Islam and Freedom of speech has become a contentious issue in recent times. The limits of what is, and what is not, acceptable speech is becoming a new battleground between Islam and the west. The issue came to a head in September 2005 a few days before Ramadan when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed insulting and blasphemous cartoons of our noble Prophet ﷺ.
The newspaper editor Flemming Rose, made the objective of printing the cartoons very clear. He said, “Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.”1
Geert Wilders, a Dutch Politician who has made a career out of his opposition to Islam has publicly called for a ban on the Holy Qu’ran, and produced a film last year called ‘Fitna’ in which he equates Islam with violence, communism and Nazism.
This month, the UN is hosting a World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Geneva, Switzerland. The conflict over freedom of speech raised itself again in this conference because some Muslim countries campaigned for a declaration that would equate criticism of a religious faith with a violation of human rights.2 This is seen as a way of preventing future attacks on the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and the Islamic ‘aqeeda. Western countries, however, objected to such a declaration because they say it would limit freedom of speech.3 After a number of western countries including the US and EU threatened to boycott the conference this clause was eventually dropped, along with clauses criticising Israeli’s inhumane treatment of the Palestinians.4
Freedom of Speech is an emotive topic in the west since it is one of their fundamental values. As Muslims we need to understand the reality of freedom of speech and the Islamic viewpoint towards it.
Origins of Freedom of Speech
Europe lived in the dark ages for hundreds of years ruled by tyrannical Kings on behalf of an oppressive Church. Book burning, inquisitions, torture and death were common place for those who dared to confront this tyranny. Scientists, thinkers and scholars were all subject to harassment and even imprisonment for their views. The famous scientist Galileo, for example, was convicted of heresy in 1633 and spent the rest of his life under house arrest for claiming that the earth moved around the sun.
After the reformation and the adoption of secularism in Western Europe and newly independent America, the shackles of the church were thrown off in public life. Fundamental to these new secular states was the adoption of freedom of the individual, ownership, expression and religion for all their citizens.
In the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,’ a fundamental document of the French revolution it states in article 11:
“The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.”
Approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789
The famous First Amendment to the US Constitution states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” December 15, 1791.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948 states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Therefore freedom of speech forms one of the cornerstones of the western way of life, and for them is considered a fundamental human right.
Absolute Freedom of Speech is a myth
Noam Chomsky, summed up the western concept of freedom of speech when he said: “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favour of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”5
However, the reality is that every society including the west has limits on public speech and views they don’t like. The only difference is in who defines the limits of this speech and how restrictive these limits are. Racism, national security, holocaust denial, incitement, glorification of terrorism, racial hatred and libel among many others, are all limits imposed on freedom of speech by western nations.
The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten could never have printed cartoons denying the holocaust in the name of free speech. Geert Wilders could never have produced a film likening Israeli’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazi treatment of the Jews, without charges of anti-Semitism being brought against him.
It’s contradictions like these, on the limits of free speech where the clash of values between Islam and the west is currently taking place.
No freedom of speech for Muslims
The controversy over this month’s UN World Conference Against Racism is a stark example of this clash. The build up to the conference and agreement on a final draft resolution has highlighted this rift over the limits on freedom of speech.
Differences initially arose over wording in the draft declaration that criticised Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Israel, Canada, Italy and America announced that they would not participate in the conference unless this wording was removed.
A spokesman for Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, said the declaration, which relates to the situation in the Palestinian territories, contains “unacceptable, aggressive and anti-Semitic phrases”.
The EU was also unhappy with resolutions criticising Israel and sought to remove at least five paragraphs from the draft such as the phrase that, “in order to consolidate the Israeli occupation, [Palestinians] have been subjected to unlawful collective punishment, torture.”6
The other contentious resolution that some western nations wanted dropped was, “to take firm action against negative stereotyping of religions and defamation of religious personalities, holy books, scriptures and symbols.” This was added by some Muslim countries as a means of preventing future attacks on the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and the Holy Qur’an which we have witnessed recently in Europe. Western countries were unhappy with this resolution because it limited their freedom of speech i.e. the freedom to attack Islam. This was dropped from the final draft and now the resolution simply states, “recognizes with deep concern the negative stereotyping of religions…”7
Therefore for the west it’s perfectly acceptable to impose limits on freedom of speech to account the brutal policies of another country in this instance Israel, but it’s not acceptable to impose limits on freedom of speech to insult and defame the character of the Prophet Muhammed ﷺ.
