At the turn of the 18th century, there was a man in France who spent his entire being criticizing any and every institution. He penned plays, poems, and over 20,000 pamphlets that would criticize the Church, despite the risks at the time. His name was Voltaire. Known for his satirical remarks and his zealous drive for freedom of speech at any cost, Voltaire left no institution or religion unscathed. Islam was no exception. He wrote a fictional play based on the Prophet Muhammad’s life, except this play was different than the others. Unlike the satirical plays Voltaire is recognized for, his play on Prophet Muhammad was not a comedy, but rather a tragedy.
The terrorism that occurred in Paris is also nothing but a tragedy, and the events following soon after for the Muslim world are also a tragedy. Despite a Muslim’s deep love and admiration for Prophet Muhammad, it hurts a Muslim even more for others to proclaim violence in his holy name. One is reminded of the incident when Prophet Muhammad visited the city of Taif, not long after he became a prophet. The people of Taif pelted rocks at him and chased him out of the city, bleeding. At that time, Muslims believe that an angel came to Prophet Muhammad, asking permission to demolish the city through a natural disaster. Despite the physical violence he had endured, Prophet Muhammad wished peace on the city instead.
It then hurts even more for individuals to resort to physical violence in response to speech when the Prophet himself resorted to peace in response to physical violence. This hurts in particular as a Muslim, since Islam recognized the importance of freedom of speech 1,500 years ago.
The philosophy of freedom of speech is all over the spectrum. There are philosophers like Stanley Fish, who question its very existence, and philosophers like John Stuart Mill who advocate complete freedom, regardless of its moral implications. Wherever on this spectrum, one thing is unanimous: freedom of speech should lead to the truth. If every opinion is heard, then surely the truth prevails because unlike the flimsy foundations of falsehood, truth withstands the onslaught of derision.
These are the very teachings of Islam. God tells us in the Holy Qur’an (2:257): “There is no compulsion in religion. Surely the right way has become distinct from error.” Muslims believe that truth becomes distinct from error, which is analogous with freedom of speech approaching truth and discrediting falsehood. Moreover, no one is compelled to believe the truth. Whether or not they follow the truth is their choice.
Today, do we use freedom of speech in order to reach the truth, or do we use freedom of speech just because we have it? As the Islamic scholar Atif Munawar Mir tells us, it is as if the means to find the truth is more important than the truth itself. People are now worshiping the ritual itself, and not the truth. It becomes a tragedy if freedom of speech is just a hollow tool that prods for animus, but it is more of a tragedy when actual weapons respond to this hollow tool. Rather, true freedom of speech furthers the progress of truth and intellectual discussion. Through this discussion, the inherent peace in Islam comes forth.
Osaama Saifi an award-winning member of the Muslim Writers Guild of America and a Santa Maria native. He received his bachelors of arts in Economics and Rhetoric, with honors, at the University of California, Berkeley. Saifi is currently pursuing a JD in order to combat blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan, ultimately to protect religious minorities throughout the world.