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Freedom of Speech Must Go Hand in Hand with the Spirit of Tolerance

The recent attack that took place outside an event hosted by an anti-Islām movement in Garland, Texas featuring the cartoons of the Prophet Muḥammad should be condemned in the strongest terms possible. However, so too should the deliberately provocative actions taken by anti-Islām extremists that were the catalyst.

This incident is redolent of the horrendous attack on French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, earlier this year. In the Garland incident, the two gunmen were shot by the police as they attempted to enter a conference centre in which the anti-Islamic American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) was hosting an art contest for the best cartoon of the Prophet Muḥammad.

The AFDI, which is based in New York, offered a $10,000 prize for the best cartoon and declared the exhibition as a representation of free speech; however, it was considered by many as nothing other than an act of incitement. This is nothing new. It is reported that movements, such as AFDI, are promoting Islamophobia through intentionally aggravating endeavours, including the recent cartoon competition.

While it is true that violence should not be the answer, it is important to underline that actions denigrating religious symbols in the name of free speech essentially contravene the principle of world peace.

It cannot be ignored that the notion of free speech was developed originally to secure the rights of any group around the world to express themselves according to their own beliefs, without oppression and discrimination. Therefore, freedom of speech was initiated with the aim of making this world more civilized in the midst of all its differences. Nevertheless, freedom of speech will inevitably become a boomerang leading to conflict if voiced without tolerance.

I understand that using the notion of free speech to express criticism and blasphemy towards a certain religion or belief may be vindicated by the law. But it is difficult to ignore the fact that as long as we overlook the ethic of tolerance in exercising freedom of speech, we concurrently open a wide space for conflict due to our differences. Is this what we want?

To use a simple analogy, let us say we agree that an insult to symbols of a certain group constitutes freedom of speech. This would mean that we must be prepared to be insulted or even abused. In other words, we have no right to be angry if someone is harassing our cultural identity or religious belief. If our families, parents, leaders, or people we care about are insulted by others on the basis of freedom of speech, then we must accept it readily. Is this the society in which we want to live?

I strongly believe that only when the notion of free speech goes hand in hand with the principle of tolerance will we be equipped to tear down all hatred and curtail inter-ethnic and inter-faith conflicts that have increased in recent years. History also proves that, on the basis of tolerance, apartheid finally ended after decades championed by Nelson Mandela.

Nevertheless, the recent contest to draw cartoons of the Prophet Muḥammad is in clear opposition to the principle of tolerance. It provoked anger, scorn and hatred. Although some say that the exhibition was not an anti-Muslim event, the individuals who attended appear to showcase its real aims. Among the attendees were Stop Islamisation of America co-founder, Pamela Geller, and the blatant Dutch anti-Islām promoter, Geert Wilders.

One thing that we may not realise is that the event, with the deaths of two gunmen, has increased the popularity of anti-Islām individuals, such as Geller and Wilders. Even though these individuals are considered by some as defenders of free speech, we must not forget that they are fighting for freedom of expression by way of harassing a specific group.

Who benefited from the event was not the winner of the contest nor the police or the gunmen; rather, the victors were those individuals who used people’s differences to achieve their political goals.

It is clear now that there is a need to rethink the true meaning of freedom of speech. When the notion of free speech is upheld without boundaries, we must be prepared for more conflict among different religious or ethnic groups.



This article was written by Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Media Wahyudi Askar

About Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat

Dr Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Universitas Islam Indonesia. He has lived and studied in the Middle East and the UK.


  1. Naved Siddiqi

    If the aim is to arrive at personal liberty and freedom, whichever road we feel best takes us there, then that is reassuring. And if freedom and individual liberty is being ‘read into’ orthodox Islam, then again, that has to be a positive.

    Myself, I am not that convinced that Muslim societies have arrived at as free a society as the society’s that are built on the ideas of Locke and Mills (which were, I agree, about holding power to account). I’m not sure where in the greater Muslim world such enlightenment thinking exists, or did exist in the past (even though historically, some Muslims states were the most enlightened places in the world, in the context of their time).

    I think you misunderstand what I have said about the right to offend religion (not people, but religion itself). Because yes, they hamper social progress. Offence of religion (such as the disgusting hate-fuelled pictures of the Prophet’s blessed soul) is ugly, ugly, ugly! And mainstream society would agree.

    But the political right to do so, has to be there if the society is to be politically free. Locke and Mills would agree. I wonder if you would agree? Or is the “Islam” you have “flocked” to one where exercising such a right ought to be punishable by the state?

