Charlie Hebdo attack: An unfree Muslim world creates an intolerant Islam
It won’t come as a surprise to hear a section of Muslims worldwide rejoice at the dastardly terror attack on the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
It won’t come as a surprise to hear a section of Muslims worldwide rejoice at the dastardly terror attack on the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They will claim the killing of journalists, whose weapon of offense was their humour, is a just retribution against those who mocked and blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad, little realising that it violates the very spirit of the Quran.
What precisely is the spirit of the Quran is open to interpretations and contestations. However, since Chapter 2, Verse 256 says that “there is no compulsion in religion”, it is only natural to assume a person has the right to accept or reject Islam and pursue other alternatives, including not adhering to any faith.
It is this Quranic verse cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar cites in his book, Reading the Quran, to say, “If there is no compulsion in religion then all opinions can be expressed freely, including those which cause offence to religious people. The believers will show respect and use respectful language towards God and His Prophet simply because they are believers. Non-believers, by definition, take a rejectionist attitude to both.”
It is possible the rejectionist could use language the believers might find profane. This isn’t difficult to imagine – an atheist, for instance, is not likely to share the devout’s sense of sacredness, his or her respect of it. So then, is an insult to God or the Prophet to be avenged?
Chapter 7, Verse 180 of the Quran says, “The Most Excellent Names belong to God: use them to call on Him, and keep away from those who abuse them – they will be requited for what they do.” From these lines it is obvious the onus for punishing the person insulting Allah lies not on the Muslim, but on Allah Himself. Thus, through their attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office the terrorists were playing God, usurping his role, an act both reprehensible and sacrilegious.
Since there is no compulsion in religion, the Quran inherently advocates choice. And choice can’t be exercised unless there are multiple options available, a situation in which votaries of different faiths are bound preach and propagate, even establish the superiority of their belief systems. Debates and rebuttals are bound to follow, perhaps assaulting the sensibilities of participants.
Instead of engaging in an interminable religious debate, Chapter 109, Verse 1-6 of the Quran tells Muslims: “Say ‘O unbelievers! I do not worship what you worship,\Nor do you worship what I worship;\ Nor will I ever worship what you worship,\Nor will you ever worship what I worship.\You have your religion\And I have mine.’”
During the time he preached, particularly before migrating to Media from Mecca, the Prophet was often abused and blasphemed. Sardar writes, “He took no action against those who ridiculed him. If the Prophet himself did not penalize those who uttered profanities against him, who are we to act on his behalf?” His question will never be answered, for terrorists subscribing to any ideology, religious or secular, have a disdain for debate.
This doesn’t mean the Quran advocates inaction against abuse or blasphemy. It gives the Muslim the right to retort in equal measure, writes Sardar. He cites the example of the Prophet, who instructed his followers: “When the Jews greet you with the phrase ‘death be upon you’, then you should simply say ‘and upon you.’”
This example demonstrates that words should be used against words and cartoons against cartoons, not bullets and bombs.
The Quran asks Muslims to ignore those who insult their religion or provoke them or make them doubt. Chapter 6, Verse 116 of the Quran, for instance, advises Muslims, “Now if you paid attention to the majority on earth, they would lead you away from the path of God. They follow nothing but speculation; they themselves do nothing but guess.” In other words, a Muslim is required to concentrate on following his religion, not get distracted by the utterances of others.
Yet, it is also true that this spirit of the Quran is violated too frequently. This is because there are few places in the Muslim world which allow for the freedom of expression. In such a milieu, it becomes impossible to have in the public domain multiple interpretations of the Quran, which, as any text, sacred or secular, can be read, and understood, in diverse ways by different readers.
As much of the Muslim world festers under totalitarian regimes, despotic rulers invariably seek to impose their own reading of the Quran on the subjects. They prefer an interpretation of the Quran conducive to perpetuating their power, popularly perceived to be illegitimate. Secular ideologies are proscribed, the space for civil society activism circumscribed. Dissent and opposition are minimal and brutally crushed.
Religious arena is the only public space where even the most autocratic ruler hesitates to encroach upon. The mosque consequently becomes the site of contest, and the Quran an argument for the rivals to justify their positions and actions. The opponents of authoritarian regimes tend to read and interpret the Quran in a way it justifies their militant opposition to them.
This has not only politicized Islam, but also sparked off the struggle to define what true Islam is. Since the socio-political context in which the contest for defining Islam isn’t democratic, the actors in the drama have sought to violently impose their version of ‘true Islam’ on people, demanding their adherence under duress. They portray themselves as the guardians of Islam, its indefatigable protectors.
It is this erroneous belief of theirs which has led them to attack the office of Charlie Hebdo, whose cartoonists lampooned the Prophet. It is for this reason they attack girls in Pakistan who dare to defy dictat to attend school. It is for this reason why Saudi Arabia, quite incredibly, continues to debate whether or not it is Islamic for a woman to drive alone in the city.
Islam needs to be rescued from authoritarian regimes and their obscurantist opponents.
Ajaz Ashraf’s book, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, tackles the theme of religious-political violence fictionally.
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