Islam between free speech and hate speech

The execution of apostates should be annulled but insulting religion should be recognised as a crime, writes Iranian cleric Mohsen Kadivar.

First of all, there should be a differentiation between Islam which is based on the principles of the Qur’an and the authentic tradition of the prophet and the sharia-oriented Islam. In the first, the freedom of speech and religion has been recognised. In the second, such freedom is faced with numerous limitations.

I. The restrictions of freedom of speech in sharia

In sharia-oriented Islam, an apostate will be executed. The insult and mockery of religious beliefs is punishable by death. Some jurists place the responsibility upon the masses to recognise and execute the two. In this version, punishments such as Ta’zir and forceful imposition of adherence to religious obligations and abstinence from religious prohibitions are permissible. Publicising any other kinds of religions and thought, even other Islamic sects and some philosophical and spiritual thoughts of Muslim thinkers, are considered harmful and therefore prohibited. The same is true of publicising books and other cultural products, which are in any way considered publicising of this sort.

II. Principles of freedom of speech in Islam

On the contrary, Islam that is based on the principles of the Qur’an and the authentic tradition of the prophet and his family adheres to the following principles:

a) Though Islam considers itself the rightful divine religion, it has accepted the diversity and plurality of religions and thoughts, regardless of truth or false, even blasphemy, polytheism and atheism as a reality in this world. It has therefore left the qualification of their truthiness to be determined on the Day of Judgment.

b) People are free to choose their beliefs and their religion and no one can be forced to accept or deny any faith.

c) No one is to be punished in this life for believing in any given religion. A crime is associated with an action and a not a particular faith or belief.

d) No one is to be punished for changing religions or leaving a faith such as Islam. Placing any sort of worldly punishments, such as execution, for apostasy is against Islamic principles.

e) No one can be forced to observe Islamic obligations and abstain from the prohibited.

f) Criticising religious beliefs is inherent within a free Islam and holds no punishments, neither in the worldly life nor in the afterlife.

g) Insulting, ridiculing and scorning religious beliefs, including Islam, is unrighteous and a violation of the integrity and dignity of its believers. According to the Qur’an, insulting atheistic beliefs is also prohibited.

III. Insult of religion as a hate speech

According to Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law” and insulting religious beliefs is a case of “hate speech” that disparages believers, and should be considered as a crime. Those who have committed such criminal offences shall be prosecuted in a civil court of law and in the presence of a jury. Undoubtedly, the punishment for these crimes is not execution.

There is an international consensus that “hate speech” needs to be prohibited by law, and that such prohibitions override or are irrelevant to guarantees of freedom of expression. The US is unique among developed countries in that under law, hate speech regulation is incompatible with free speech. In the UK, for example, several statutes protect several categories of persons from hate speech. The statutes forbid communication, which is hateful, threatening, abusive, or insulting and which targets a person on account of religion. The penalties for hate speech include fines, imprisonment, or both.

The lack of boundaries between criticism on one side and the insult, mockery and scorning of religious beliefs on the other side on the part of aggressive atheists has resulted, and will continue to result, in radical violent clashes on the part of the conservative believers.

The requirement of a sane world is mutual respect among humans. It is not possible to insult and ridicule the beliefs i.e. the holy book and the prophet, of one-fourth of the world population without having to bear the consequences of the violent and extremist reactions of some conservative adherents to that faith.

In order to sanitise the rivalry between faith and apostasy, lines need to be drawn between criticism and insult. These boundaries depend on the location and the degree of cultural maturity. In underdeveloped countries, many criticisms are seen as insults and in developed countries many insults are seen as criticisms. Therefore the settings of these boundaries demand serious fieldwork and theoretical research. However, a dynamic and matured world can only be achieved with respect to both religious beliefs and free speech.

If a traditional believer does not have the right to impose his religious views on others, then an atheist also does not have the right to impose his specific beliefs as universal norms. Along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are also in need of a Universal Declaration of Duties and Responsibilities to Religious Beliefs and Irreligiousness, such as convention on the elimination of all forms of violence, insult and hate speech.

Just as the execution and punishment of an apostate should be annulled, the insult and mockery of religion by atheists and non-believers should be officially recognised as a crime.  Believers and atheists should recognise freedom of criticism, which benefits them both. A healthy competition based on mutual respect is the only defensible conduct between Muslims and followers of other religions and thoughts.

IV. Three principles

I believe that the three principles below are, on the one hand, the prerequisites of “respecting the believer and not the belief” and, on the other hand, the prerequisites of a belief in both Islam and free speech:

1. The freedom to criticise religious beliefs.

2. The prohibition of insulting religious and atheistic beliefs as hate speech.

3. The annullment of all punishments for apostasy, particularly execution.

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Comments (19)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Sounds reasonable at first sight, but it’s easy to spot that sneaky “second principle” which is of course the point of the whole debate. Those with a totalitarian bent have no compunction about labelling any criticism of their behaviour as an “insult”. It is precisely this term that is used everywhere to stifle criticism and to whip up the fury of the baying mob. It is a weasel word which can be invoked at every opportunity to shut down discussion.

