Jan 9th 2015
CAN classical Islam be reconciled with freedom of expression as a modern, liberal-minded person would understand the term? It is not merely Wednesday's horrible events in Paris which make that question urgent. In Saudi Arabia today, a liberal blogger, Raif Badawi,received the first 50 of the 1,000 lashes to which he has been condemned (along with a 10-year prison sentence) because of the allegedly impious contents of a website he founded. And in Pakistan, where the judiciary and the lynch mob take turns to persecute people on ever-crazier blasphemy charges, a man accused of that offence, and then deemed mentally unstable, was killed by fanatics soon after being released from jail.
Let's consult an authority who is considered moderate in the spectrum of traditional Islam, Mohammad Hashim Kamali, an Afghan-born, British-trained law professor who now heads an institute of Islamic studies in Malaysia. His copious writings on the matter are adamant that Islam does allow, indeed insist on, freedom of religious choice, and on diversity of opinion about many matters. He has written approvingly of cases in Malaysia where apostasy (leaving Islam) was allowed, although recently Malaysian courts have taken a harsher line.
But as the professor presents things, there are clear limits to free speech. As he describes it, early Islamic lore (whose precedents can't be ignored) is overwhelmingly concerned with the avoidance of Fitna, a term that can mean many undesirable things from sedition to confusion to war or anarchy; Islam deplores (though you can argue about how severely it seeks to punish) any kind of speech that leads to or in itself amounts to Fitna. And in early Islamic polities, sedition and heresy were almost indistinguishable. If you tried to overthrow a caliph who was carrying out the will of God, that was impiety as well as treason; and if you poisoned the well of religious truth, you were undermining the political community as well as the faith. On a broader note, the professor writes:
The right to criticise government leaders and express an opinion, critical or otherwise, in public affairs...is the right of every citizen, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. However...in matters that pertain to the dogma of Islam, criticism either from Muslims or non-Muslims will not be entertained, as personal or private opinion does not command authority in such matters.
That sounds alarming to a modern libertarian ear. On the other hand, the holder of such beliefs isn't necessarily asking the state to enforce them, let alone enforce them brutally. For a devout Roman Catholic, it is equally the case that "personal or private opinion does not command authority" in fundamental matters of doctrine, but today's Catholics don't usually expect the state to punish those who challenge those core doctrines. Even Professor Kamali acknowledges the need to change with the times: in some cases "the formulations of established schools of (Islamic) law...may not serve the needs of harmony and cohesion and multi-religious societies of our time."
Perhaps the best hope is that they lived experience of Muslims who are citizens of Western countries will evolve faster than these complex theoretical constructs. Consider the tweet which many articulate Muslims have been exchanging since yesterday, in tribute to the policeman who died in the Paris attack: "I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so." Consciously or unconsciously this was written in imitation of another Parisian, Voltaire, and his apocryphal declaration that "I do not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it..." Personally I find Ahmed's posthumous message, issued by his co-religionists, more moving than the French philosopher's famous line, which at best was a summary of his thinking, by a biographer, rather than anything he actually said.