The failed attempt on the life of the Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, has once more raised issues of intellectual dissent and the nature of blasphemy in Islam. The Somali attacker, fully convinced that he was doing Allah’s duty, made it a point to prove that anyone who blasphemes the Prophet of Islam forfeits his right to live. This is not to say that everything was right with the Danish cartoons, published as they were with questionable intent to ‘test’ how far Muslims in the west had assimilated ‘modern’ values. The choice of satirizing the person of Muhammad can not be overlooked as Europe has a history of denigrating the Muslim Prophet ever since the medieval times. The Danish cartoons were, thus, not just about freedom of expression, but at the same time, they also represented the collective expression of Europe’s historical subconscious. In a way, they could be seen as an expression of Europe's anxiety over increasing Muslim presence in their midst; after all they had vilified the same people in much of their literature.
However, the Muslim response to the issue is equally problematic, which goes on to reinforce the stereotype of Muslims as bloodthirsty men prone to violence. To pose the question straight, what if there is text, a graphic, a film or even music which Muslims deem offensive to Islam? Should the person who authors these things be put to death or should those works be banned? These are important questions which the community needs to grapple with and come up with answers to, answers that do not offend modern sensibilities. A couple of days ago, assorted clerics were up in arms when Salman Rushdie was spotted at the Taj. They had similarly gunned for the Bangaldeshi writer Taslima Nasreen. Both of them are Muslims and their hounding by the Muslim religious leadership makes the world believe that there is no place of dissent within Islam.
As scholars of Islam have pointed out, the Quran does not even speak of any form of human punishment for blasphemy. Rather it prescribes restraint and distancing from blasphemous persons or situations. The whole emphasis is on restraint and forgiveness. Even when it talks of punishment, it does not specify what kind of punishment it will be and, more importantly, it leaves the punishment to Allah. In other words, the Quran does not empower any human or authority to punish a person who is accused of blasphemy.
Moreover, during his lifetime, Prophet Muhammad was subjected to verbal and physical humiliation. He narrowly escaped assassination by migrating to Medina and was even stigmatised as a man possessed. The personality of Prophet Muhammad means a lot to believing Muslims. They see him as their role model and believe that he is the epitome of virtues. Most believing Muslims want to approximate to this ideal. And yet the life of the Prophet is at variance with what many Muslims do today. Despite being the target of ridicule, when the Prophet returned to Mecca after defeating his enemies, he forgave all his tormentors. It is said that there was one woman who regularly threw garbage at him, but the Prophet, in all his humility, went to see this woman when she fell ill. It is important to see that the Prophet was not angry with her and sought no revenge; on the contrary, he showed kindness and love towards her. His actions, thus, were at complete variance with that of some of today’s Muslims, who are baying for the blood of those who they think have denigrated the Prophet of Islam. The question is that if the Prophet let his actions speak for himself and forgave those who denigrated him then who are these modern religious Muslims to seek revenge in his name?
When Muslims in Bradford were burning the copies of the Satanic Verses and Muslim politicians were crying hoarse about banning the book in India, a group of Muslims in London were preparing their own defence. This group eventually published a booklet in which they contested Rushdie’s understanding of Islam and Muslims. And this is the best way to go about it. If a section of Muslims feels that the Muslims have been offended, then why not contest it intellectually instead of taking recourse to violence? Muslims need to realize that ideas, even the bad ones, cannot be contested by brute force. They must be contested in the intellectual domain, an exercise which will go a long way in correcting the current portrayal of Islam and Muslims as a people beyond the pale of reason.
There is another fundamental problem with using force to silence people who have a different point of view. While it sends a signal to other communities that offensive writing against Islam will not be tolerated, more fundamentally it is also a chilling reminder to its own community members that being critical about Islam will be met with brute force. In effect, it muzzles intellectual creativity, leading to the triumph of orthodoxy and ossification of the community itself. Taslima Nasreen is a case in point. The stated reason why she was hounded out of Bangladesh was because it was felt that what she wrote about the Prophet was derogatory. Logically, the matter should have ended after she and the publisher decided to withdraw the offensive paragraphs. But it didn’t because the actual reason behind her trial was that her writings were critical of Muslim patriarchy. Thus, blasphemy became a refuge under which the religious orthodoxy muzzled her critical dissent. Nothing good can come out from such a state of affairs. A regime that controls minds can never produce free thinking democratic citizens. It is not without reason that most Islamic states value neither liberalism nor democracy. It is, therefore, essential for the Muslims to rethink their politics of blasphemy.
Dr Arshad Alam teaches at the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi