The right to be offended

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed has read The Jewel of Medina.

Muslims hold Muhammad, Aisha and other religious figures very close to their hearts, dearer to them than their own parents, and just as much to be respected, protected and defended.

What other religious figures? And how many of them? And in any case how very peculiar to hold long-dead people dearer than one’s parents, and also to consider them to need to be respected, protected and defended. They’re dead – they don’t need to be respected, protected and defended, and furthermore, as ‘religious figures,’ they shouldn’t be respected, protected and defended as a matter of right and duty; they should be closely watched, questioned, doubted, and if necessary disobeyed. This idea that long-dead ‘religious figures’ must be reflexively and unquestioningly respected, protected and defended is typical of the mental prisons that believers build for themselves, especially, it would seem, believers in Islam. That’s a dopy, truculent, defensive, sentimental, taboo-ridden view of the world, and it’s not a healthy view for grownups.

Muslims believe they went through enormous hardship in order to keep the spiritual message of faith intact, and in return wish to honour their contribution. This is to be carried out in a measured and peaceful manner, in keeping with the spirit of Islam that advises returning harsh words with good ones, and malice with mercy.

Really? Is that ‘the spirit of Islam’? If that is the spirit of Islam, can anyone name one Islamist country (one country largely ruled by sharia or by clerics or both) that demonstrates that? Because I can’t. I can’t think of one single country or part of a country (like northern Nigeria) where clerics run things that fits that description. Not one.

Many Muslims will indeed be offended by this book, and they should make clear why they feel hurt. If our society upholds the right to offend, then the right to be offended goes with it. But it is respect and empathy for their feelings that Muslims want, not fear.

Well of course ‘the right to be offended’ goes with the right to offend and with any other right anyone can think of. That’s a truism. The right to be annoyed, the right to be bored, the right to be mildly amused, and countless similar rights, are inviolable. But that of course is not the issue. The issue is the right to be offended and force other people to shut up as a result of that being offended – and that’s a whole different story. But naturally Shelina Zahra Janmohamed didn’t want to put it quite that bluntly – so she put it absurdly, instead.

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