Is it a Hobson’s choice between religious beliefs and free speech

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By Dr Harry Hagopian, Middle East North Africa (MENA) Consultant

The latest opinion piece from our consultant on the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, Dr Harry Hagopian, on the actions over the past couple of weeks. Originally published on Dr Hagopian’s website


Over the past couple of weeks, there have been reams of analyses and volumes of interviews regarding the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris as well as the subsequent attack on a kosher hypermarket.

Pundits have painstakingly dissected the stark differences between legality and morality, or between satire and sadism, as they opined on whether Islam as a religion – or Muslims as its followers – were innocent or guilty of those latest atrocities.

Following my earlier blog Another Sobering Moment of Shock! on the pages of the Huffington Post, I would now like suggest four points that might perhaps manage Western – and French – indignation or Eastern – and Muslim – outrage.

  • Charlie Hebdo does not only satirise Muslim religious beliefs. It has been doing so with Christianity too, from Jesus himself to the different Popes and other religious leaders. And it might well be that Christians will have reacted vociferously let alone violently a few short centuries ago. However, those Christians who get upset from such publications today vent their anger by holding prayer vigils or penning their thoughts in their e-bulletins rather than by killing or maiming those they consider as blasphemers. But Islam is five centuries younger than Christianity and so Muslims might with time overstep such bellicose reactions or emotive paroxysms when challenged by caricatures that are at times a pictorial reminder of some ugly fault-lines across our societies.

  • A lot has been written about the need to reform Islam. In my view, this is quite a reasonable expectation since the jurisprudence of Islam has stonewalled progress and refused to move with the times. However, in order to reform Islam, it is essential to reform Muslim minds first, and this is where imams, rulers and community leaders should be brave and innovative enough to contextualise those surahs or beliefs that ostensibly vindicate nihilism or foster nasty violence. They should also remind those younger Muslim generations who might harbour prurient eschatological tendencies that compassion and mercy are two key components in the Muslim texts that are – incidentally – recited by Muslim believers more than once every day.

  • As a practising Christian myself, I do not believe that Jesus Christ needs to be defended by us insecure mortals. Rather, I would suggest that prophets are ontologically above satire or lampoons and their followers need not resort to ideological bigotry or wreak vengeance and hurl violence onto others in order to “defend” them. Otherwise, such persons in my opinion are no longer prophets and are not different from any of us.

  • Finally, I refer to the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Davos last week where one overriding concern amongst many participants in 2015 [as articulated by the likes of President François Hollande and Secretary of State John Kerry] was that of terrorism. Given the levels of polarisation, Western as well as Muslim leaders should redouble their efforts at finding common denominators and cooperation enhancers that do not demonise Islam but strive to introduce more dialogue and cooperation with others. The death of King Abdullah and the appointment (moubaya3ah) of King Salman might [perhaps] impact those efforts.

However, it is disingenuous to pretend that Islamophobia is not in our midst or conversely that there is no deep-seated concern about a violent brand of Islam within Western societies. However, research also shows a correlation between increasing knowledge of Islam and decreasing anti-Muslim prejudice. It therefore behoves upon Muslim organisations to affirm loudly and unapologetically (much more on the Internet than from the minarets) those verses in the Holy Quran that relate to social justice and respect for other faiths or those underlining that there is no compulsion in religion but that advocate patience, forgiveness and understanding. It is essential to disprove that Islam is solely about a jihad that involves a phenomenology of blood and gore.

What happened in Paris, just as what happens in places as far afield as Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Burma, Niger or elsewhere cannot be condoned or justified by anybody. I too am not ready to equivocate or tone down my criticisms for the sake of being politically correct or religiously inclusive. By the same token, I do not wish those fetid incidents – whether they are random or connected – to become the clarion call for the demonisation of a faith or a clash between peoples. Perhaps it would be helpful to re-read Gilbert Achcar’s Clash of Barbarisms as a thought-provoking book.

We all share a collective responsibility to defuse a volatile situation in order to protect every single precious life no matter its genome, identity or faith background. Religious beliefs and freedom of speech are not mutually exclusive despite mordant challenges or societal divergences that are as much cultural, political and economic as they are religious. Surely, we do not have to view them as a Hobson’s choice? What we should focus on instead is the harder – and much harsher – question of whether we as followers of a religion or as advocates of free speech can coexist too?