Getting Real About Blasphemy and Free Speech

A man holds a pencil in the air as he stands in front of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris to observe a minute of silenc
A man holds a pencil in the air as he stands in front of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris to observe a minute of silence on January 8, 2015 for the victims of an attack by armed gunmen on the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7 which left at least 12 dead and many others injured. France observed a minute of silence Thursday, broken only by church bells, in honour of the 12 people killed by apparent jihadists at a magazine known for publishing cartoons deemed offensive to Islam. At midday (1100 GMT), crowds of people stood silently in public squares, schools and outside official buildings. Bells tolled at Paris' Notre Dame cathedral and in churches across the country. AFP PHOTO / MATTHIEU ALEXANDRE (Photo credit should read MATTHIEU ALEXANDRE/AFP/Getty Images)

On January 7, gunmen did not just commit the heinous murder of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris; they also unleashed a barrage of extremism on both ends of the ideological spectrum.

On one end are some Muslim leaders, replaying the broken record of "We-condemn-this-and-please-don't-blame-the-Muslims."

On the other, media zealots are making this tragedy all about their right to publish anything.

Both sides know that they are selling a facile narrative. It's time we get real with them.

Muslim leaders should declare Blasphemy Laws as un-Islamic

Don't give me soft condemnations; say you want to abolish Blasphemy laws. This is at the heart of the debate. From Algeria to Indonesia, many Muslim majority countries have laws to punish any spoken, written, or visible representation that sullies the name of Prophet Muhammad. Offenders face a three-year imprisonment, death penalty or street execution, shaping an intolerant society where personal vendettas are settled under this religious and legal cover.

Pakistan is the poster child of such intolerance. In a country where blasphemy used to be unheard of, Pakistan seems to have become a place of wanton profanity ever since the Blasphemy laws were enacted in 1984. More than 1,000 cases have been filed.

The issue came to a head in 2011 when a 45-year-old Christian woman named Asia Bibi was accused of blasphemy. She denied it. When the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, called for reforming the law, his own bodyguard killed him. Pakistan reacted, but not like France: 50,000 protestors hailed Taseer's killer as a hero, lawyers showered rose petals at him in the court, politicians refused to touch the Blasphemy laws, and clerics threatened the remaining dissenters. Within months, Pakistan's Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, another vocal opponent of the laws, was also assassinated. The debate ended on gunpoint. Literally.

This ominous mindset is now infiltrating the West. These clerics may not have the legal cover but they do have their pulpits from where they can foment hatred among disillusioned youth. I would not be surprised if such a cleric instigated the two men to attack Charles Hebdo.

Deep down, even these Muslim leaders know the Quran prescribes absolutely no punishment for blasphemy. Instead, it commands, "When you hear the Signs of Allah being denied and mocked at, sit not with them until they engage in a talk other than that" [4:141]. They know Prophet Muhammad faced severe blasphemy -- but pardoned the culprits.

Don't newspapers accommodate the sensitivities of other groups?

Now let's get real and accept that publishing these specific cartoons has more to do with a calculated provocation and less to do with upholding free speech. Because if it were about upholding free speech, then equally offensive expressions against other minorities would have been published too. But we don't see -- not that we want to see -- them mocking the Holocaust. We don't see them using the F-word for gays or the N-word for Blacks. Instead, we see the media acknowledging the offense and pulling the offensive ads off.

Let's illustrate the point with just three examples. In 2006, Sony pulled its Dutch PSP ad showing a white woman clutching a black woman by the chin. Why? Because the US critics and NAACP were offended. Next year, Snickers pulled its famous "man kiss" ad -- after it played at the Super Bowl. Why? Because the gay community was offended. I saved the best for last. In 1998, DDB, a leading advertising company, apologized and paid thousands of dollars in compensation when Catholics sued them for making a VW Golf ad that mocked Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper. Why? Because the French Catholic community was offended.

In 2008, Charlie Hebdo fired its famous cartoonists, Siné, on charges of "anti-Semitism." Siné had merely suggested that President Sarkozy's son Jean was going to convert to Judaism to marry the heiress of a prosperous appliance chain. And what happened in 2013 when the French Muslims sued Charlie Hebdo for publishing a cover page with the headline, "The Koran is shit - it doesn't stop bullets?" They were dubbed "Islamists" and given a lecture on free speech.

You see the double standards?

Newspapers are facing hard realities and in capitalistic societies, nothing is about anything "free." Consider this: According to the Newspapers Association of America, circulation alone makes a paltry 27 percent of total newspaper revenue. The other 73 percent is generated through a mix of advertising, marketing, and "new revenue sources" -- whatever that means. Papers are, therefore, heavily dependent upon advertisers. And as of today, anti-Muslim stuff has what I call the "Rushdie effect"; you will recall that Salman Rushdie made millions off of his infamous novel, Satanic Verses.

As a Muslim, and a staunch advocate of our First Amendment, I believe even the most offensive words are weaker than the weakest living creature. That's because Holy Quran exhorts, "kill not the life which Allah has made sacred" [6:152]. To me that includes even the non-human forms of life. That's why in the Younus household, bugs are not killed; they are made to crawl up a sheet of paper and then lodged in the backyard. My heart melts with equal grief for all the families of the French victims, even though one of them was a Muslim police officer.

As much as I empathize with the average Muslims facing growing Islamophobia in the West, I must ask their leaders to get real and reject Blasphemy laws as un-Islamic. As much as I respect someone's right to free speech, I must question their judgment and expose their double standard.

That said, can we now start a more sensible conversation in the middle of this ideological divide?

Faheem Younus is the President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Men Association USA and a Senior Fellow at the Hoffberger Center for Ethics at the University of Baltimore. Follow him @FaheemYounus