There is no freedom of thought and expression in Islam [Part 2]

Islam has escaped large scale critical scrutiny despite, or may be because, such endeavors have incited violent reprisals and mass violence throughout its history.

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There is no freedom of thought and expression in Islam [Part 1]

The Practice of Islam: Whither Freedom of Thought and Expression?

The resistance to freedom of thought and expression has unfortunately not remained confined to core doctrines of Islam. Critical appraisal and derisions of Islam have incited violent reprisals and  mass violence worldwide throughout the history of Islam. We cite  a few instances here starting from early and medieval periods but focusing more on the modern era encompassing the last 50 years.

Early and Medieval Era

Manichaesim is an Iranian religion that predates Islam. It has been founded by Mani (216-276 AD) born in Southern Babylonia. This religion descends from the Gnostic traditions of Persia, derives its teachings from a variety of sources (eg, Christian, Buddhism, Zorostrianism) and rejects tracing the origins of good and evil to "one and the same source." It advocates severe asceticism, including vegetarianism, to separate good from the evil. It initially spread so rapidly that it was seriously rivaling Christianity for some time (St Augustine briefly adhered to it in North Africa). In early years of Islam, the term "zindiq" was used to denote those who privately held doctrines such as Manichaeism derived from Iranian religions, and publicly professed Islam. They were the Quranic "hypocrites". The term was later generalised to apply to all kinds of heresy including freethinking, atheism and materialism. Several scholars were executed charged of "Zandaqa" in 8th to 11th century AD. In 742 AD Djad Ibn Dirham was executed for professing the supremacy of free will. He believed that the Quran was "created" as opposed to being "co-eternal" with God and denied divine attributes, such as God speaking to Moses and befriending Abraham.

Subsequently, Abbasid caliphs (750-1258 AD) employed a Grand inquisitor and special magistrates for trying and persecuting the heretics. Zindiqs were mass-beheaded, crucified or strangled and their books were destroyed. First, Ibn al-Muqaffa was executed in 760 AD (his limbs were cut off one by one and were disposed off in a blazing fire) - he attacked  Islam, its prophet and its concept of God. Subsequently, free thinkers like Ibn Abi-l-Awja (executed 772 AD), Bashshar Ibn Burd (executed 784/785 AD), Salih B. Abd Al-Quddus (executed 783 AD), Hammad Ajrad, Abn B Abd Al. Humayd B. lahiq Al Raqqasi followed suit. Similarly, Abu L. Athaiya was persecuted for professing that knowledge was acquired through reflection, deduction and research and without divine revelation. Al Warraq who wrote a remarkable history of religions critically examining different branches of Christianity appealing to rationality and skepticism died in exile. One of the greatest poets of Arabic language Al Mutanabbi (915-965 AD) rejected religious dogmas in favor of stoicism in his early works. He was imprisoned after leading a politico-religious rebellion where he claimed to be a prophet with a new Quran Chapter 10, [32] .

We now describe in some detail one final example which in some sense constitutes a precursor of mass violence incited to silence scholarship. During 1280 AD, a Jewish philosopher and physician Ibn Kammuna subjected Judaism, Christianity and Islam to critical examination in his book titled Examination of the Three Faiths. He concluded: "We will not concede that Muhammad added to the knowledge of God and of obedience to him anything more than what was found in the earlier religions." Next, "There is no proof that Muhammad attained perfection and the ability to perfect others as claimed." And "That is why, to this day we never see anyone converting to Islam unless in terror, or in quest of power, or to avoid heavy taxation, or to escape humiliation, or if taken prisoner, or because of infatuation with a Muslim woman, or for some similar reason. Nor do we see a respected, wealthy, and pious non-Muslim well versed in both his faith and that of Islam, going over to the Islamic faith without some of the aforementioned or similar motives."  Riots followed in Baghdad, and the author had to flee that city in secret. The 13th century historian Ibn al-Fuwati. has recorded the events as follows:

In this year 1284 it became known in Baghdad that the Jew Ibn Kammuna had written a volume in which he displayed impudence in the discussion of the prophecies. God keep us from repeating what he said. The infuriated mob rioted, and massed to attack his house and to kill him. The amir...and a group of high officials rode forth to the Mustansiriya Madrassa, and summoned the supreme judge and the law teachers to hold a hearing on the affair. They sought Ibn Kammuna but he was in hiding. That day happened to be a Friday. The supreme judge set out for the prayer service but as the mob blocked him, he returned to the Mustansirya. The amir stepped out to calm the crowds but these showered abuse upon him and accused him of being on the side of Ibn Kammuna, and of defending him. Then, upon the Amir's order, ii was heralded in Baghdad that, early the following morning outside the city wall, lbn Kammuna would be burned. The mob subsided, and no further reference to Ibn Kammuna was made. As for lbn Kammuna, he was put into a leather-covered box and carried to Hilla  where his son was then serving as official. There he stayed for a time until he died Chapter 1, [35].

