In 1755, Dr. Samuel Johnson completed the first great English dictionary. A group of respectable women were among the various delegations who personally congratulated Johnson. The women expressed pleasure on discovering that Johnson’s dictionary contained no inappropriate words. Johnson quipped that it was interesting that the women had been searching for these words in the first place!
Individuals will always exist who, like the women visiting Johnson, consciously seek out offensive material. Cautiousness must, therefore, be observed when restricting free expression. The debate over the recent publication of Lars Vilks’ cartoon, depicting Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog, is a fitting example.
Extremists will react as, perhaps more, criminally as they did during the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy. Vilks emphasizes that extremists will not bully anyone into silence. Reliance on intimidation, however, is not as peculiar a trait as is extremists’ hypocritical nature. Oftentimes raising hell when a Westerner is involved, extremists behave strikingly different when the perpetrator is a Muslim. Suicide attacks between Sunni and Shia factions, misogynist behavior, desecration of Islamic holy sites, persecution of religious minorities, etc. all fail to raise any extremists’ eyebrow. Furthermore, which of these same extremists who believe Jesus is a prophet opposed the abhorrent Ecce Homo and Piss Christ exhibitions?
Criticism, even mockery, of what extremists hold dear would then seem justified. The problem is that Vilks’ cartoon erroneously conflates extremists’ beliefs with that of Muhammad’s.
Unlike extremists, Muhammad declared that intentionally killing oneself is tantamount to damnation (Bukhari); insisted Christians offer their prayer services in his mosque and protected other houses of worship (Seerat); declared that each person, irrespective of religious or philosophical view, can obtain salvation if they are righteous (Kanzul Ummal); prohibited abusing women, never even so much as tapping his wives (Riyadh); made education of every male and female mandatory (Baihiqi); permitted no punishment for apostasy, even allowing a Quranic scribe to change his faith (Fathul Bari); and observed a strict separation of church and state (Medina Charter). Lastly, Muhammad protected the freedom of speech. While Medina's ruler, Muhammad repeatedly tolerated the excesses of his opponents including Abdullah Ubay bin Salul, the same man who falsely alleged Muhammad's wife was an adulterer, and also led his funeral prayer (Bukhari).
But if Muhammad believed in these values, why do today’s clerics espouse the opposite? Muhammad himself referred to the Latter Days’ clerics as “the worst creatures under the firmament of heaven” (Mishkat). In fact, extremism stems not only from unruly clerics, but also from a belief in unrestricted expression.
Vilks, in the name of free expression, wanted to hurt Muhammad’s followers, not discredit extremists. But would free expression advocates such as Milton, Paine, and Mill agree? If so, then free expression is inherently vulgar and meaningless. Free expression should foster creativity, individuality, and brotherhood. Aside from fostering mistrust, inevitably leading to the restriction of rights, what truth has this cartoon unveiled? Jean-Pierre Olov Schori, former Swedish Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister, argues that Vilks’ cartoon inhibits, rather than helps, free speech activists in Muslim countries. For what leverage do they possess if extremists can cite Vilks’ cartoon as the fruits of free expression? Thus, observing some restraint can marginalize extremism, instead of, as some argue, afford Muslims any special privilege. Vilks’ actions are even more deplorable than anti-Semitic Muslims who, when drawing abusive cartoons of Jews, restrict their pens to Jews, never targeting any Israelite prophet. Such behavior, while repulsive, is still more civil than the anti-extremist cartoonists’!
Moreover, values govern speech in our daily lives – one behaves differently with one’s friend as opposed to the friend’s parents. Censorship, in the name of morality, need not jeopardize individuality or engender dogma. As the first people in the modern era to legally prohibit censorship and guarantee a free press, censorship to many Swedes is itself offensive. But Sweden has also repeatedly acknowledged that free expression is not altogether free. The Swedish Constitution (Ch.5, Art. 2), while recognizing a free press, requires that, “A periodical shall have a responsible editor”. Art has been censured – such as a poster in Linköping showing Satan defecating on Jesus (the poster’s publication resulted in the newspapers’ editor receiving death threats). The Statens biografbyrå prohibits theatres from showing any film “contrary to law or morality” or that which can brutalize or inflict mental harm on certain age groups.
Still, one may argue tolerance of Muslim sentiment requires that Muslim communities condemn extremism. As an example, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (Ahmadiyyat) has, since its inception in the 1800s, represented Islam's inherently moderate philosophy and the compatibility of jihad with the larger world. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Ahmadiyyat’s founder, drew support from the Qur'an and Muhammad’s sayings to condemn extremism and emphasize a jihad of the pen. He reasoned, “We should go forth with the kind of weapons with which they (Islam's critics) have come forth. That weapon is the pen.” Ahmadiyyat, under the leadership of its present Caliph, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, disapproved of the 2006 Danish cartoons through writing while creating no societal unrest. This is one international Muslim community, numbering in the tens of millions across 190+ countries (including Gothenburg, Sweden) that answers the oft-asked, but not so often-answered question – where are the moderate Muslims?
So, I urge the reader to critique Muhammad’s teachings on its own merits, thereby preserving free expression while avoiding measures that only benefit an extremist.
Sardar Anees Ahmad
Chairman, Muslim Writer's Guild of America