that there is no deep-seated concern about a violent brand of Islam within Western societies. However, research also shows a correlation between increasing knowledge of Islam and decreasing anti-Muslim prejudice. It therefore behoves upon Muslim organisations to affirm loudly and unapologetically (much more on the Internet than from the mosques) those verses in the Holy Quran that relate to social justice and respect for other faiths or those underlining that there is no compulsion in religion but that advocate patience, forgiveness and understanding. It is essential to disprove that Islam is solely about a jihad that involves a phenomenology of blood and gore.

What happened in Paris, just as what occurs in places like Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Burma or Niger cannot be condoned or justified by any reasonable person on the Clapham omnibus. I too am not ready to equivocate or tone down my criticisms for the sake of being politically correct or religiously inclusive. By the same token, I do not wish those fetid incidents - whether random or connected - to become the clarion call for the demonisation of a faith or a clash between peoples. Perhaps it would be helpful for us to re-read Gilbert Achcar’s thought-provoking Clash of Barbarisms

Religious beliefs and freedom of speech are not mutually exclusive despite mordant challenges or societal divergences that are as much cultural, political and economic as they are religious. Surely, we do not have to view them as a Hobson’s choice? What we should focus on instead is the harder - and much harsher - question of whether we as followers of a religion or as advocates of free speech can coexist too. 

Why don’t you join me and Marcus Jones on our monthly MENA Analysis this coming Thursday night at 10 PM as we link up from Doha, in Qatar, with Anglican Canon Dr William Schwartz who has just authored a book entitled Islam: A Religion, A Culture, A Society. He and I will discuss this DIY book on how Christians should understand Islam. Marcus and I will also cover many of the developments in the MENA region - not least the succession in Saudi Arabia - as they affect believers (including many Arab Christians) and shape our lives in this new year.


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