In my university class, students were asked to pick topics for debates. They are all international students who are talking my class to improve their listening and speaking skills. I think debates are a great way to do that and prepared a list of subjects for them to choose from. They were also allowed to add their own. They came up with several, but only one attracted a lot of comment and attention: freedom of speech.
Repeatedly, I heard the same thing from these students – who come from mostly Islamic countries. They love freedom of speech, and the related, freedom of press, in this country. They may not be fond of American television and movies, which they think are too permissive. They may not like the open relationships between men and women, which is so counter to their culture. However, they universally appreciate the opportunity to talk not only about those subjects, but to criticize government decisions and political leaders, topics that are taboo in their native lands.
They just don’t have any idea what they are talking about.
They should ask author Salman Rushdie who recently had to cancel a visit to his native India because of death threats over his 1988 novel Satanic Verses. In it, Rushdie wrote about verses that allowed prayers to be made to three goddesses who in pre-Islamic days were considered Allah’s wife and daughters. The Prophet Muhammad supposedly ordered the verses removed from the sacred text and blamed the devil for deceiving him into originally accepting them.
For devout Muslims, the novel was outrageous because the title was deemed sacrilegious as was its description of Mohammad. Besides, the idea of the three goddesses runs counter to Islam beliefs on monotheism.
That book gained international attention when Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa – a ruling issued by an accepted religious leader; this one gave permission to kill the author -- the year after the book was published. Rushdie actually spent 10 years under police protection because of the fatwa, which wasn’t lifted until 1998.
This time around, Abul Qasim Nomani, the vice chancellor of an Indian Islamic religious school, demanded that Rushdie be denied a visa. Nomani was apparently unaware that Rushdie doesn't have to obtain a visa to visit his native land. Rushdie couldn’t have read his book there anyway; it’s banned in deference to the 240 million Muslims living in India.
They should ask about the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that caused such a furor in 2005 when published in a Danish newspaper. Images of the spiritual leader are considered blasphemous in Islam. The cartoons were published after a Danish author complained that no one would illustrate his book about Mohammad. That prompted the paper to ask 12 illustrators to draw the cartoons.
That decision led to marches, firebombings and more. An estimated 200 people died in the worldwide protests.
Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten’s cultural editor at the newspaper, declined to back down in the face of threats. “Religious feelings cannot demand special treatment in a secular society,” he said. “In a democracy one must from time to time accept criticism or becoming a laughingstock.”
A year later, the editor of the paper, Carsten Juste, did apologize for offending anyone, not for the publication. “In our opinion,” he wrote, “the 12 cartoons were moderate and not intended to be insulting. They did not go against Danish laws, but have evidently offended many Muslims, for which we apologize.”
In a later interview, Juste said, “We believe that if we would go out and apologize [for the publication] then the dictators in the Middle East would decide what we should publish in our newspaper. That is of course totally unacceptable.”
As it turned out, Danish Muslim extremists were willing to depict Mohammad in far worst ways. They visit the Arab world in 2006 with three new drawings that they claim erroneously were in addition to the original 12. They showed Muhammad as a pedophile demon and with a pig’s snout. The third one depicted a praying Muslim being ravished by a dog.
More significantly, as the New York Times noted, “there is a long tradition of artistic representation in both Islamic and Western art, and many depictions of the prophet have appeared without incident.”
I suspect my students were not thinking about these episodes. They were focused on non-religious topics. They, too, would be offended if they felt someone was not being respectful toward Islam. In fact, one student stalked out of another class after the students there voted to see a clip of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s dummy, Ahmed, the dead terrorist. All other Muslim students in class voted to watch it and laughed loudly during it.
The reality is that Islamic ideas of freedom of speech is completely constrained by religious fences. Until that barrier is overcome, freedom of speech will only be a chimera to admire.
The differences were clearly visible after the cartoons were published. In response to them, a Muslim in Belgium published a picture of the Virgin Mary with her breasts exposed. He was not attacked. In fact, his work was subsidized by the Ministry for Culture there.
Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.
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