To Prevent Another Charlie Hebdo , Reconsider the Example of Muhammed

There is no shortage of condemnations of the horrific attack on the journalists at Charlie Hebdo.

There are also the halfhearted condemnations with thinly veiled victim blaming. Freedom of expression doesn't mean the freedom to offend seem to be the tagline with these arguments.

Then there is the usual cacophony claiming this has NOTHING to do with Islam, that the attackers are not "true Muslims" and that this type of attack goes against the example of Muhammed.

Some claim that this is not about criticism of Islam or insulting Muhammed, but simply about imagery of Muhammed, supposedly banned in Islam. Charlie Hebdo has been irreverent towards religious symbols and beliefs of all major religions. So why is it that only Islamic beliefs about images of Muhammed need to be respected? Why does Islam require special treatment?

Accusations of racism or false analogies with racist cartoons do not make much sense either. Islam or Muslim is not a race, it is simply an ideology. Muslims belong to almost every race and ethnicity.

This is about Muslims being unwilling to face criticism of Islam and Muhammed.

Needless to say, in western liberal societies at least, free speech includes the freedom to offend, and even though it makes us uncomfortable at times we are better off for it.

Satire after all is a form of criticism that help us question the values and beliefs we hold sacred, through irony and exaggeration and of course making us uncomfortable. Media outlets all over the world had an opportunity to do this while showing solidarity with Charlie Hebdo this past week. With anti-blasphemy laws firmly in place in many Muslim societies republishing the cartoons is out of the question. Sadly, many media outlets in western liberal societies as well chose to suppress themselves. Of course many Muslims are happy with this 'respect' and 'protection' accorded to their beliefs by western media this time.

However, it is precisely this type of 'protection' that is part of the problem. When criticism of Islam is suppressed in this way even in western liberal societies, we lose a valuable opportunity that would allow everyone, and especially Muslims living in these societies take a critical look at their values and beliefs, which may include those that have been held unquestioned for generations. Anti- blasphemy laws make it almost impossible for this sort of thing to happen in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, but here in America we chose to let the opportunity slip by out of political correctness.

Muslims are not a monolith and follow many varied interpretations of Islam. Many Muslims are rightfully outraged by the attack on Charlie Hebdo way more than they would ever be offended by some caricature of Muhammed. Unfortunately, there are some Muslims who are quick to justify this atrocity as well.

So, when Islamist extremists are willing to repeatedly threaten and kill over blasphemous cartoons or other 'insults' to Islam, it is fair to ask if there is a connection between certain elements in the belief and practice of Islam and this kind of behavior. It is a fair question that needs to be answered.

First, Sharia law which has been derived from the Quran and Hadith (examples from the life of Muhammed) prescribes death as the punishment for blasphemy. Now of course Sharia is not the law of the land in any western society. Still, according to this Pew survey large majorities of Muslims the world over support Sharia codes and even believe it to be of divine origin. Even American Muslim clerics like Yasir Qadhi have made the point that blasphemers can be killed 'only' in an Islamic state and once they have been convicted by a court of law, as if such a conviction would provide a degree of acceptability to kill those who insult Islam or Muhammed. Such widespread support for codes of law that consider blasphemy a 'crime' that should be punishable by death is rather disturbing even for those of us living in societies that are governed by secular law.

Second, even though the Quran doesn't explicitly call for the murder of blasphemers, the Quran encourages the killing of "those who spread mischief" against Allah and Muhammed. With the vast majority of Muslims believing the Quran to be God's literal word to man, it is easy to see how an isolated Islamist in a western capital can interpret mischief makers to be those like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and use such verses as justification to kill. Of course most Muslims simply read the Quran in Arabic (a language most non Arab Muslims don't understand) and either re-interpret or turn a blind eye to these Quranic injunctions that don't sit well with their own usually better sense of morality, but the minority who take these verses seriously do plenty of harm.

Third, the Hadith or examples from the life of Muhammed, describe incidents where Muhammed encouraged the killing of those who insulted him. Muslims consider Muhammed and his companions to be the best example to mankind. There have been instances when the prophet has urged his followers to kill those who insulted him. In Sirat Rasul Allah, one of the earliest biographies of the prophet, Ibn Ishaq describes an incident when the prophet urges his companions to kill Asma bint Marwan, whose poetry ridiculed the prophet. Some modern scholars question the veracity of this story. However several other authentic hadith in the well respected Sahih Bukhari and Sunan Abu Dawud that scholars regard as highly reliable demonstrate that Muhammed encouraged the killing of those who insulted him.

In the wake of these attacks many religious leaders have jumped to their feet claiming that Muhammed never resorted to this type of violence and only encouraged compassion and patience towards those who attacked him. It is true that the Hadith include instances when Muhammed encouraged compassion towards those who insulted him. However, with the original hadith available online, pretending that Muhammed NEVER encouraged violence and calling these attacks "unislamic" will not convince anyone looking for a justification to satisfy their murderous rage over some insult to Islam or Muhammed.

If we want to really rid the world of the horrors perpetrated in the name of Islam, we need to reconsider blasphemy codes and the way we regard the Quran and Hadith. Most of all, we need to do what satirists have been trying to get us to do with provocative cartoons. Instead of demanding that everyone respects Muhammed, let's take a look at some of these cartoons and consider the possibility that Muhammed may have acted in ways that should not be emulated anymore. Calling Muhammed "the perfect example" for all of us, without scrutinizing his actions and allowing criticism is foolish and dangerous.