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Why Muslims Should Embrace Free Speech

Late last year I was invited to speak at the LSE Islamic Society on Islamophobia and the media. Rather than preach to the converted, I decided to challenge the audience by making the case for more free speech, even if it included insults to their Prophet. In light of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo today that has killed over 10 people, I think posting this would be relevant.

Thanks for inviting me. I want to start with this picture. What I find funny is that Muslims and Sikhs are conflated so easily. They all look brown!

The other interesting point to note is how much things have changed. This was acceptable then [in the 1970s] in a way it isn’t now. At least, not about Asians so broadly…maybe Roma.

I found many more such drawings, and to me they do illustrate that Britain has changed a lot since the 70s when the National Front marched unafraid on the streets, and cartoons like these were printed without an eyebrow being raised.

The challenges now are different than the ones our parents faced.

One of those is around free speech – the issue I want to raise today. After all, it was LSE where the recent controversy around the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed was sparked off.

In 2005 I was invited to a debate on Channel 4 after a theatre in Birmingham had to abandon a play because a large mob of angry Sikhs had gathered in protest outside, and some had broken the windows. All this because they said it insulted their religion.

The play – Behzti (‘shame’) – didn’t insult Sikhism, it had a scene where a woman was rapes in a Gurdwara (temple) on stage. Community leaders said the writer, a Sikh woman, was an attention seeker. They said she wrote it deliberately to inflame tensions. They wanted it stopped. I wrote and argued that it should stay open, not only because she was trying to raise an important topic, but because they had no right to close it down. But it was shut down because they were worried about threats and broken property.

I believe we should cherish the right to free speech. We should even understand the importance of the right to criticise, and even insult, religion.

Do I believe in insulting religious people just because they’re religious? No. Do I go around insulting or denigrating religions. No. My mother goes to the temple every day!

What I want is for us to be tolerant of people who insult religion.

Why, you ask. After all, many see the Prophet Mohammed as their family. Why should you tolerate someone who insults your family? Good question.

The problem is we cannot live in a relatively free society without the freedom of speech and freedom to insult each other’s beliefs. In fact, WE – people who are in the minority when it comes to our race or religion – should appreciate and cherish this freedom even more.

Freedom to criticise religion is the same as freedom to practice religion. One cannot exist without the other.

Think about the people who are on the streets spreading Dawah. Think about your right to say that you choose your faith over others because they are false. I want YOU to have the right the right to reject other religions. What if there was no freedom to criticise religion? Well, you couldn’t reject other religions. You couldn’t have people on the streets practicising Dawah.

If the mainstream clamp down on free speech or freedom to criticise religion – its always the minorities who lose out first. If Britain had a law against blasphemy – the first people in jail would be half the imams in the country.

If you appreciate the fact that Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims broadly have the same right as Christians, then you should embrace freedom of speech. If you think people shouldn’t be locked up for expressing fringe and perhaps unpopular opinions, then you should embrace free speech.

And let’s be clear about what I’m referring to here. What about anti-semitism? What about anti-zionism? Be as anti-zionist as you want – you should cherish that right.

Freedom to incite violence against a group of people because of their background – no. Not against Jews, Muslims or Sikhs. But demonising a group of people because of their backgrounds? Well, if we allow that for Jews, it will happen to Muslims too.

Freedom to reject or criticise Islam, Judaism or Sikhism? Yes.

The right to be offended? Yes. You have that right. The right to protest or boycott someone if they insult your religion? Yes. That’s democracy. But the right to censorship? No. Threats of violence against people who do? No. A law against insulting religion. DEFINITELY NOT.

People don’t automatically have the right to shut down a play, close down an exhibition, stop a book being sold, or stop someone from speaking peacefully just because they don’t like it.

Why should you defend this freedom? Because you want… in fact you NEED the right to protest against the government… to speak out and say things the mainstream might find unpopular. The right to expose wrong-doing, even if others don’t like it. When freedom of speech is curtailed, it is always used against minorities first.

I leave you with this. I was talking to a friend yesterday and she said the Prophet Mohammed was the first leader to introduce a pluralist constitution where Jews had the right to their own religion and did not have to believe in Islam. She added, by extension, they were rejecting Islam and rejecting the teachings of the Prophet. It was blasphemy. Yet the Prophet understood the importance of that right.

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To my relief the audience clapped after, and many students came up to me after to say they agreed with me.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy, where this article was first published. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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