By Yasser Latif Hamdani
March 30, 2015
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the US is unique in the world. Other than religious freedom as well as a bar on Congress from respecting an establishment of religion, this amendment provides for an unfettered right to freedom of speech and press. This is how it should be everywhere ideally but, unfortunately, we live in a less than ideal world. The advantages of having an unfettered right to freedom of speech and press are too numerous to list. Primarily though it creates a society where true scholarship and bona fide research into even the most taboo of topics is possible. This leads to a marketplace of ideas that creates a national intellectual economy so essential to a progressive society. Yet it can also mean that the same freedom is abused. The right to speak is conflated often with the right to offend. Offensive speech, it follows, is protected speech. However, where hate speech leads to hate violence it becomes fighting words.
Now consider the ongoing Islamophobia debate in the US. It is one of the most divisive and polarising debates in that country. Leading this debate are people like Sam Harris and Ayyan Hirsi Ali, who vehemently insist that extremists and terrorists are intellectually honest when committing crimes against humanity in the name of Islam. Their target, without exception, is not extremists or terrorists but moderate Muslims who they contend are intellectually dishonest, naïve or both. Furthermore, they contend that the only way to be a good Muslim is to be a Muslim in name. A corollary is that they believe moderate Muslims shield extremists because they make it impossible to criticise Islam’s true doctrine (ironically laying claim to be the true experts of Islamic doctrine themselves). This, they say, is not Islamophobia but instead legitimate criticism of an ideology that is inherently violent. Needless to say, this abrasive rhetoric is counterproductive to any of the stated objectives of this camp. They can claim as many times as they want that their target is a set of ideas and not Muslim people but the truth is that the Chapel Hill shootings showed that this rhetoric also translates into hate violence.
Perhaps the biggest problem with their penchant to paint the diversity that is Islam with one broad brush is that they forget one fundamental truth: there are close to 1.5 billion people on this Earth who identify themselves as Muslims and modernisation of the Muslim narrative can only happen if you state that their lifeblood, which is their faith, is completely compatible with such modernity. What Islam is going through right now is not at all different from the process of reformation that Christianity underwent during the 16th century. Those who are so impatient with reform would do well to read that history. Indeed, the world of Islam is reforming at a faster rate because of the times we live in. More and more women are part of the work force. At the very basic level there is a realisation that religious freedom is a good thing and civil society in many Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, is very active in speaking out for civil liberties, women’s rights and other issues germane to the modern age. Yes, there are fundamentalists and fanatics creating problems but then what do you think Martin Luther, the father of Christian reformation, was? Lutherans and Catholics both burnt each other at the stake during the 16th century.
The discourse, rightly labelled as Islamophobia, does not aid or speed up the process of Muslim reformation. It hinders it especially since Sam Harris and company goes after not the extremists in the Muslim world but the moderates. When painted into a corner, even a moderate Muslim has to make a choice: to give up his identity and his way of life or to resist. If human history is any indication, nine out of 10 moderates will resist. And there are many achievements in Islamic history that moderates are rightly proud of. The civilisation that Islam ushered in produced Avicenna, Averroes, Rhazes, Al Khawarzimi and countless other men of science and philosophy, who have enriched the human consciousness. Averroes, for example, was precisely the kind of person who would be called an “Islamic apologist” by the Islamophobes of today. He had attempted to reconcile Aristotlean ideas with the Islamic faith. Yet it is Averroes who features prominently in the artwork of the Renaissance period. His influence over western thought cannot be underestimated.
The main objection raised against Islam by its critics today pertains to the Islamic legal system. The criticism holds water because Islamic jurisprudence has remained static since the 12th century. There is no denying of course that the major pre-occupation of Islam has been the law. However, it must be said that compared to the legal systems that existed at the time, i.e. from 650 AD to 1250 AD, Islamic jurisprudence was far more progressive. Then it all came to a halt around the time the great Muslim seat of Islamic learning, Baghdad, the capital of knowledge in the world, was burnt down by Helagu Khan. Islamic law was ossified and limited to dogma. What the critics of Islamic jurisprudence today attack is a corpse rather than a living system. A legal system has to constantly evolve. After all, how does one explain west’s evolution from a society that burnt women at the stake to the one that is subject to the highest principles of human conduct and civil rights?
What is certain, however, is that one cannot hope to reform the Islamic world until and unless one enlists Islam and its doctrine in one’s aid. That is just the way it is. Therefore, one really questions whether piling humiliation or insulting moderate Muslims, instead of welcoming them with open arms, is the forward march of humanity.
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He can be contacted via twitter @therealylh and through his email address email@example.com