There is no clearer example of this than in Geert Wilder’s campaign to ban the Holy Qur’an on the basis of freedom of speech. In fact Wilder’s was asked about this during a recent interview with the Boston Globe.
Q: An American defender of free speech would say “Mein Kampf” shouldn’t be banned, the Koran shouldn’t be banned; books shouldn’t be banned. To publish ideas in a book, even if they’re hateful ideas – the First Amendment says you have that freedom. Is that what you would like in Holland as well?
A: I would, with the exception of incitement of violence.
Q. Doesn’t that contradict your defense of free speech?
A: … I want us to have more freedom of speech. But there is one red line – incitement of violence.8
In other words, you only have freedom of speech to propagate western ideas not Islamic ideas because Islamic ideas are an “incitement to violence”.
Europe is increasingly using limits on free speech such as glorification of terrorism, incitement to racial hatred and incitement to violence as ways of clamping down on Islamic expression.
Peaceful Muslim demonstrations, Islamic political parties and Islamic literature are all in the firing line simply for expressing Islamic opinions contrary to the western way of life. Muslims expressing opinions the west doesn’t like are branded by the media as ‘preachers of hate’, militants and extremists.
Freedom of speech is a colonial tool
“You only have freedom of speech to propagate western ideas not Islamic ideas” not only holds true for Muslims living in the west but also when it comes to western colonial interests in the Muslim world.
Many Muslims are attracted to the concept of freedom of speech since they see it as a means of accounting the oppressive dictatorships they currently live under. Yet when Islamic groups speak out against their rulers and are subsequently tortured and imprisoned by their regimes western governments remain silent. In fact Britain and America openly support these ‘western friendly’ regimes.
Egypt as an example has been under a state of emergency since 1967. Thousands of members of the Islamic opposition have been tortured and imprisoned by the Egyptian regime. Current estimates are that there are 30,000 political prisoners in Egypt. However, since 1979 Egypt has been the second largest recipient of US aid in the Middle East after Israel. The west turns a blind eye to this clampdown on political expression because it suits their colonial interests.
On the 50th anniversary of the uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet there was widespread media coverage and support for the Tibetan cause in the west. Compare this to the almost non-existent coverage on China’s daily oppression of Muslims in Xinxiang. At the same time as the 50th anniversary in Tibet was taking place the Chinese were clamping down heavily on Muslims involved in what they call “illegal religious activity”. A secretary with Hotan’s Communist Party Propaganda Department confirmed that some illegal religious activity has been halted and illegal books, writings, computer discs and audio tapes had been confiscated.9 The only difference between Tibet and Xinxiang is that the opposition in Xinxiang is Islamic calling for Islamic ideas rather than western ideas.
Islamic view towards Freedom of Speech
The concept of ‘freedom of speech’ is derived from the Capitalist ideology that is based on the belief that God and religion should be separated from life’s affairs (secularism). Human beings define how to live their lives free of the constraints of religion which is why freedom of individual, ownership, religion and speech are essential cornerstones of Capitalism. The right to speak and what are the limits of speech are therefore all defined by human beings.
This view completely contradicts Islam. In Islam it is the Creator of human beings Allah سبحانه وتعالى who gave the right of speech to people and defined the limits on what is acceptable and unacceptable speech.
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “Whosoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, then let him speak good (khair) or remain silent.”10
Khair in this hadith means Islam or what Islam approves of.11
Every word a human being speaks is recorded by the two angels Kiraman Katibeen. Even the speaking of one ‘bad’ word may lead someone to the hellfire.
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “The person who utters a word which meets with Allah’s favour may think it has not been heard, yet for this Allah will raise him to a higher level of Paradise. Conversely, the person who utters a word that stirs Allah to anger may give no thought to what he said, only to have Allah cast him in Hell for seventy years.”12
This is why the Prophet ﷺ emphasised the importance of controlling the tongue.
Mu’az ibn Jabal narrated: I was in company with the Prophet in a travel, and one day I was close to him while we were travelling. So I said: “O Messenger of Allah, tell me of an act which will take me into Paradise and will keep me away from Hell fire…shall I not tell you of the foundation of all of that?” I said: “Yes, O Messenger of Allah,” and he took hold of his tongue and said: “Restrain this.” I said: “O Prophet of Allah, will what we say be held against us?” He said: “May your mother be bereaved of you, Mu’az ! Is there anything that topples people on their faces – or he said on their noses into Hell-fire other than the jests of their tongues?”13
There are some situations where Islam has obliged Muslims to speak out against oppression and evil (munkar).
