As a practicing Muslim, I would just like to state a standard disclaimer routinely utilized by Muslim believers for any matters concerning discourse regarding our faith: Any falsehood I speak comes from me, while all truth comes from God's infinite wisdom.
The world is becoming more peaceful--or so the statistics and body of scholarship say. Yet despite global trends seemingly moving towards less conflict and violence, it seems that large swathes of the Muslim world continue to go to hell in a handbasket. Yet even in a world where innocent men, women, and children are routinely massacred on the basis of religious or sectarian identity from Nigeria to Pakistan, the continued throttling of the freedom of expression in countless Muslim majority nations is deeply distressing on a personal level as both an aspiring human rights attorney and blogger who has always exercised my right to discuss even the most sensitive and controversial topics.
The Global Haraam and Bidah Haterade Brigade
A month ago, I wrote a Huffpost piece on the "Happy Muslims" video contest which generated what I believe are healthy debates both within and outside of the Muslim community.
First, I would like to reiterate that I completely respect anyone's right to object to the utility or even the permissibility of making such videos. Here's the thing: It's not the stance you take, but the way in which you articulate that stance which matters. Most nonMuslims and Muslims alike seem to have loved the video, while the majority of those who did not remained respectful in their objections. In fact, in the article I linked to Dr. Mufti Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf's take on this video campaign as a model of a respectful and rational objection to the video campaign (even though I ultimately disagree with his position).
Like those who resort to terrorism, a small minority seem to be wielding the loudest voices. Just look at the YouTube comment after comment, Tweet after Tweet, Facebook status after status. It was the raw condescension, spite, hypocrisy, delusion, and naked hatred from this obnoxious minority--whom I dubbed them the Haterade Brigade--which I simply could no longer stand. When I finally had the opportunity to address these guys (Revealing fact: virtually all of the harshest critics have been men), I didn't hold back because our community's artists and activists have to endure their crap time and time again. The "ivory minaret scholars and armchair mullahs" that I referenced in my article were not references to esteemed clerics scholars within our community, but more like the guy with Cheetos-stained fingers spouting off e-fatwas against his fellow brothers and sisters but hasn't actually tried to positively contribute to anything in his entire life.
Yet on a more fundamental level, I can't help but feel that so much of this "haram/bidah" outrage is grossly misplaced time and again. In my previous article, tried to hit home that point with this section:
Indeed to hear their take on it, a growing series of viral videos now threaten to defile all Islam stands for. Not the takfiris who terrifyingly don't hesitate to declare their fellow Muslims as "enemies of God" worthy of extermination. Not the devastating civil wars and vicious Muslim-on-Muslim sectarian bloodletting from Pakistan to Nigeria. Not the soul-crushing authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa which control all aspects of social and economic life and eliminate any meaningful outlets for political, artistic, and personal expression. Not abject poverty and staggering wealth-gaps; nor a critical lack of educational opportunities, gender equality, government transparency, or basic medical care. No, the true enemy of Islam and its 1.5 billon Muslims is... some excessive hip-shaking? Men and women appearing in the same frame (never mind if they are married or family members)?
If we Muslims were as upset about the fact that Boko Haram just kidnapped and threatened to sell into slavery 300 girls (many if not most of whom are Muslim!) for the audacious crime of daring to get an education, as we get riled up about cartoons, films, novels, and teddy bears named Muhammad, they would have been rescued and thug outfits like Boko Haram who dare to commit such atrocities in the name of Islam would have been eradicated a long time ago. One can't help but conclude that this brand of faux-outrage over such relatively trivial issues are red herrings designed to distract us from addressing so many of the very-real social, economic, and political problems eating away at the foundations of communities throughout the Muslim world
Freedom of Expression: An Inalienable and Fundamental Human Right
Nevertheless we continue to allow such atrocities and abuses to occur. While mass murder and the kidnapping of children surely rank among the worst crimes, the Orwellian censorship in large parts of the Muslim world continues to undermine a fundamental human right: The fundamentally inalienable and God-given right of freedom of expression. To express oneself without any fear is to experience true freedom, and to in any way abridge this right is to suppress the very right to be human.
