The freedom to offend

The term ‘Islamophobia’ was coined to define anti-Muslim bigotry but in reality, the usage of this term has degraded it to a tool to censor unwanted and opposing views. A recent Twitter row between two prominent British writers, Ash Sarkar and Julie Burchill, has made it explicit how and why the misuse of the term Islamophobia has stripped it of any relevance.

Personally, I don’t approve of the way Julie Burchill questioned Ash Sarkar on the age of Aisha (the wife of Prophet Mohammed) at the time of their marriage. However, I do firmly believe that criticizing, mocking, or even insulting religious beliefs doesn’t – and shouldn’t – count as anti-Muslim bigotry.

Julie Burchill could certainly be criticized for her crass attitude, but the question she asked does not constitute bigotry based upon Sarkar’s religious identity. Nevertheless, the accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ were quickly levelled at her, positioning her question as targeting a fellow writer due to her race and religion. A tirade of accusations charged Burchill with being an ‘Islamophobe’. Eventually, Burchill’s book contract was terminated.

This clash of opinions wasn’t more than a minor contretemps that could easily be soluble between adults. But since Sarkar would not accept being questioned, there was no possibility of discussion. Accusing Burchill of ‘Islamophobia’ for questioning religious beliefs was uncalled for, despite her rudeness.

Criticizing, or even spurning, religious beliefs and their interpretations should not cause offence in a free society, such as Britain, particularly given the incompatibility between some religious practices and the principles of human rights.

The question of Aisha’s age at the time of her marriage to the Prophet Muhammad is a matter of debate even within Muslim communities.

Some believe that she was six years old, and this is the precedent of a tradition which legitimises child marriage to this day. Some believe she was 19, and consider the religious sources placing Aisha’s age at six years old abhorrent justifications for child abuse in Muslim majority countries. Concerns about such religious sources being used to justify a low legal age of marriage for girls in Muslim majority countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan should not be disregarded, even when religious sensibilities are offended.

Silencing criticism sends out a message to those people in the society who feel justified in reacting aggressively when their religious beliefs are criticized or mocked.

So, it is important that people like Sarkar who have a platform as a prominent writer should be held to a high standard. However, the result is that Muslims are treated as children who are unable to take any criticism, incapable of assimilating into a society that values free speech.

A recent article on the slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ published in The New York Times reported that the phrase was becoming increasingly divisive in France. It stated, ‘Today, someone who is Charlie is likely to be white and a supporter of the caricatures’ publication. At its extreme, the person may back a strict secularism that at times is a cover for anti-Islamic sentiments. Someone who is not Charlie is often nonwhite and opposes the cartoons’ publication. The person could go as far as justifying Islamist terrorism or a ban of all criticism of religion.’

The article concludes with a student debate which issued a proposal to ‘Refrain from publishing that kind of caricature.’

But freedom of speech is important to everyone.

A person who says ‘Je suis Charlie’ does not necessarily also believe that people are obliged to agree with whatever Charlie Hebdo or anyone else might publish. It is about defending the right to freedom of speech, even if it causes offence. This slogan is no longer about any particular magazine. It has become a banner to unite people to protect freedom of speech for everyone – a right that is precarious but worth fighting for.

It is a sad state of affairs that people from Muslim backgrounds are no longer expected to be capable of living in harmony with their fellow citizens within the spirit of democracy. They are relentlessly told that free speech and democratic values threaten them and that the hard-earned liberties developed from the Enlightenment onwards, are in effect, a tool to target them and their faith. They have been intellectually ghettoised.

Assuming that Muslims cannot deal with opposing views is a form of bigotry of low expectations which increases the isolation of Muslim communities from the rest of the society.

Many Muslims support democratic and progressive values and challenge human rights violations.

But an influential and vocal minority group of self-proclaimed saviours of Muslim communities have dominated the mainstream narrative. They foment victimisation narratives amongst vulnerable people under the pretence of protecting religious sensibilities.

Religious beliefs can be a force of good or evil on both personal and political levels. Therefore, it is important to keep the discourse open to critical perspectives to draw a distinction between faith and a politicization of religion that seeks to discriminate against people who don’t share the same beliefs.

People yielding to the censorship of criticism of religious beliefs are playing into the hands of those extremists who are blurring the line between genuine bigotry against Muslims and legitimate criticism of religious teachings. The result is a muting of criticism of unjust traditions that endorse the murder of apostates and homosexuals, anti-Semitism, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Child marriage, unequal legal and inheritance rights for women and more.

The term ‘Islamophobia’ oversteps its aim to protect of Muslims as people because it is used to protect beliefs – which is in the interest of a particular orthodox section of Muslim communities that by no means represent all people from Muslim backgrounds. It’s time to challenge the idea that defending secular values and human rights fuels anti-Muslim sentiments. The values of free speech, including speech considered offensive, protects all people – including Muslims – from discrimination and bigotry, regardless of their religious affiliations.