    In peace,

  2. “If our families, parents, leaders, or people we care about are insulted by others on the basis of freedom of speech, then we must accept it readily.”
    …especially if you claim the right to insult the families, parents, leaders, or people others care about. I look forward to seeing muslims ceasing to offend Christians by denying the divinity of Jesus Christ and abandoning their denigration of Bahaullah and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.

  3. Naved Siddiqi

    There is no doubt the cartoon ‘contest’ was in very poor taste and was a political event.

    But I also submit that this article is desperately confused – I actually think it misunderstands free speech almost entirely.

    Incidentally, religious interpretation (Judaic, Christian and Islamic) has secular ideals to thank for progress in the free speech everyone calls upon today.

    Free speech is just that: a right held by an individual to be free to express, whether we like it or not. The very crux of free speech is the right to ridicule and poke fun at the religious belief of another. The freedom to offend IS the freedom to speak.

    A “spirit of tolerance” cannot be set out as a condition for free speech – it simply doesn’t work that way, and demonstrates a (Muslim) misunderstanding of what free speech means. Religious figures (who are long dead) cannot be granted immunity or exclusion, however revered they may be.

    Muslim majority countries are many miles away from Western freedom, and cannot be expected to comprehend it ‘overnight’. In Pakistan, YouTube REMAINS banned after the Danish cartoons circulated some years ago and no Government Minister has the courage to reverse this (because they know they will be assassinated if they do).

    [Back to the West]: People by and large are generally tolerant and therefore the question to be explored is, when so many people protest against “Islam”, what specifically, what exactly is it they are against. In the end our answer will be a single word: VIOLENCE… ugly violence that can be SEEN in many forms and manifestations, but that can be seen wherever they find Muslims. Even Muslim forms of justice and Muslim forms of protest are seen as (and are!) violent. Allaying people’s fears about the relationship between Islam and violence (including the fear that Islam will usurp a people’s way of life) is the path to a “spirit of tolerant”. On the other hand, offering it as some kind of a bargaining tool for freedom just will not work, even for the tolerant fair-minded majority.

    Western society (including many of its Muslims) will protect the rights of individuals from harm, and the rise of violence towards groups of people. But at the same time, it will protect the rights of people to criticise and ‘offend’ people who have long since passed, including religious people and symbols.

    The MATURITY and inner peace we show regarding this ‘freedom to offend’ as some call it will, I believe, have a direct bearing on yielding a “spirit of tolerance” (which I agree is needed). Civil society will then police itself by not responding to poor taste and vile manners. A few will attempt provocative insulting stunts, but society will walk on and ignore it.

    Despite all the ‘Islamophobic’ networking that goes on out there, the ball is still very much in our court (because the bait is being thrown to us). The ‘spirit of tolerance’ is there on the side of goodness and fairness – always has been. It’s just that we Muslims make too many of the wrong noises and only focus on those parts of free speech that protect our narrow and personal interests. And that doesn’t work.


    • “The very crux of free speech is the right to ridicule and poke fun at the religious belief of another. The freedom to offend IS the freedom to speak.”

      You can be forgiven to falling for the post-1960s totalitarianism propaganda that has pacified the ignorant masses in the west over the last several decades, into buying hook, line and sinker into this necessary illusion about ‘freedom’. You can also be forgiven for your fanatic adherence to these ‘orthodox’ doctrines drip fed to people, as some may argue it is human nature to be a fundamentalist. You cannot, however, criticise someone else’s opinion based on such demonstrably false propaganda. Please read John Locke and John Stuart Mill, you will find that the crux of free speech was anything but ridicule; it was about the discussion and dissemination of truth, progress and holding those in power to account—ALL of which are hampered by wanton ridicule.

      We who have inherited this legacy in the West—who have managed to resist the fundamentalism-breeding propaganda distractions—are flocking to Islam because we see orthodox Islam as the original bastions of those very values that post enlightenment thinkers sought by talking about free speech. If you wish to be among us ‘enlightened superior Westerners’ then I’d suggest you get to reading and resist the temptations to believe the slogans you hear. I know it’s not as easy but I really do recommend the effort.

      • People have different understandings of what ‘orthodox Islam’ is. But according to some interpretations it wouldn’t seem to allow freedom of speech to those trying to persuade others to leave Islam (for example) even if this was done without any attempt to cause offence. Many Muslims find images of the Prophet Muhammed offensive, more so if they also seek to denigrate Islam, but others (not excluding Muslims of course) may find the views of Muslims who might be called orthodox offensive – e.g. highly derogatory remarks about LGBT people, apostates, other non-Muslims, even calls to have certain groups killed. In Iran, a Muslim country, a newspaper has run a competition to produce the ‘best’ cartoon about the Holocaust. The difficulty with banning or repressing ‘offensive’ speech is that there is no consensus over what actually is offensive.

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