    On the contrary, the right to mock or insult the ideas of others is a vital component of the right to freedom of expression.

  2. What is ‘insulting religious beliefs’?

    Why should be people be allowed to criticise political beliefs, but not religious beliefs?

    If somebody believes that the Earth will end in May 2012, because a Holy Guru said it would unless he was given 5 million dollars, why are we not allowed to criticise such a belief as irrational?

  3. ‘ Though Islam considers itself the rightful divine religion, it has accepted the diversity and plurality of religions and thoughts, regardless of truth or false, even blasphemy, polytheism and atheism as a reality in this world. It has therefore left the qualification of their truthiness to be determined on the Day of Judgment.’

    Really? Does Islam accept that child pornography is a reality in this world, and therefore left it alone until the Day of Judgement?

    By the way, there will be no Day of Judgement. That is something somebody made up.

    And I will say that until somebody produces evidence that it was not made up.

  4. ‘Just as the execution and punishment of an apostate should be annulled, the insult and mockery of religion by atheists and non-believers should be officially recognised as a crime. ‘

    And what should be the punishment?

  5. Of the three points listed above, the second seems to be a deliberately vague caveat upon the first, and the third, which has nothing to do with the first two, shouldn’t even need to be stated.

    The key line seems to me to be: “It is not possible to insult and ridicule the beliefs i.e. the holy book and the prophet, of one-fourth of the world population without having to bear the consequences of the violent and extremist reactions of some conservative adherents to that faith.” The implication is that the fault lies with those who mock, not with those who murder. I wonder if that rather pointed last sentence would be classed as criticism or insult?

    • I don’t understand what you mean when you say “The implication is that the fault lies with those who mock, not with those who murder.”

      I believe that freedom of speech should not be threatened by radicals from Islam or any other religion for that matter. By this phrase it seems as if you are stating freedom of speech is compromised by radicals and extremists, therefore, we should watch what we say.

      Who gets to decide what for one person is a mere opinion for another person is an insult?

      Different perceptions of opinions can cause misunderstanding between ‘hate speech’ and ‘freedom of speech’ Again, who draws the line between what is correct to say and considered your right to free speech and what should be condemn as ‘hate speech’?

  6. ‘ According to the Qur’an, insulting atheistic beliefs is also prohibited’

    May I ask where?

  7. Although ‘hate speech’ brings upon society several problems I think the main concern in this topic is who draws the line between ‘hate speech’ and ‘freedom of speech’ this is because perceptions vary from cultures and religion. What some may consider hate speech others may simply take it as freedom of speech- their right to express their opinions.

    Expressing opinions about other religious beliefs of course should not be punishable by execution if we abide by ‘Universal Human Rights’ and whether it can be considered a crime in the eyes of the law should take into consideration points such as:

    – government actors promoting a ‘hate speech’ is the first concern due to the ability to influence masses.

    – a ‘hate speech’ repeated by a group within a community- against a particular religion or belief- can become embedded within that group and violence towards people following a religion can become a normalised act.

  8. I think that a “hate” speech is something like:
    1) if you are muslim you are a bad guy
    2) if you are muslim you are stupid
    3) if you are muslim you deserve prison or death
    4) if you are muslim you cannot have this job
    5) if you are muslim you cannot enter this place
    6) if you are muslim you cannot speech
    These are expression of judgements for which religion (or other beliefs) is not relevant ( a man can bad or stupid regardless of religion), or simple denial of human rigths because of religious belief, or reputing having or not a beliefs make a man guilty of a crime ( not of a sin !), or discriminating (allowing or not allowing to do something ) because of beliefs.
    These expressions should be allowed.
    On the other side:
    1) I think god doesn’t exists
    2) I don’t think jesus christ ever existed
    3) I think that on friday you can eat meat
    4) I think women are badly treated (in a sociological sense ) by catholic church
    5) I think that religious men shouldn’t run a country
    6) I don’t think that religious schools should ave money from the governement
    7) I think abortion should be permitted
    8) I don’t think women should wear niqab
    7) Religion is the opium of peoples
    are expressions allowed, because we can discuss these themes on logical and\or empirical grounds tryng to persuade each other .
    There a third category of expressions making fun of religious themes; the acceptability of this expressions varies
    in western countries too; I think that would be wise to abstain from using these expressions for religions that are not the ours. It is not a freedom issue, it is a wisdom issue.
    If we could agree on this , we had made a big progress.
    (sorry for the bad english)

    • By your definition of the criteria for hate speech, I believe that both the Bible and the Quran qualify on points 1 to 3, and possibly some of the others as well, in their description of those who do not believe in Islam or the god of the Old Testament.

