The Muslim world stands enraged by the actions of unscrupulous individuals who chose to produce the derogatory film ''Innocence of Muslims'' and several obscene cartoons designed to insult the Prophet Muhammad.
Despite knowing the hurt and anguish that their actions caused, they have chosen to persist with their controversy, justifying their actions as being in the interest of freedom of expression. Ironic, however, is their limited understanding of the philosophical foundations of rights theory that indeed is the very foundation of the societies they champion as being most progressive.
Back to the basics
Let us start at the beginning. Rights are those that everyone must be allowed to exercise free from any interference from the State, and others. This is subject to the condition that the exercise of those freedoms should not harm anyone else. This has been manifested in modern law to mean that there is a presumption that people can express themselves as they wish, with restrictions allowed only when this expression violates the rights of others, or extremely important public interests. This aspect of rights theory seems to be pretty well known by all.
However, a second question was posed by J.S. Mill who is considered the father of freedom of expression in the West. How should that right be exercised? For example, just because one has a right, does it mean that one must or even should exercise that right? Even if Mill felt he could exercise his right to free expression, how would he have exercised it?
It is within our right to insult you, the reader of this short piece. It is within our right to mock you, to insult your parents, or your siblings. It is within our right to lie, to be rude, to be unkind. However, is it somehow morally praiseworthy for us to do all of these things? Plainly not. Why? Just because we can do something, it does not mean that we must. What it means is that we ought to consider whether and in what circumstances the exercise of that right would be good and appropriate. It is this that those who ridicule Islam have forgotten. It is this that is lacking in their understanding of rights theory. And it is this that they must politely be reminded of.
Mill was a good person. Of course he believed in rights, and was a staunch defender of them. Yet, he also believed in goodness and morality and in the constructive use of those rights he was advocating for and defending. Part of the problems that society is facing today is the absence of this essential aspect of Mill’s teachings on rights. Yes we have a right to ignore the homeless, the destitute and the socially disadvantaged within our society. But it is precisely this attitude that results in isolation and selfishness. Is it not better to choose to be kind, to choose to be respectful, to choose to be good?
The irony is that while Mill may have been the primary proponent of such an approach to rights in the West, he was preceded by about 1,000 years by another individual who made similar philosophical arguments as him in Arabia – the Prophet Muhammad. The same individual who is now the object of these indefensible attacks was the one who proposed this notion: that we should all be free to think, feel and express ourselves how we want, subject to other people’s rights and interests. But that we should be good in exercising those rights; that we should adhere to basic universal principles of love, tolerance, dignity, respect, trust and mutual harmony; and that we should ultimately be good people.
Would Muhammad have accepted criticism of himself? Yes, and in fact he did. But would he have stooped to insult, ridicule, mock and disrespect others in the manner of those who attacked him? No, because he rose above that, and strove to embody goodness.
That is the essence of the Islamic belief on this matter. It is the same as Mill. That while we have freedom to exercise our rights of expression, we should aspire to exercise those rights according to the principles of truth, beauty and love, with the aim of building a better society in which to live. And it is this way of being that both disciples of Muhammad – Muslims – and disciples of Mill – proponents of human rights – ought to strive to embody.
Where is the intellect?
And so, by all means challenge the character of the Prophet Muhammad through discourse, debate and rhetoric. Criticise Islam by pointing out its supposed flaws. Show us which aspects of the Qur'an you disagree with. Describe to us what aspects of the Prophet Muhammad’s life you find troubling and why. Engage with us intellectually, if you will. But please, for the sake of peace and dignity, do not indulge in ignorance and ridicule. Perhaps a lack of true conviction in their disgruntlement and failure in making reasoned and rational criticisms of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad explains why the architects of the recent attacks of the Prophet Muhammad have fallen back on this distasteful attempt to insult, mock and deride, without any factual or reasoned basis.
People react differently to feeling offended – some even further antagonising a situation by adversely responding to criticism. However, regardless of such reactions, Mill, like the Prophet Muhammad, and indeed the leaders of each of the world's great monotheistic religions, saw the importance of analysing the nature of an action and deciding whether it, in itself was worth exercising, at the cost of critical intellectual discussion and thought. It is our hope that the proponents of baseless films and crude cartoons take the lead in demonstrating the importance of respecting the sensibilities of others, by removing them. It is our firm belief that rather than hosting something which hurts a large community of people, who regard all the Prophets of God, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad alike (Peace be upon them all), as a champion of virtuosity and justice, its removal would be a powerful indicator of their commitment to intellectual rigour and debate.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.