The Prophet ﷺ said: “Whoever saw a Munkar, let him change it by his hand and if he cannot then by his tongue and if he cannot then with his heart and that is the weakest of Imaan.”14
Many Muslims nowadays are attracted towards the concepts of human rights and freedom of speech due to the medieval oppression waged against them by the corrupt governments in the Muslim world.
In the majority of Muslim countries today speaking out against the munkar and oppression of the governments is made illegal by the rulers and their agents. They brutally suppress all political opposition and try to silence Muslims through torture and imprisonment. Even in the west they are also moving towards silencing Muslims who criticise foreign policy or hold what they deem ‘extreme’ political views under the guise of anti-terror policy.
Despite all these limits they are trying to impose on Muslims speaking out, the fact remains that it is Allah سبحانه وتعالى who defined what is acceptable and unacceptable speech. Therefore if He سبحانه وتعالى obliges Muslims to speak out against munkar and oppression then no government in the Muslim world or western world can take away this right.
The Prophet ﷺ said: “The master of martyrs is Hamza bin Abdul-Muttalib and a man who stood to an oppressor ruler where he ordered him and forbade him so he (the ruler) killed him.”15
Muslims who account their governments or speak out against oppression are not doing it because of freedom of speech or because the west allows them to speak. Rather they are doing it as an obligation from Islam even if it leads to death.
Right of speech in the Khilafah
The west propagates to the Muslim world that freedom and democracy is the only way forward if they want to progress and rid themselves of their oppressive dictatorships. However, as Muslims we look to Islam and Islam alone for our political solutions. The Qur’an and Sunnah have given us all the answers we need to establish an Islamic political system that will free us of the current corrupt systems ruling over us. This is the Khilafah Ruling System.
In the Khilafah it’s the constitutional right of all citizens (men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim) to express their opinions freely without fear of arrest or imprisonment within the limits of shar’a. The main areas where this right is exercised is the Majlis ul-Ummah (Council of the Ummah), media and political parties.
This is an elected house whose members are representatives of the citizens of the Khilafah. The members of this house can be men or women, Muslim or non-Muslim. It is not a legislature like a western parliament. The main powers of this council are related to accounting the Khilafah government and its policies. The Majlis Member’s main role is to study closely the activities of the Khaleefah, government officials and civil servants working in the State’s departments and offices and holding them all accountable. This would involve giving them advice, voicing opinions and presenting suggestions, entering into debates, together with objecting to all of the wrong actions performed by the State.16
Media in the Khilafah is under the jurisdiction of the Information Department (Da’irat ul I’laam). No permission is required to establish media in the state. Rather, every citizen in the Islamic State is allowed to set up any media, whether readable, audible or visible. They only need to inform the Information Department about the establishment of their particular media whether a newspaper, TV channel or Radio Station. General news can be published without permission of the state. However, sensitive information related to national security or government policy needs permission from the Information Department before publishing as is the case with any media organisation in the world.
The owner of the media is responsible for any information he publishes, and will be accounted for any violation of the shar’a like any other citizen.17
The right of the Khilafah’s citizens to establish political parties is established from the Holy Qur’an. No permission is required for this since Islam made the establishment of at least one political party fard al-Kifiyah (obligation of sufficiency).
Allah سبحانه وتعالى says:
وَلْتَكُن مِّنكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَأُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
“Let there arise from amongst you a group(s) which calls to al-Khair (Islam), enjoins al-ma’aruf (good) and forbids al-munkar (evil), and they are the successful ones.”18
This order in the Qur’an to establish a group is an order to establish political parties. This is because the verse has determined the duty of this group as the call to Islam, enjoining the Ma’aruf (good), and forbidding the Munkar (evil). The duty of enjoining Ma’aruf and forbidding Munkar is general and not restricted. It therefore includes the rulers and this implies holding them accountable. The holding of the rulers accountable is a political task performed by political parties and it is the most important task of political parties. Thus the verse indicates the obligation of establishing political parties which would call to Islam, enjoin Ma’aruf and forbid Munkar, and would hold the rulers accountable for their actions and conduct.19
At the time of the Khulufaa Rashida (rightly guided Khaleefah’s) the sahaba fulfilled this role.
