Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and Freedom of Religion

This is a cross post from Dead White Male by Allan Gilmour (@allanglmr) The original article is here.

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Following the attacks in Paris made on the Charlie Hebdo staff, there has been a clear need to restate and reaffirm the need and importance of freedom of speech: the freedom to question, parody, and puncture any ideology is an essential part of democracy and a healthy society. However, some questioned the wisdom of publishing (or even re-publishing) the images of Muhammad on the Charlie Hebdo covers (for example, Jonathan Freedland and Joseph Harker of the Guardian) because they thought it would cause needless offence to a very large number of Muslims – maybe even the “vast majority of Muslims around the world”. But to argue that the cartoons shouldn’t be re-published because they might offend a large number of people is to simply reinforce a religious taboo; it’s an argument to make blasphemy an acceptable restriction on free speech. This makes it more difficult for those who are not offended to express themselves as Maajid Nawaz found when he went onto Twitter to say that he didn’t find one of the Jesus and Mo cartoons offensive. He was expressing an opinion about his own faith and for this he received death threats. If it becomes normal in the media, and in public life in general to take blasphemy seriously, then this will in fact restrict the freedom of Muslims to express their faith as happened with Nawaz. For anyone who might think there is a need to be sensitive to the feelings of Muslims that are against depictions of Muhammad because of the general prohibition of it in Islam, and who do not want to offend a large number of these Muslims by reproducing the pictures in question, they should remember another principle; one that is inextricably linked to free speech – freedom of religion. Respecting this prohibition is insensitive to the diversity of opinion and practice in Islam. Not only that, it fosters the conditions in which an idea is immune from being challenged by anyone – especially other Muslims. A tradition of depicting the prophet in some Islamic art does exist. For some Muslims it is part of their worship. They should be allowed to create and admire these images without fear of censorship or fear of violence. A prohibition which silences critics, or anyone who wants to break any of these taboos for whatever reason, is only helping one group of Muslims force their interpretation on the rest of the Muslim population and everybody else. By taking the demands and actions of one group of Muslims seriously (and taking it as the general opinion of all Muslims) narrows the definition of Islam and makes it harder for others to express their thoughts on it and to practice it how they wish. It smothers diversity within the religion and any dissenting voices. The prohibition of the depiction of Muhammad is open to interpretation for those that want to follow it. Whether this interpretation is correct or not (and that goes for any rule that a religion sets out), it does not need to be followed by everybody. Even if it were undeniable that scripture prohibited depiction, that would not mean that people have to follow it. And even if the majority of Muslims find it offensive as is claimed, it still does not mean all Muslims or anyone else must observe it. With freedom of religion comes the right to interpret your religion as you want to and to practice it in the way you want to. This means you don’t have to follow all the rules that you don’t think are important, and nobody should be able to make you. Whether it is extremists, conservative Muslims, or anyone else who thinks that nobody should be depicting Muhammad, they are all damaging the diversity of practice in Islam and making it harder for other Muslims to express their faith in different ways. For Muslims who want to be able to discuss, develop, and express their faith without limits to doing so, there needs to be a commitment to freedom of religion and ultimately freedom of speech.

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