Countering blasphemy with civility
There is no doubt that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is a cruel crime that all people of all faiths should condemn. I, for my part, denounce the cold-blooded murderers who apparently acted in the name of my faith, Islam, but violated one of its core principles: The sanctity of human life. For the Qur’an, just like the Bible, declares: “He who slays a soul, unless for murder or for spreading mischief on earth, shall be as if he had slain all mankind.”
However, that is precisely where things get tricky. For the murderers in Paris - like those who attacked Danish cartoonists or murdered film director Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam before – probably believed that they were slaying souls as a punishment for “spreading mischief on earth.” And this mischief was probably nothing but “blasphemy,” or an insult to the sacred.
That is why it is much-needed and most welcome for Muslim leaders around the world to condemn violent responses to blasphemy executed by people who we call “extremists” (They really are extreme, for their crimes are abhorred by the overwhelming majority of Muslims). But we should also see that these extremists rely on certain medieval texts that really do decree the “death penalty” for “blasphemy.”
Historically speaking, this should not be shocking, for blasphemy had been criminalized in other faiths’ traditions as well. For Judaism, the Torah clearly states that those who speak blasphemy “shall surely be put to death.” For Christianity, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that blasphemy is “a sin committed directly against God, is graver than murder.” Both Judaism and Christianity abandoned their claims for earthly punishment for blasphemy only in modern times (The last person executed for blasphemy in Britain was Thomas Aikenhead, who was hanged in 1697 for calling Jesus an “impostor”).
The problem is that there are still trends in the Muslim world that are quite pre-Enlightenment, to put it in an historical context, and insist on imposing medieval Islamic law in today’s world. The fact that they use modern equipment - from the Internet, to AK-47’s, to bombs - makes them only more dangerous. They also only help trigger and feed what we call Islamophobia, which has racist roots as well, but is also a reaction to our extremists.
Hence, we Muslims need to get to the bottom of the issue, which is how we shall understand Islamic law in our day and age. What is needed, in other words, is nothing short of a “reform.” But mind you; this is a reform with a small ‘r’ not a capital one, for the matter here is not challenging the authority of a central church, as Martin Luther did in the 16th century. The matter here is to how to renew the interpretation of the diverse traditions of Islam in the light of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and other human rights.
In my book, “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” I tried to offer some ideas that could help articulate that “reform.” In the chapter titled, “Freedom from Islam,” I focused on apostasy and blasphemy, and noted that while the shariah indeed punishes them by death, the Qur’an has no such clause. It actually suggests only a very civilized form of disapproval against those who “mock ... God’s revelations.”
None of this means that Muslims have to be happy with the mockery of their faith. They just have to counter it with civility, rather than rage and violence. To see why, one of the things they can do is to read their Qur’an a bit more carefully.