We will see that this saga of brutal persecution of individuals for their views that offend the religious sentiments of Muslims  have been continuing till date.

Modern Era: 1950-2014

We enumerate  a few instances of violent reprisals and mass violence following criticisms of Islam.  

In his  book, Twenty Three Years, A Study of Prophetic Career, Iranian scholar Ali  Dashti (1894-1982 AD) ruled out the miracles ascribed to Muhammad by the Islamic tradition and rejected the Muslim view that the Quran is the word of God himself. Instead, he argued that the Quran offers nothing fundementaly new - all its moral precepts of the Quran are self-evident and generally acknowledged. He was tortured in Khomeini's prison for three years at the age of eighty three until his death in 1984. Mobs took to the streets in Syria in 1967 when an issue of the Syrian army magazine Jayash ash Shab published an article attacking God, religion in general and Islam in particular. The author of the article and two of his editors were court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison with hard labor.  Sudanese theologian Taha Mahmaoud was declared an apostate in 1968, and publicly hanged in 1985,  for trying to minimize the role of Quran as a source of law. A fatwa carrying death threat was pronounced against Algerian intellectual Rachid Boudjedra in 1983 for making scathing comments against religion Chapter 1, [35].   

In 1993 Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen had written a book Lajja depicting the persecution of a Hindu family by Muslims. A subsequent interview quoted her as calling for a revision of the Quran (she claims that she only called for abolition of the Islamic religious law, Sharia ). Muslims called for ban of her book and repeatedly physically attacked her, offered bounties on her head, demanded her execution and threatened her with death. A few hundred thousand demonstrators in Bangladesh called her "an apostate appointed by imperial forces to vilify Islam". She fled Bangladesh and subsequently lived in Sweden, Kolkata and Delhi, but  persisted with her anti-Islam stance. In 2006, the Imam of Kolkata's Tipu Sultan Mosque, promised monetary awards to anyone who would blacken Ms Nasreen's face. In 2007, the  All India Muslim Personal Board offered a bounty of Rs. 500,000 on her head and refused to rescind the bounty offer unless she apologised, burnt her books and left India. During a short visit to Hyderabad, she was attacked by a mob led by legislators from a Muslim political party AIMIM. A week later Muslim leaders in Kolkata revived an old fatwa against her offering an unlimited amount of money to anybody who would kill her. Subsequently, a violent protest  organised by a Muslim body caused chaos in the city to the extent that  it could only be quelled by Indian army. She was moved from Kolkata subsequently and remains a persona non grata there [12].

In 1988 Muslim Indian born author Salmon Rushdie had written a book Satanic Verses where he showed that the Prophet of Islam  had  added three verses in the Quran, praising three goddesses that used to be worshipped in Mecca by pagan Arabs; only to revoke them later when Angel Gabriel convinced him that Devil (Satan) had suggested the verses to him. These verses have been cited in multiple early works of Islamic history including the first biography of Muhammad pp. 165-167 [32] and in the influential Quranic commentary Tarikh Al Tabari by Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, a Persian historian and scholar who lived during 839-923 AD Vol 9, pp. 114-115 [31]. But, Muslims worldwide found the mere mention of a documented instance offensive. His book was banned in many countries with large Muslim population after violent protests: India, Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore, Venezuela and Pakistan. Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme religious leader of Iran had issued a fiat (fatwa) to Muslims to kill him. A bomber Mustafa Mahmoud Mazeh blew himself up in a central London hotel while making a bomb intended to kill Rushdie in 1989. The Islamic World Movement of Martyrs' Commemoration bestowed martyrdom on him and built his shrine in the cemetery in Tehran that holds thousands of Iranian soldiers slain in the Iran-Iraq war. His mother was invited to relocate to Iran.

In July 1991 the Japanese translator of Rushdie's book Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death and Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was stabbed and seriously injured. Within two years, Aziz Nesin, the Turkish language translator, was targeted  leading to the massacre of 37 people. In October 1993, William Nygaard, a Norway publisher, was nearly killed in Oslo. In Belgium, two Muslim leaders who had opposed Khomeini's fatwa were killed. Two bookstores in California, and five in England, were fire-bombed. Twelve people died during rioting in Mumbai. In 2012, Muslims threatened agitations when Rushdie had been invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival. To avoid violence, the Indian Intelligence Bureau dissuaded Rushdie from attending the festival informing him that four assassins have been hired to kill him. The four participants who had read excerpts from his book had to escape India to avert arrest. William Dalrymple, the festival director, got death threats. Finally, organisers cancelled Rushdie's video address at the festival [24,25].