Thanks to the Daily Show, the world has come to know of the exploits of the "Arab Jon Stewart" and his incredibly hilarious Al-Bernameg comedy program. Even in a nation long-famed for its political comedy and social satire, El Bernameg's cutting social commentary has had an absolutely groundbreaking impact not only in Egypt, but throughout the Arab world. Once President-Generalissimo Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was, in a throwback homage to the late Saddam Hussein, "elected" by a staggering 96.9% of the votes. One of his first Presidential decrees? The immediate cancellation of El Bernameg. One can only presume that el-Sisi translates into "The Sissy" on account of his morbid fear of satire and comedy and Bassem Youseff's inglorious exit from the world of comedy has deeply troubling connotations for not just the freedom of expression, but a revealing glimpse into life under Egypt's new* regime (*new generalissimo, same junta).
Rather, what I believe deserves just as much attention and reflection is the arrest and eventual release of the Iranian youth behind the "Happy Tehran" video. It had innocuous beginnings. A few Iranian women first simply posted photos of themselves sans the mandatory veil. Then a handful of particularly hip Iranian teens dared to express themselves in the same manner that so many of their brothers and sisters around the world have been doing. Even if they were released (after significant domestic and international outcry), this fundamental question remains: How can we actually live in a world where they were arrested in the first place?
Indeed by now, thousands of Muslims throughout England, Europe, the US and Canada have in some way participated in the "Happy Muslims" campaign. Yet not one of us-not even for a second-have feared public humiliation, arrest, torture, or the harassment of our families and loved ones at the hands of the very government whose duty it is to serve and protect us.
Whether you agree with the religious permissibility or wisdom of either the Happy Muslims video campaign is completely irrelevant to the central issue of the freedom of expression. Regardless of whether you think these videos are outright haram or just an ineffective or otherwise bad concept, everyone has a right to participate if they wish. Forget the fact that if simply being happy was actually haraam, nobody would want to be halal. The relevancy of these theological and ideological debates go out the window as soon as people start going to jail. Who in their right minds would sentence a handful of kids to jail simply for making a music video?
No-Fun Fundamentalism: A Tool of Social and Political Control
Both incidents serve as just the latest examples of some truly backwards thinking with regards to both civil liberties and theology which is unfortunately all-too-prevalent in large parts of the Muslim world, especially in the Mideast and North Africa. Declaring something "medieval" is usually synonymous with societal and political regression and backwardness. Yet in the Islamic experience, the Middle Ages actually represent the zenith of intellectual development and progress in all disciplines including mathematics, medicine, astronomy, as well as effective jurisprudence and governance.
Sadly, the advent of European colonialism largely throttled all meaningful intellectual developments. With regards to Islamic jurisprudence and governance, colonial authorities largely viewed progress in these fields as potential challenges to its rule. Likewise, foreign subjugation is rarely conducive for vigorous independent thought among the subjugated populations and has resulted in the persistence of "colonial mentalities" well after the various nations of the Muslim world achieved independence from their colonial masters.
Even in the midst of this intellectual decline, the advent of puritanical fundamentalism is an even more recent phenomenon. Indeed just a few generations ago, puritanical fundamentalism simply didn't exist even in places like Saudi Arabia. Now, most of the Middle East is ruled by a range of dictators who, through controlling all meaningful outlets of social, political, artistic, and personal expression, make Putin look like a Siberian teddy bear.
Institutionalized religion can be as restrictive of a force as it has the potential to be liberating one, and far too often state-sponsored religious institutions routinely utilize religious rhetoric to reinforce the former at the expense of the latter. Religious rhetoric can create supremely high stakes, and those who wield the right to issue such rhetoric act as de facto gatekeepers of "acceptable" intellectual, cultural, political, and artistic expression.
Yet how shamefully and cynically this sacred responsibility has been abused! Both autocratic regimes and reactionary extremists routinely condemn as "radical" any ideas which have the potential to challenge the status quo in any meaningful way. The motivations are purely political, but the tools used to further these agendas are often cloaked in the rhetoric of religion.
