Desperate need for an open debate on freedom of expression
The Charlie Hebdo murder in Paris last week (7th January 2015), overwhelmingly condemned by Muslims, has laid bare the divisions between the proponents of unlimited freedom of expression (accused of double standards by some) and the vast majority of Muslims (accused of a 'victimhood' attitude by detractors).
'Avenging' the mockery of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the way the murderers mercilessly did in Paris, has nothing to do with the Prophet's noble teachings and the principles of faith. Islam does not allow 'vigilante justice', let alone bloody revenge, for to open this door leads to chaos and bloodshed. Terrorising people goes against the values and character of the great man Muslims adore and gives ammunition to the Islamophobes to vilify Islam itself. This exacerbates an already-established negative image of Islam and its Prophet; ordinary citizens caught in the middle become confused and blinded from the truth.
There is another dangerous dimension and this is in the world of murky politics. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy's remark that the attack was "a war declared on civilisation" shrilly reminded us of an impending 'clash of civilisations' theory. I hope other leaders in the West do not believe that the agenda for a global war should be set by some terrorists who are led by stony-faced, medieval hate figures hiding out in caves and mountains faraway from here.
Europe is on a war footing against terrorism now. What we need, once the dust settles, is a deep introspection and a robustly objective and open debate on the importance and limits of freedom of expression and dignity of human life. We need to heal our fractured world, not divide it further to make it unlivable.
In the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo's new cartoon depicting the Prophet, with a 5m copy circulation, British imams wisely suggested that Muslims should exemplify the Prophet's true ideals. It is also reassuring for Muslims that someone like Pope Francis has, while defending freedom of expression, stressed its limits. He told journalists while travelling to Philippines that his assistant "could expect a punch if he cursed his mother". Indeed, Muslims love their Prophet more than their mothers.
We have little control over the reasons and factors of tyranny, war and violence in several Muslim countries; but we better export peace, rather than import war, in our cities here.
Love for the Prophet is part of Islamic faith
As ordinary Muslims in Britain and Europe, our response to nihilistic terrorism or provocative cartoons should be to spread the love and mercy symbolised by our Prophet; anything other than this will be a betrayal of his teachings. This is a unilateral Islamic obligation for conscientious Muslims to fellow human beings.
This is a sacred kind of love and the reason why many Muslims recently took to Twitter to positively reclaim the image of the Prophet with the hashtag, #WhoIsMuhammad.
The true response to the mockery of the Prophet is for Muslims to deepen their love for him and act with dignity and wisdom. Some Orientalists in the past made academic criticisms of the Prophet, while others such as Bernard Shaw and Gandhi showered praise on him. The world did not turn upside down in their time.
Initiating a peace movement
If the Prophet is misunderstood by Muslims themselves, it is their fault. If he is misinformed in the West, it is also the Muslim's failure. Muslims today need to get their own house in order, and reevaluate their relationship with the Prophet, and create a knowledge generation to initiate a knowledge revolution. Islam started with God's command 'read' or 'recite' and it was the power of pen that made Muslims great.
In this critical time when some nihilistic criminals misuse the nobility of Islamic faith, it is high time to bring back the spirit of Islamic enlightenment enshrined in those early years of Islam's history: in Baghdad, Cordoba and elsewhere. It is time we, Muslims, wage a war against our own failings through not only loving the Prophet but also practicing what he stood for.
Islam, that literally means 'peace', teaches Muslims to work for the common good of all, but this does not come on its own or by just wishful thinking. This needs a planned and joint action with all the 'forces of good' around them. Muslims are the most exposed people in Europe today and some may feel their backs are on the wall, but this may usher in an era of re-inventing their true spirit.
A peace movement is what we desperately need today.