Somali Muslim born American activist, writer and politician Ayyan Hirsi Ali had assessed  the Prophet of Islam applying the current standards of morality: the Prophet of Islam had  married, at the age of 53, a child who was six-seven years old and had consummated the marriage when she was nine or ten Vol 7, [31]. She had also criticised Islam on the limited rights it provides to women, constraints it imposes on freedom of speech and expression and  the punishments it recommends for adultery. Reneging on Islam in 2002, she had written the script of and provided the voice-over for a short film that juxtaposed Quranic verses with scenes of  portrayal of Muslim women suffering abuse. The film showed an  apparently nude actress dressed in a semi-transparent burqa with Quranic verses  written on her skin. The director of the film, Theo Van Gogh was shot point blank  by a member of a Muslim terrorist group. The assassin cut Van Gogh's throat with a knife after he died, tried to decapitate him and left a letter with death threats for Hirsi Ali pinned on his corpse with a knife. Next, a rap song with lyrics including violent threats on her life was distributed on the Internet. She went into hiding and the Dutch government security services moved her across several locations in the Netherlands and subsequently to USA. Once she had to abandon a secure house in Netherlands as her neighbors had complained that she created an unacceptable security risk. The Dutch state had spent about 3.5 million Euros on her protection. A private trust was established to help fund her protection (as also of other Muslim dissidents). She remains proud of her work with Van Gogh [13].

The Deccan Herald newspaper in India had published a short story titled "Mohammad the Idiot" on a handicapped youth named Mohammad. The Muslim population of Bangalore, which constitutes about 10 per cent, considered it an insult to their religion, and a 5000 strong mob tried to burn down the office of the newspaper. In the ensuing riots, four lost their lives and fifty were injured [14].  

Muslim groups had stoned US and German embassies worldwide protesting against a supposedly anti-Islam film - Innocence of Muslims [17]. Again, seven scenes had to be deleted from Vishwaroopam produced and directed by renowned movie star, Kamal Hassan in India to placate protesting Muslim mobs [18]. The Last Temptation of Christ, a film that depicted Christ imagining himself engaged in sexual activities, deemed offensive for Christians, had also been greeted with protests worldwide; most of these protests however remained non-violent except one at France [35]. The film was banned in two states in Southern United States, but received an Oscar nomination for the best director in the same country and theaters were sold out when it was shown [33, 34]. Da Vinci Code, a film deemed offensive by some Christian groups turned out to be a roaring success - grossed second highest worldwide in 2006. It hypothesises that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and their descendants survive today. There were however large, albeit nonviolent, protests in Asia (rather than in Christian majority US and Europe) and the film was banned in four states in India, including in its only Christian majority state, Nagaland [19-21]. A movie has also been stalled by the censor board for two years for hurting Christian sentiments [22], and Censor board in India  has removed scenes that hurt Christian and Muslim sentiments before [23]. In contrast, no scenes were removed by the censor board from a recent movie, PK, that has caricatured Hindu temples, Gods and Godmen [23]. It has been successfully running in theaters worldwide (despite sporadic protests) , including in Hindu majority India, reportedly grossing over 600 crore rupees.    

In September 2005 Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons, most of which depicted the Prophet of Islam.  Violent  protests followed worldwide resulting in at least 200 deaths globally. Large demonstrations were held in almost every country with significant Muslim minorities, including Nigeria,]Canada, India, USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, and throughout continental Europe. During these protests, Muslims in the north of Nigeria attacked local Christians. Several Western embassies were attacked: the Danish, Austrian and Norwegian embassies in Lebanon and Syria were severely damaged. Christians and their churches were also targeted in some places. The cartoonists had to go into hiding after receiving several death threats. Numerous violent plots related to the cartoons have targeted them and the property or employees of Jyllands-Posten and other newspapers that printed the cartoons, and representatives of the Danish state.  In USA, Headley and Rana were convicted of planning terrorism against Jyllands-Posten and were sentenced in 2013. In 2009, Yale University Press refused to publish the cartoons and other representations of Muhammad out of fear for the safety of its staff. Numerous newspapers were closed and the editors dismissed, censured or arrested  for their decision or intention to re-publish the cartoons. In some countries, including South Africa, publication of the cartoons was banned by government or court orders. A Consumer Boycott was organised in Middle east against Denmark. Arla, Denmark's biggest exporter to the Middle East, lost 10 million kroner (1.6 million US dollars, 1.3 million euros) per day in the initial weeks of the boycott. On 9 September 2006, BBC News reported that the boycott had reduced Denmark's total exports  by 15.5 per cent in four months. The BBC estimated 134 million Euros cost to Danish businesses, but part of that was compensated by increase in empathetic purchase in US [26].