Indeed those who articulate independent thoughts are labeled as "bidah" (forbidden religious innovation), and the promulgation of such ideas are further decried for creating "fitna" (social division). The most serious manifestation is involve condemnations of individuals as mohareb, or enemies of God, as practiced by theocratic regimes, and the practice of takfiri by sectarian non-state terrorist outfits. All of these practices often result in forced confessions and recants, imprisonment, torture, and even execution--indeed for countless people living in the Muslim world, the stakes may literally be life or death.
In contrast to such flagrant state abuses, consider the following account of Caliph Abu Bakr:
It is said that once at the time of conquest, a singing girl was brought to al-Muhajir b. Abu Umayya who had been publicly singing satirical poems about Hadrat Abu Bakr. Muhajir got her hand amputated. When the Caliph heard this news, he was shocked and wrote a letter to Muhajir in the following words:
" I have learnt that you laid hands on a woman who had hurled abuses on me, and, therefore, got her hand amputated. God has not sought vengeance even in the case of polytheism, which is a great crime. He has not permitted mutilation even with regard to manifest infidelity. Try to be considerate and sympathetic in your attitude towards others in future. Never mutilate, because it is a grave offence. God purified Islam and the Muslims from rashness and excessive wrath. You are well aware of the fact that those enemies fell into the hands of the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) who had been recklessly abusing him; who had turned him out of his home; and who fought against him, but he never permitted their mutilation.
Caliph Abu Bakr's visceral reactionis all the more remarkable as it took place in an age where rulers of empires were seen as divine and any criticism of the ruler was viewed upon and routinely punished as state treason. In light of this historical context, it is clear that Islam heavily emphases government and personal accountability and robustly protects freedom of expression Islam. No wonder Abu Bakr and the other first four caliphs are still heralded as Caliph ar-Rashidun ("the rightly guided caliphs"), while contemporary rulers of far too many Muslim nations around the world continue to act as tinpot despots and dictators--and the first casualty of their tyranny is invariably freedom of expression.
Standing Up for Those who Cannot: A Religious and Moral Obligation
Principles of compassion, empathy, and unity within the ummah are some of the most fundamental tenets of Islam, as embodied by both the Qur'an and hadith. Two seminal hadiths on this issue are as follows:
The similitude of believers in regard to mutual love, affection, fellow-feeling is that of one body; when any limb of it aches, the whole body aches, because of sleeplessness and fever.
"If one of you sees something wrong, let him change it with his hand; if he cannot, then with his tongue; if he cannot, then with his heart and this is the weakest faith."
Both hadith establish a positive obligation on Muslims to do whatever they can to assist their brothers and sisters in need--whether their oppressors are nonMuslim or Muslim. Thus what shakes my conscience to the core is when Muslims living in the West fail to take advantage of their unparalleled access to education and socio-political freedoms to stand for liberty and justice for all. Instead, far too many of us not only take these rights for granted on a daily basis (guilty as charged), but additionally turn around and support the ideological framework and theological cheerleaders of these regimes.
It's simply no longer acceptable for the rest of us to simply continue to enjoy all of our social and political liberties while so many of our brothers and sisters have to live in fear everyday. It's up to all of us to do whatever we can to stand behind those who have already risked so much to stand up for themselves. Otherwise, all of us are apathetic enablers of oppression and tyranny at best-and deliberate hypocrites at worst. Until all of our brothers and sisters are free from oppression, we cannot rest. There is absolutely no excuse for apathy, and even mere empathy without action is no longer sufficient.
Rather, we can take inspiration from the motto of The Honest Policy: Enough talk. Just do something, however small it may be.
I know my two Huffpost articles on the right to freedom of expression, like most forms of e-activism, is just a drop in the bucket of what truly needs to be done. Yet they are my humble contribution to this crisis within the Muslim world. Time for someone else to take up the mantle, 1-Up me, and put me to shame. Our brothers and sisters around the world are counting on it.
Follow Atif Choudhury on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@SultanOfSmiles