In the Khilafah of Umar bin al-Khattab, some cloth from the spoils of war was distributed to the people, out of which each companion had one piece of clothing cut. One day `Umar got up to speak and said: ‘Lower your voices so that I may hear you.’ He was wearing two pieces of that cloth. Salman al-Farisi said, ‘By Allah, we will not hear you, because you prefer yourself to your people.’ ‘How is that?’ asked Umar. He said: ‘You are wearing two pieces of cloth and everyone else is wearing only one.’ Umar called out: ‘O Abdullah!’ No one answered him. He said again, ‘O Abdullah ibn Umar! Abdullah, his son called out: ‘At your service!’ Umar said, ‘I ask you by Allah, don’t you say that the second piece is yours?’ Abdullah said ‘Yes.’ Salman said: ‘Now we shall hear you.’20
Thousands of sincere Muslims are today following in the footsteps of the sahaba and accounting their rulers. They are standing up to oppression and speaking out against the munkar befalling this Ummah, fearing none but Allah سبحانه وتعالى.
Freedom of speech is a western concept that completely contradicts Islam. In reality there is no such thing as absolute free speech. What exists is speech within predefined limits that differ between nations.
Nowadays freedom of speech is used as a colonial tool in the Muslim world to support the propagation of western ideas and to suppress Islamic ideas. Increasingly this is happening within western societies also as anti-terror policies are used to clampdown on what are deemed as ‘extreme’ opinions.
Allah سبحانه وتعالى, the Creator and NOT human beings decides the limits on speech. We will be accountable for every word spoken on the Day of Judgement. If Allah سبحانه وتعالى has ordered us to speak in certain circumstances such as accounting the rulers and speaking out against oppression then no government in the world can take away that right no matter how hard they try.
The Khilafah implements the law of Allah سبحانه وتعالى on earth and contains a detailed system for accounting the government and speaking out against oppression. This right of speaking out is enshrined mainly within the Majlis ul-Ummah, media and through forming political parties.
As Muslims we are in no need of any other system of life except the Islamic system, and no other source of legislation except the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Messenger ﷺ. Therefore when we call for accountability in the Muslim world this should not be a call for introducing freedom of speech but a call for introducing the Islamic Shariah which enshrines the right to speech among many other rights.
The Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم said: “Whoever introduces into this affair of ours that which is not of it, then it is rejected.” Al-Bukhari and Muslim related it, and in a narration of Muslim’s there is, “Whoever does an act for which there is no command of ours then it is rejected.”
1 Flemming Rose, ‘Why I Published Those Cartoons,’ Washington Post, 19 February 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/17/AR2006021702499.html
2 Al-Jazeera English, ‘Italy attacks ‘anti-Semitic’ summit,’ 6 March 2009, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/europe/2009/03/200936143343157839.html
4 Associated Press, ‘Draft for racism meeting drops Israel criticism,’ 17 March 2009, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5h-NABlEjaGSsDBh_qdpdNmX7V6VwD9701NMO1
5 Noam Chomsky, ‘Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media,’ 1992
6 Al-Jazeera English, ‘Italy attacks ‘anti-Semitic’ summit,’ Op.cit.
7 http://www.un.org/durbanreview2009/pdf/Rolling text YB, 17-3-2009.pdf
8 Boston Globe, ‘Islam and Freedom of Speech,’ 8 March 2009, http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/03/08/islam_and_freedom_of_speech/?page=3
9 Alexa Olesen, Associated Press Writer,’China cracks down in Muslim west,’ 30 March 2009, http://www.wtopnews.com/?nid=385&sid=1626138
10 Agreed upon. Narrated by Abu Hurayra.
11 Hizb ut-Tahrir, ‘American Campaign to Suppress Islam,’ p. 23
13 Reported by Ahmad and at-Tirmidhi and declared hasan by the latter. Also reported by an-Nasaa`i and Ibn Maajah.
14 Sahih Muslim. Narrated by Abu Sa’eed al Khudree.
15 Abu Dawud
16 Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, ‘The Ruling System in Islam,’ translation of Nizam ul-Hukm fil Islam, Khilafah Publications, Fifth Edition, p. 261
17 Hizb ut-Tahrir, ‘Khilafah State Organisations,’ translation of Ajhizat dowlah ul-Khilafah, Dar ul-Ummah, Beirut, 2005, First Edition
18 Holy Qur’an, Chapter 3, Surah al-Imran, Verse 104
19 Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, ‘The Ruling System in Islam,’ Op.cit., p. 297
20 Ibn Qutaibah, ‘Uyun al-Akhbar, 1/55 and also Anwar al-Awlaki, ‘Life of Umar bin al-Khattab’