A French satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo which features cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes reprinted the twelve cartoons of Jyllands-Posten and added some of their own in 2006. In 2011 they published some more cartoons of the prophet of Islam. Their office was fire bombed and their web site hacked. In 2012 they published nude caricatures of Muhammad. On 7 January 2015,  two French Muslim brothers of Algerian descent  forced their way into and opened fire in the Paris headquarters of the weekly, shouting Allahu Akbar and "the Prophet is avenged''. They killed twelve, including staff cartoonists  and two police officers, and wounded eleven, four of them seriously. A woman visitor  was spared  as she was a woman, but on conditions that she converts to Islam, reads the Quran and wears a veil.  The  brothers were later shot dead as they fled a warehouse north of Paris, firing at police. Shortly afterwards, a gunman with reported links to the brothers took hostages in a kosher supermarket  in Eastern Paris. Four hostages died likely killed by the gunman, who was later killed by police [28].

The reactions were in stark contrast when Indian Muslim artist MF Husain painted nude pictures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Hindu majority India. Specifically, he drew 1) a naked Goddess Lakshmi sitting on Lord Ganesha's head 2)  Durga in sexual union with a tiger 3) a naked Goddess Saraswati holding a veena, 4) a naked Parvati with her son Ganesha 5) a naked Hanuman, seeing a naked Sita sitting on the thigh of naked Ravana and 6) a naked Bharatmata twice - once in the shape of India with names of the states of India on her naked body, alongside a naked sadhu in the Bay of Bengal. He did not however similarly depict Muslim personas let alone the Prophet.  He drew a fully clad Muslim king alongside a naked Brahmin. The Muslim women in his pictures were completely covered with purdahs, and  the Muslim poets he painted were fully attired. Some Hindus protested at his exhibitions and filed criminal complaints, but no one issued an order to kill him. No one was injured or killed during the protests [24]. Husain moved out of India subsequently but attributed his emigration to tax benefits in his adopted country rather than to protests  [29] . He died of old age after several years. His right to offend the Hindus was defended by the government of India, judiciary, political parties and the media. Recently, in an incident which is fairly typical in Saudi Arabia, a blogger has been sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes to be carried out over 20 weeks for criticizing Islamic clerics and morality police in Saudi Arabia [30].

Summary

This sequence of events reveal that any offense to religious sentiments of Muslims incite large scale violence worldwide, that is, in regions where the Muslim population is significant, despite the fact that  these countries are geographically disparate spanning three continents (Asia, Europe, Africa) and are governed by different laws, speak different languages and observe different local cultures. This is in sharp contrast to the reactions of other religious communities to similar, or worse offense, for which, protests if any remain largely peaceful and limited to small sections of the society even where they are in substantial majority. In particular, the reactions of Hindu and Muslim communities residing in the same country, India, when their religious sentiments are hurt widely vary. So, the community behaviors may well be influenced by doctrines of the respective religions.

Conclusion

Born in early seventh century AD, Islam is the youngest among the major contemporary religions. It may well be at the same stage of evolution as Christianity,  with which it shares many core doctrines, was in 15th Century AD. During this period  free thinking was severely penalised in the Christian world. Galileo was tried for example in 17th century AD when his scientific findings contradicted Biblical scriptures. The famous works of philosophy by Voltaire appeared as late as eighteenth century AD. If history were to repeat itself, then we may have just entered the era of large scale enlightened scrutiny of Islam and subsequent reforms may not be far off either. On the other hand, is it possible that the above optimism is merely wishful thinking as the intolerance in Islamic society seems to be worsening ? let us recall that one could safely criticise Islam in parts of the Muslim world in not too distant past - in Assad's Syria, Shah's Iran, Nasser's Egypt  and Ataturk's Turkey. Islam is certainly at the cross roads today.  

On a concluding note, several remarkable scholars and activists, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have already contributed landmark treatises in this genre of thought:  Dayanand  Saraswati [67], Ali Dashti [68], Ram Swarup [42, 69], Sitaram Goel [70], Anwar Shaikh [71], Ali Sina [72], Ibn Warraq [41], Sam Harris [73] , Robert Spencer [74],  to name a few.  All the above individuals persisted despite incurring  tremendous personal costs, including  vilification, ostracisation, incarceration and  death threats - the Muslim scholars among them had also to defy the religious edicts they were raised with. We simply can not thank them enough.

 

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Writer

Saswati Sarkar Saswati Sarkar @sarkar_swati

Feminist, agnostic, politically bipartisan,Indian, Bengali, socially progressive, follows Hindu human & legal rights, student of Hindu history and engineering acade.

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