Muslims Should Learn to Tolerate Offence and Dissent

My article on the Afghan Koran protest – an unfortunate incident which left over 20 people dead and many more injured – generated many comments and criticisms on the internet. In fact somebody said the piece was informed by ‘racism and islamophobia’. Well I guess this fellow thought I was a white or a Christian or someone living in the West.

 I do not in this article intend to respond to issues raised by those who read the article. For me let the debate continue. I have made my point. What I said in that piece – and in this very one – applies to many Muslims, not all.

So, once again in reaction to the protest over the Koran burning in the US and to other similar violent reactions of our Muslim friends to actions and expressions which they consider provocative or ‘an insult to Islam’, I say : learn to tolerate offence and dissent. You cannot expect to live in a world where nobody offends or disagrees with you.

Yes, Muslims  should learn to live with actions and expressions which they find provocative or annoying.We live in a world of diverse religions and beliefs, so Muslims should not expect that nobody will do or say anything that will offend them. Look: that is not possible. And for those of them who think otherwise now is the time to realize that they are mistaken. Now is the time for them to have a change of mind and attitude for the sake of humanity and civilization.  

Yes, our Muslim friends need to drop this idea that anybody who says or does something which offends them  should be killed – beheaded, executed, imprisoned – or penalized. If we were to make  that a universal law then nobody would be alive today; or most of us would be in jail. And if ever such a sharia law obtained in the past or during the days of prophet Muhammed then Muslims should know that it is out of place today. If that is what their Koran teaches then they should know that this time around Allah (or whoever must have put such an injunction into ‘his’ mouth) got it wrong; that on this issue they should disobey the Koran.

Because if we are to go by that sharia law we will find ourselves in a situation of perpetual conflict. Muslims or Islam will be on a collision course with humanity and civilization as is the case in some parts of the world. We will find ourselves in a situation where everybody including Muslims will be in jail or will be dead. In fact all human beings will go into extinction.

Our Muslim friends should learn to accomodate criticisms or caricature of Islam, of the Koran or of prophet Muhammed. They should know that not all human beings are Muslims. Not all of us are believers in Allah. Not all human beings revere the prophet Muhammed as Allah’s messenger. Not all of us believe in the Koran as the revealed word of Allah. Just as the actions and expressions of Muslims are in line with their beliefs, some other people’s actions and expressions are in line with their unbelief.

So Muslims should not expect non-Muslims to  treat Islamic beliefs and the prophet the same way they do, just as one should not expect Muslims to revere other religious beliefs. That means some people are bound to make irreverent remarks or expressions about Islam and its doctrines just as Muslims also make or can make irrevent remarks – or remarks which others consider irreverent – about other religions or beliefs. And that is what freedom of religion is all about. If our Muslim friends in Afghanistan were aware of this then the Koran burning in the US would not have generated the violent protests it did. It would have passed without any incident. But it did not.

Meanwhile, I don’t think protests – violent or otherwise – would stop anyone who wants to burn a Koran or a Bible or any book at all from doing so. They will not. Not everybody who wants to burn books – sacred or secular – goes public as the US pastor did. Surely the pastor was not the first or the only person who has burnt or destroyed a copy of the Koran. On the contrary, violent reactions like the ones we saw in Afghanistan often make some people, who ordinarily wouldn’t have wanted to burn their copies of the Koran, to do so.

Books are people’s personal property which they dispose of in any way they deem fit. Violent protests by Muslims cannot stop them from exercising this right or power. Muslims must understand this and learn to ignore or react in any other civilized way when anybody decides to publicly dispose his or her copy of the Koran in a way they (Muslims) may consider offensive or an insult to Islam. Instead of saying ‘Kill those who insult Islam’ or ‘Behead those who defile the Koran’,  Muslims around the would should begin to preach and propagate in their mosques and Koranic schools this saying: ‘Ignore those who defame Islam’.  Or better ‘Dialogue with those who criticize Islam’.

For me that is a more civilized approach. As long as Islam remains in the public sphere, it cannot be shielded from public scrutiny, examination, criticism or caricature.

The same is applicable to the cartoons of prophet Muhammed. Those cartoons did not warrant the bloodletting we witnessed across the world at all. They did not! In fact it was Muslim clerics who made those cartoons an issue and brought them to the knowledge of the world. If Muslims had ignored those cartoons and the artists behind them, and had not reacted as they did, most people wouldn’t have known about the cartoons. In fact it was the  riots that made me know that it was such a taboo to draw an image of Mohammed. When I heard about the cartoon riots, the question that instinctively came to my mind was “Who is prophet Muhammad that he cannot be cartooned?”

I  still find it difficult to comprehend why Muslims reacted the way they did. Because if Muslims believe Muhammad cannot be cartooned, there are others who believe he can. If Muslims refrain from drawing the image of Muhammed or from cartooning him in any way out of belief, others draw his image or want to cartoon him in various ways out of unbelief.

And as we saw, the violent protests did not stop people from cartooning prophet Muhammed. In fact the protests by Muslims led to more cartoons, more printing and reprinting of the cartoons. I guess the way Muslims in Afghanistan reacted to the Koran burning in the US would make or might have made some people to burn or consider buring their copies of the Koran – in counter-protest.

So our Muslim friends should learn to tolerate anything they consider offensive to them or their religion. They should learn to register their anger or opposition in civilized ways without violence and bloodshed. Because some of these ideas, expressions or dissenting opinions which many Muslims consider offensive are actually bitter truths which are urgently needed to realize Islamic reformation, and the enlightenment and intellectual awakening of Muslims in this 21st century.

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