  9. in prior comment appeared a emoticon i didn’t put in !
    In any case I apologize for that.

  10. ‘5) if you are muslim you cannot enter this place’

    You mean if I stated that ‘Non-muslims cannot enter Mecca’, this would be counted as ‘hate speech’?

    How on earth can that be hate speech? I find that incomprehensible.

    Surely we can ban non-Muslims from visiting selected cities, without people playing the ‘hate speech’ card.

  11. It seems odd that a muslim cleric is proposing banning publication of the Quran. Regarding his three principles:

    “2. The prohibition of insulting religious and atheistic beliefs as hate speech.”

    If he reads the Quran, he will notice that it goes out of its way to insult unbelievers/atheists/polytheists – referring to the people themselves, as well as their beliefs. It also says that the perfect god has selected them to be tortured for eternity.

    As you cannot have an omnipotent god that is not responsible for what happens in the universe, and you cannot have a perfect god whose actions should be disapproved of by its followers, then the only logical conclusion I can draw from that statement is that, from an Islamic perspective, unbelievers deserve to be tortured – and not just for a while, but forever.

    If that isn’t hate speech, I don’t know what is.

    The Bible would also be banned, as would quoting from many texts in the Bible, Quran and possibly others.

    Half my extended family is muslim – I’m well aware of how unpleasant it is to be abused in the street by strangers. However, there are plenty of ways of dealing with this, without resorting to suppression of basic freedom.

    You have an absolute right to hate me because of my religious or political affiliations, and to express that hatred. It is how you behave when expressing that hatred that should determine whether you are breaking the law or not.

  12. I think that the expression of religious criticism can be named as hate speech, however it depends on the perspective. As a person receiving the criticism of the religion they follow it would be considered hate speech, but in contrast, the individual delivering the criticism about a religion is freedom of expression. The expressing individual has all rights to deliver criticism, but in these days due to certain “criticisms” that we’ve encountered such as violence, an eye over criticizing religion should be emphasized. As an act of disrespecting a religion, such as burning the Qur’an in ground zero, leads to violent acts as the extremists have been angered. Therefor, society should be aware of the publicity they use when performing such a criticism as it can cause damage to the society that did not express their opinions. Perhaps free speech in reference to religious topics should be permitted to be expressed in areas where people share the same opinion, or inside their own walls in order to prevent violence

  13. Intresting.

  14. The sole difference between free speech and hate speech is whether the person stating their ideals is trying to implement or force their ideologies on other.
    Any religion Islam, Christianity or Hinduism are a set of beliefs that are followed often by the masses. They work perfectly fine when in a homogeneous environment but conflict when introduced and practiced in a diverse environment.
    This is especially true for international cities and the Internet. There is always a clash of ideas and beliefs and thus conflict which could result in hatred.
    Rather than changing how everyone thinks we should open up to other perspectives and try understand where the other person is coming from.
    Free speech changes completely when the person speaking is trying to change the way you think and convince you that he/she is right regardless of everything else.
    Therefore the sole line between hate speech and free speech is whether you are trying to state your point or trying to make others change theirs and follow yours.

  15. “Surely we can ban non-Muslims from visiting selected cities, without people playing the ‘hate speech’ card.”

    My question is why would anyone do that? Wouldn’t that be the same if you say “surely we can ban Muslims to go into selected states, without people playing the “hate speech” card?” or “Surely we can ban Muslims to work some selected job (or whatever selected) without people playing the “hate speech” card?” . For me freedom in its every form (in speech or something else) doesn’t have compromise. However there are obvious speeches of hate such are ones used by Hitler (I know this is most common used one) where you openly call for murdering, violence, ignorance and any other element which would contribute to misery and suffering of someone. Those speeches are usually without any proof or based on messed up ideologies or misused religious views… and sometimes insanity.

  16. Mr Kadivar can pray for freedom to criticise religious beliefs, particularly those of Islam, until he’s blue in the face, but that will never happen in Islam. There are two reasons: there are more Muslims who take every single word in the Koran to be the pure truth than in any other religion. Secondly, Islam is a totalitarian (‘holistic’, as Muslims themselves like to say) religion that regulates every aspect of life. Since the Koran denounces unbelievers and Muslims, many of whom attend prayers five times a day, are taught a narrative of victimisation by their imams, i.e. that followers of other religions are out to get them, and also that there is only one true religion, i.e. the one that rules every aspect of their lives, it is highly unlikely that Muslims will ever be able to accept criticism of their religion.

  17. You look for the different evidence. In the hate speech case you have to prove that someone wish to use “speech” to start hate. And it happens. Can we hate people who are believers of some religion? It is absurd, but we can use “religion” to start hate.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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