In light of the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the debate on freedom of expression has once again come to the fore. It is claimed that Muslims are being overly sensitive and overreacting when it comes to the reprinting of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
Before commenting on this, let me start by firstly condemning the barbaric attacks on Charlie Hebdo unequivocally. Islam being a religion of peace does not permit any person to take the law in to his own hands and does not justify or condone violence or extremism. This has nothing to do with the true teachings of Islam.
Moving on to the debate on freedom of expression - are Muslims overreacting when it comes to the publication of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) or are they justified in being offended?
Muslims consider the Prophet to be the Benefactor for all of Mankind and a Mercy for all Mankind. Muslims regard the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) as the most excellent model of virtue and dignity in the history of mankind. They hold him dear and love him more than any other person, including their loved and dear ones.
Now, within this context and background are Muslims justified in being offended - certainly they are justified in their expression of sorrow and grief. But let me make it clear here that it does not mean that Muslims can commit acts of violence and extremism in the name of the Prophet. That is not permissible. That was not the way of the Prophet and that is not the way of Islam.
Today the world clamours over freedom of speech. It is alleged that it is non-existent in Islam and the state of present day Muslim countries are cited to support this contention. But if Muslims are denied the right to basic freedom of expression then this is wrong and against Islam's teachings. Every person must have the right to hold and express their heartfelt convictions. But the intention should not be to mock or insult what others hold as sacred. If you look at the life of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) then he responded to hatred with tolerance, love and forgiveness. That is the model that Muslims should adopt and follow.
This should be the reaction of the Muslims. They should follow the Prophet's example. The latest edition of Charlie Hebdo, known as the 'Survivors Edition' has a caricature depicting the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) on the front cover. This certainly hurts the feelings of all Muslims - not those who are extremists or terrorists - but those who are good and decent people. Following its publication the Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness, Mirza Masroor Ahmad spoke of how true Muslims should respond. He said they should respond with patience and prayers. He said that where others curse the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) - true Muslims should respond not with violence but by increasing in their love for the Prophet of Islam and invoking blessings upon him. They should tell the world about his true character and respond by writing about true Islam. As the adage goes the pen is mightier than the sword.
Remember that this world has now become a global village. As such, something that happens in one country does is not limited to that nation but can destroy the peace of other countries in other continents. If a wrong is committed it does not mean another wrong should be committed to correct that injustice. Two wrongs do not make a right.
To provoke the sentiments and feelings of others cannot be right. Any reasonable person would agree that if you provoke the sentiments of others by mocking what they hold to be sacred that can only result in unrest and disorder in society. By ridiculing and mocking others what will be achieved? Do we want to see unrest and divisions created in our society? Pope Francis spoke on this very matter recently and is to be commended for speaking out in favour of respecting all religions.
Chancellor Merkel recently stated that Islam is part of Germany. This is an example of how to create peace and integration in society. We should work towards being inclusive and tolerant of each other.
The media has a major part to play in society and it should use this power with responsibility. Rather than creating divisions and hatred in society they should work to promote and foster peace in society. By way of example when the IRA at the height of the Ireland tensions wanted to promote their propaganda the British Media did not report on this so that people did not become brainwashed. This was an example of the media thinking about and working in the greater interest of society. Similarly today we should all work with wisdom and common sense to unite people and create peace in our society.
This is not to say that we cannot have disagreements or cannot debate on issues we do not agree on. But if we are to do so it should be done in a mutually respectful and dignified manner. We need to act reasonably and proportionately and a line needs to be drawn somewhere. This is in line with what we have currently when it comes to freedom of expression e.g. we cannot be racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic etc. So freedom of expression comes with responsibility otherwise it could lead to chaos in society.
In short the reprinting of the cartoons is highly provocative and inflammatory and will only play into the hands of extremist elements. Freedom of expression cannot be used as an excuse or licence to deliberately play upon the heartfelt sentiments of people. Most people want to live in a world of peace and mutual respect where there is no violence or terrorism. Sometimes to achieve such noble ambitions you have to make sacrifices elsewhere. And so, whilst freedom of expression is a very important and valuable right - for the sake of that greater value if there are occasions where you make a judgement call to make compromises for the sake of that primary right.
Just because you have the right to offend - it does not mean it is 'right' to offend.