As a rejoinder to our PR-oriented leadership and their Muharram-inspired press releases regarding the Charlie Hebdo fiasco in Paris, I posit the following:
I- Some Points to Consider
1- Charlie Hebdo is about the most offensive, racist, and malevolent publication one can imagine. France subjugated the nations of Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, and more recently Mali and Central African Republic to name a few, killed their people like animals, dismantled their institutions of religion, state, trade, education, and culture, and left despotic lunacy in their wake, all without ever apologizing. Those of its former colonies who decided to pursue economic opportunities in France were rewarded by ghettoisation, institutional racism, systemic discrimination in government services, jobs, and social spheres to the point that France actually legislates what a Muslim woman can and cannot wear. On top of that, they selectively enshrine the right of a racist publication to repeatedly desecrate the one who those downtrodden people love more than anyone and anything else, ‘alayhissalatu wassalam?
Sound familiar? It is along the lines of what white folk in America did to Black folk, and although even I find some exaggeration in that analogy, I contend that the exaggeration is quantitative, not qualitative, in terms of the master/servant dynamic at play. Imagine if the KKK had a publication the prime directive of which was to degrade, humiliate and dehumanize black folks, Jews, and Catholics (which Charlie Hebdo does quite frequently as well, or at least did till recently); if two black men did to it what happened to Charlie Hebdo, how would black folk respond, even if they didn’t agree with the methods used, or the use of lethal force? How would you expect them to respond? How fake would an outpouring of support for freedom of speech by racist parties at such an occasion be?
This is not an exaggeration. In the USA we have a more fair benchmark for freedom of speech and religion. It may not conform to the standards of Islamic law, but it is much more fair. In France, there are laws that ban female Muslims from attending school in Hijab, from wearing the Niqab at all, and mosques are systematically and routinely denied permits to build despite overcrowding and genuine need. It is a state which utterly fails to uphold freedom of religion by American standards. It also has stridently outlawed anti-Semitic (Jewish) speech, which, despite me not objecting to it, means that it also fails the American standard of freedom of speech as well. Period. Charlie Hebdo used to do business with the same staff and a different name until 1970; it was Hara Kiri Hebdo, until it was banned in that year by the French Interior Ministry for its disrespectful material regarding the death of former French President Charles de Gaulle. WAIT! WHAT? Yes, it was actually censored by the French government, and it had to reopen by a different name, Charlie Hebdo (hebdo meaning “weekly”). Now tell me how this frankly racist state (no pun intended), which has actually severely censured and censored this malevolently racist publication in the past for its outbursts against a French hero, can show a straight face when it defends the aforementioned publication as beacon of freedom and free speech? This is nonsense. Anyone who acts like what happened is a purely one-sided instance of hate against an innocent party, is being disingenuous to say the least.
2- (Points 2 and 3 require a book to be written about each of them to do them justice academically. Suffice to say that will not happen here, but it should happen in the future…)
Islam does not now, nor did in the past, sanction absolute freedom of speech. A more astute reader will note that even the US constitution or European law don’t sanction absolute freedom of speech. Hate speech, shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, libel, and the like are also not protected by freedom of speech laws here either. However, Islam goes one step further. In its legal theory it considers one of the basic mandates of the law to be the protection of honor; this much is explicitly borne out by the last Sermon of the messenger of Allah, sallallahu’alayhi wa sallam. Therefore in our sacred law, there is no concept that a person is legal or morally vouchsafed the right to disparage the honor of another. Platitudes about support of freedom of speech are at best, deceptive.
I support the 1st amendment version freedom of speech, not morally, or as a scholar of the shari’ah, but to uphold my fair end of the bargain in my social contract as a practicing Muslim in my social contract with my native country, America, a social contract I intend to uphold,and encourage my fellow citizens here to uphold as well. If I were asked to comment about a situation in a third place, I would feel no legal or moral commitment, spoken or unspoken to the concept of absolute free speech, vis-a-vis the freedom to lampoon, mock and blaspheme Islam, Christianity or Judaism, or the prophets, upon whom be peace (although I do feel strongly that a human being has the right to speak the truth whenever and wherever he or she is, and this right cannot be arrogated by a state). I further would not feel it immoral if such speech was outlawed and punishable. This much is the canonical position of the Maliki school, the mainstream and normative Islamic legal tradition which I follow, and I more than suspect it is the same for the other three schools as well. The fact is that the legal precedent sent down from the age of the salaf who are essentially the prophetic companions, and the two successive generations succeeding them, is that disparaging God, the prophets, upon whom be peace, the Qur’an, and the like, was punishable by the government. Such a concept is not a fringe, nor is is a minority or even majority opinion; it is the normative Sunni tradition. One who chooses to ignore that fact, is not representative of the Sunni tradition, and if he or she claims they are, then they are being disingenuous.
