Islamophobia is not “freedom of speech”

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Ahmet Aslan

Rabi' al-Thani 29, 1435 2014-03-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 1, Rabi' al-Thani, 1435)

Islamophobes always invoke the “freedom of speech” argument to peddle their racist ideology. This nasty campaign has also been joined by opportunist Muslims that want to ingratiate themselves to the white master to advance their political career.

Since the infamous Salman Rushdie affair, many like-minded opportunists have been seeking to grab public attention through insulting Islam and Muslims. Some of these attempts have served their purpose by inciting Muslims and prompting mass outrage. The Danish cartoons row, The Innocence of Muslims movie and the Qur’an burning frenzy have been the most egregious incidents but they were not the only ones. Various Islamophobic reports full of many similar insults, desecrations and attacks against Islam and Muslims failed to grab public attention.

A recent example of the onslaught against Islam started with the so-called “liberal Muslim” Maajid Nawaz who was a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. In 2007, he denounced the group and everything he had advocated until then and co-founded the infamous Quilliam Foundation (betraying the name of ‘Abdullah Quilliam who was a British convert to Islam and built the first masjid in Britain) with generous support from the British government.

Since then Maajid Nawaz has made a name for himself for spying on well-respected Muslim groups and personalities in the UK and ratting on members of the Muslim community to the government and the security forces. Inevitably this has resulted in huge dislike of him and his complete isolation from the broader British Muslim community.

Conversely, the more antagonistic he gets against traditional Islamic values and Muslim groups, the more popular he becomes in the anti-Islamic circles of policymakers, media and the public. His seven-year profile as a “liberal Muslim” is full of examples that demonstrate that he was nothing but a charlatan who took advantage for personal aggrandizement.

In January, Nawaz tweeted a cartoon, which depicted Prophets Jesus and Muhammad (a) together. The cartoon was the same as the one worn on T-shirts by the LSE Atheism society. He then published a piece in The Guardian to explain that he tweeted the cartoon to show that he was not threatened by it. “I am acutely aware of the populist sentiment in Britain that derides Muslims who seek special treatment for their sensibilities, so I tweeted the bland image and stated that, as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that.”

He further emphasized that Muslims should come to terms with freedom of speech, “My intention was to demonstrate that Muslims are able to see things we don’t like, yet remain calm and pluralist, and to demonstrate that there are Muslims who care more about the thousands of deaths in Iraq, Pakistan and Syria than we do about what a student is wearing. My intention was to highlight that Muslims can engage in politics without insisting that our own religious values must trump all others’ concerns…”

Despite its nuances, the story of Maajid Nawaz is a replica of many others who have been tempted by their own whims and worldly ambitions, and ended up in humiliation. There was immediate reaction against Nawaz’s tweet, the mildest of which was a petition campaign to urge the Liberal Democrats to drop him as a candidate in the coming general elections. There was also harsh criticism against him, one of which was to issue death threats against him. Neither of these reactions justifies the sham-like campaign Nawaz has launched. He has turned the entire issue into a PR stunt for his political campaign. But there are two issues that Nawaz mentioned in his comments that need to be discussed.

The first is the discourse that there is a need for Muslims to be able to withstand criticism of Islam. Like many other religions or popular social phenomena, Islam has been under intense scrutiny since the earliest days of the Prophet’s (pbuh) mission. The people of Makkah were more aggressive than the current anti-Islamic racists in their attacks against Islam and Muslims. We know how patient the Prophet (pbuh) was in the face of such attacks that never ceased even after he passed away. John of Damascus (676–749ce), a Christian priest was the most notable figure who labeled Islam a heretic sect of Christianity. Throughout the Medieval era, Enlightenment Europe and right up to modern times, Islam and Muslims have perhaps been subjected to the harshest forms of criticism.

There is nothing new about attacks on Islam. Despite this, Muslim scholars generally remained calm in the face of such attacks and responded by engaging in serious debate. The most well known example can be seen in the criticisms (or perhaps insults) of the famous French orientalist Ernest Renan (1823–1892) and the responses to him by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani/Asadabadi (1838–1897), described by some as the father of political Islam. There is no problem for educated Muslims and scholars of Islam to tolerate such criticism but the problem arises when mendacious people for their own agenda attack Islamic values and expect Muslims to remains silent.

This becomes especially problematic considering that a vast majority of Muslims lack the necessary education about Islam. Yet they have strong attachment to the values of Islam, consequently Islam has become an inseparable part of their identity. Hence it would be unrealistic to expect them to remain silent when their identity is under attack.

This is the reason why there is protective legislation in the UK for Jews and Sikhs who are considered to be in the same position. With the Race Relation Act 1976, Jews and Sikhs have been granted protection from any form of discrimination and prejudice. Muslim groups have been lobbying for legislation to extend the same protection to Muslims as well but successive governments have failed to respond.

The second issue is the allegation that Muslims fail to respect Western values especially relating to freedom of speech. This attitude was also prevalent in the comments by Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats. When he was asked on a radio program if he was planning to drop Nawaz’s candidacy, he responded, “He is not going to be dropped as a Liberal Democrat candidate. He has the right — as any Muslim, non-Muslim or anyone of any faith or none in this country has — to say things even if that causes offence to other people… I would not have tweeted that thing, clearly. I will defend anyone’s right to deploy the freedom of expression in this country. I’m not going to start censoring people in a free society.”

Justify the maligning of Islam through a defence of the “freedom of speech” statute is a sophistry that has been adopted by many politicians and a clear majority in the media these days. It is interesting that when it comes to insulting Islam, the only Western value that is advocated fervently is the concept of freedom of speech. But what about other important values such as “tolerance” and “diversity” that have ostensibly been helping to cement multicultural societies in the West? Why doesn’t anyone remembers these values to contain the anti-Islam frenzy that has turned the lives of Muslims who reside in the West into a very bitter experience?

One answer to these questions might be Western cowardice that does not want to admit that there is rampant prejudice against Islam and Muslims. This is why they feel they need to hide behind a “noble cause” such as freedom of speech when they are attacking Islam or defending those who are attacking Islam. They assume that in this way they can save their “civilized” faces when they are committing repugnant acts.

However, on many occasions their hypocrisy that freedom of speech can be trashed if it does not suit their purpose has been exposed. The most ironic and relevant example took place when the Mayor of London banned a Christian ad from London buses in 2012. A Christian group called Core Issues Trust wanted to display an advert on buses suggesting that homosexuals could become straight through therapy. The advert announced, “Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!”

Gay rights supporters, in turn launched a massive and nasty harassment camping against Core Issues Trust, which only ended when London Mayor Boris Johnson decided the advert was “offensive to gays.” Core Issues Trust took the case to the court which upheld the decision but in January 2014 an appeals court decided a probe was needed to consider whether the mayor acted “for an improper purpose.”

Despite his flamboyant PR campaign, at present Nawaz’s chances to get into the House of Commons in 2015 elections remain slim. Nevertheless, so long as he is applauded by anti-Islamic elements in society, his crusade to “liberate Islam” will continue.

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