The Charlie Hebdo Dilemma and Islamic Institutions

In the vagueness of their response, Islamic leaders are missing an opportunity to lead the global conversation.

French demonstrate in support of national unity and free speech, Paris, January 11, 2015. Nesrine Cheikh Ali/Demotix/Corbis.

Most large Islamic institutions have condemned the massacre that took place last week at the Paris-based satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. But none have embraced the “Je Suis Charlie” campaign. Islamic institutions, with religious pedigrees hinge on decades, and often centuries, of teaching Islamic jurisprudence, find it extremely difficult to identify themselves with views that they consider blasphemous. In the vagueness of their response, Islamic leaders are missing an opportunity to lead the global conversation.

Their theological position is delicate. On one hand, almost all major Islamic institutions reject the undertaking of acts of violence in the name of Islam. On the other hand, they cannot condone the notion of freedom of expression in absolute terms. According to the vast majority of Islamic understandings, at least since the twelfth century when Sunni Islamism closed the gate of creative theological interpretations, ‎Islam does put restrictions on speech. It is inconceivable that any leading Islamic scholar today would identify himself (and it’s never herself) with writers or artists who would be considered disrespectful of the companions of the Prophet Mohammed or Islam’s early years, let alone of the Prophet himself or any sacred notion in the religion.

Blasphemy is an offense that continues to irk clerics. Leading Islamic scholars, of the gravitas of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, as well as scores in the Sunni world, had no qualms about condemning a writer, such as Salman Rushdie, to death because of a similar act—intentionally insulting the Prophet Mohammed. A decade later, an Egyptian court ordered the separa‎tion of an Egyptian university professor from his wife after a committee of religious scholars had found his writings blasphemous. And only last week, a Saudi court ordered the flogging of a blogger because of writings it had deemed insulting to religion.

Wide sections in Islamic, and especially Arab, societies support such measures. Almost all constitutions of Arab states sanctify certain Islamic notions, and almost all Arab penal codes include the crime of “insulting monotheistic religions.” It’s also worth remembering that, following the publication in Denmark of cartoons that ridiculed the Prophet Mohammed, the real condemnation that emerged in the Islamic world did not come from governments, but from scores of artists and writers who came out with productions that censured the blasphemy that the Danish artists had committed. One of the Arab world’s most famous singers released a song, with notable threatening undertone, called “Except the Prophet.”

Today, major centers of Islamic learning come across equivocal: they denounce the killing of the journalists in the name of avenging the insult to the Prophet Mohammed. Their statements of condolences and support overflow with feelings of dismay at such attacks. They express anger at misguided individuals that do not represent Islam. But they skirt from offering unequivocal support of freedom of expression.

This equivocation‎ leaves others to speak in the name of Islam. French President François Hollande stated that the attack has nothing to do with the teachings of Islam. That was reminiscent of many statements from President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the early and mid-2000s, in which they differentiated between “terrorists” and “true Islam.” These statements, however, are quickly dismissed as either mere political correctness or tactical rhetoric. There are also a multitude of commentators, from the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria—not to mention Bill Maher and Ben Affleck. These voices approach Islam from the lens of culture, international relations, or within the wider context of the Islamic world. Their views resonate among their fans and in popular culture. But they echo hollow, for they lack the depth that only an Islamic institution with a long history and revered credibility has. And crucially, these commentators mainly speak to the West, rather than to the Islamic world.

Many look at Islamic communities in the West, expecting them to voice strong support of freedom of expression. But the majority of the leaders of these communities, at least the ones who speak to international media, offer the same ambiguity we hear from religious institutions. They tread carefully between expressing their dismay at the “crimes” undertaken by these “terrorists”; they invoke “Islam’s compassion” while stopping short of solidly backing freedom of expression.

Some manipulate the scope of the issue. They argue that Muslims in the West are minorities, and often marginalized ones, that have been subjected to racism and discrimination. And so, it is the law of these countries that should protect them and their religion. Others delve into debates on what constitutes freedom of expression and the limits after which expression encroaches on others’ freedom not to be insulted. There are those who speak of social and economic conditions across the Islamic, and especially Arab, world as the underlying reason behind the violence that repeatedly flares up.‎Discussions linger and get off-topic. As the momentum of the question wanes, both the participants and the observers lose interest.

This equivocation is disastrous. The over 1.5 billion Muslims deserve an honest and intelligent discussions by serious scholars of their religion’s limits (if any) of freedom of expression. More importantly, scholars should discuss how their faith serves as a frame of reference (and for many, theframe of reference) in a world in which values, norms, and ways of connections are changing in transformative ways. The question has been raised, repeatedly and often achingly, on social media and in numerous makeshift cultural salons run by young Muslims across the world. This generation grew up in a world that is vastly different from that any previous Islamic generation has experienced. The technologies they use and consume allow—some would say compel—them to argue, debate, and dissect all issues in their lives. They know no boundaries and taboos.

There will not be a single, decisive, final answer to the question of how an Islamic frame of reference fits in today’s world. Still, the question should be aired, and be enriched by the knowledge and credibility that only serious institutions can endow. Silence and equivocation muddies the world’s views on Islam.

Islam deserves to have an open and serious discussion on such issues. It is saddening that the religion that had inspired a civilization that, centuries ago, demonstrated exemplary intellectual courage, honesty, and openness, has, in the eyes of billions across the world, become a perpetual suspect of inciting violence.

Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink and the forthcoming Islamism: What It Means for the Middle East and the World from Yale University Press. He was the writer and presenter of the BBC documentary series “The Making of the Modern Arab World” in 2013 and “Saudi Arabia: Sands of Time” in 2015. He has appeared as a commentator on international news networks including CNN and Al Jazeera English, and has written for Foreign Affairs, Financial Times, and Project Syndicate. He is the political counselor for the Arab World at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. On Twitter: @TarekmOsman.

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