Please note, that this does not mean that Islam stifles discussion or inquiry, especially from those of other faith traditions. Many sophisticated Christian, Jewish, atheistic, and heterodox Islamic refutations of the Sunni tradition were authored under the most dominant of Sunni theocracies. John of Damascus penned the first major Christian refutation of Islam under the rule of the Umayyids, during the age of the salaf. He was not killed or harassed for it. It was an academic work, not one of blasphemy, disparagement, libel, and mockery. It conveyed his intellectual and theological disagreements with Islam in an academic manner.
3- The normative moral and legal punishment in the sacred law for blasphemously disparaging the prophets, upon whom be peace, is death. This much is also clear from basic texts of the Maliki and other schools (please see from pp. 520 of volume 2, onwards in Wansharisi’s canonical collection of legal precedents of the Maliki school in Andalusia, North, and West Africa, al-Miy’ar al-Mu’rib). This does not mean that anyone and everyone is encouraged or even allowed to kill each person who disparages the prophets. Vigilantism is prohibited in the Muslim sacred law for similar practical reasons it is prohibited in other legal codes: it leads to the spectacle of chaos, the avoidance of which calls for extreme measures. Legally the enforcement of the death penalty in such a case can only be done through a court procedure or as an act of war on behalf of a sovereign state. However, we said that the death penalty is not merely a legal punishment but a moral one as well, meaning that the moral right to life that one guilty of blasphemy is entitled to, is forfeit upon commission of such a crime until and unless there is repentance from the guilty party (which involves some further details) from a purely Islamic ethical point of view.
This means that one who extra-judicially kills a person guilty of blasphemy is a criminal, but his or her moral crime is not murder, rather it is that of arrogating the prerogative of the state. Even if the state chooses to punish such a person harshly due to the difficulties their act will cause society, they are not morally culpable for murder.
II- Regarding the Paris Shootings:
My heart goes out to the families of the two police officers, one maintenance worker, and one visitor to the building that were killed in the carnage. Their deaths were morally unjustifiable by anyone who doesn’t believe in the concept of morally justified loss of life as collateral damage, which includes myself to the exclusion of many in our government. Such a loss of precious life is precisely why vigilante actions such as these are not good.
As for the killing of Charlie Hebdo staff by two or three gunmen, I hold my head high and say that even though I don’t sanction, encourage, or endorse what they did, I’m not going to shed any tears for the vicious, racist, and malevolent victims who were the target of their excess. If a drug dealer gets run over by a car in my neighborhood, I’m not expected to do a #Je_Suis_Drug_Dealer hash tag on twitter. I have more self-respect than that as a human being and as a Muslim. I do feel some pity for the Charlie Hebdo staff. I feel sorry that they chose to live a life of hate and die a death of hate, and that they could not find the stuff of human goodness in their hearts to do something better than be the Pharonic slave driver whipping the poor Hebrews of French society under their lash.
I don’t condemn all forms of curtailing of free speech, either in the USA or abroad. I support the freedom of all people to speak the truth. I don’t support the real legal right or supposed moral right for people to mock and lampoon the prophets, upon whom be peace. I do condemn racism, totalitarianism, fascism, injustice, killing innocents, and the like, worldwide and in a balanced way. If the racist French state treats some of its most disenfranchised and downtrodden people in a subhuman fashion, and then they wake up one day, see something they don’t like, and scream about it, I don’t feel obliged to show it sympathy for a problem it provoked in the first place; they readily provided another hand to complete the clap sounding off this whole matter.
In general, I feel that there is too much violence in this world and it needs more mercy. I also am not so enchanted by the emperor’s new clothes that I feel that that mercy is the sole burden of one group to be carried at its expense to benefit the other.