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Is there Freedom of Speech in Islam?

Contrary to the views held about Islam with regards to freedom of speech, the writer wants to share the views held by Imam Ali AS the successor of Prophet (SAW), the fortress of Islam and leader of the believers with regards the freedom of speech and democratic principles in Islam.

I am writing this article in the context of debate around the world with regards to freedom of speech of. those who hold extremist views whether religious or political which might not fall in line with the religious or political views of the government or the majority.

This has been a debate in the west in the context of current political turmoil where the views expressed by the so called fundamentalists are considered to be responsible for driving the vulnerable population towards extremism which in turn is considered a threat to the sovereignty and integrity of a nation and puts the security of the state at risk.

The current conflict involves conflict of ideology where the western secular culture is seen by the so called representatives of Islam as a culture incompatible with the Islam as such needs to be either eliminated or forced to accept the version of Islam as propagated and promoted by those pursing the extremist ideology.

This has resulted in western societies to generalise the belief that any freedom of speech with regards to Islam will invariably call for the destruction of the western society as such should not be subjected to the principles of freedom of speech. This has led to formulation of laws relating to terrorism which includes regulating speeches by those holding extremist views .

There has been ongoing debate whether such restrictions should be applied to political debates and speeches within the universities including both violent and non violent extremist views which could lead to violent extremism resulting in curtailment of dialogue among speakers holding diverse and opposite political views  or is there need to answer them with rational logical and evidence based argument.

In an article in Guardian a reputed English newspaper which debated the need to keep oxford and Cambridge unions outside the preview of the  Home secretary anti terrorism law and interestingly the government was forced to keep these unions outside the regulations of the anti terrorism law after intense lobbying in the parliament by members who supported the freedom of speech in these reputed institutions of the world.

The decision comes as the government issues new statutory guidance to university and further education student unions requiring them to have clear policies “setting out the activities that are or are not allowed to take place on campus”. The new guidance also suggests that elected student union officers and staff should also undergo Prevent counter-terrorism awareness training.

The pressure to exempt the two elite student debating societies included protests from two ex-Cabinet ministers, Lord Deben and Lord Lamont, who claimed the ban would have stopped a famous 1960 Cambridge Union debate with the wartime British fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley.

Mosley was invited and then directly challenged by two students holding pro-democratic and antifascist views who were both future Tory cabinet ministers, Kenneth Clarke and John Selwyn Gummer, despite demands from some Cambridge students, including Michael Howard, that the meeting should be banned.

Radicalisation is a term often used, to describe what can happen to students if their universities don’t ban extremist speakers. However, the radicalisation of young people can happen everywhere, particularly online. Universities should be places where young people have the freedom to learn, debate and use their knowledge to challenge guest speakers.

A similar situation arose where a function was organized at JNU University on the death anniversary of Afzal Guru resulting in sedition charges being pressed against the organisers and participants of the function.

These charges will be a norm in societies ruled by autocratic governments including monarchy mostly present in the middle east which gives an impression that the fundamental principles of freedom of speech is not an inherent component of Islamic teaching .

In my opinion India being a democratic secular country whose principles it inherited from the British government should come clear on its principles regarding the freedom of speech especially in the institutions where healthy debate among those holding extremist or opposite views could help in formulating strategy to deal with it rather restricting healthy debate when claiming to be one of the largest democracy of the world where freedom of speech and expression of views is the corner stone of its democratic principles.

Contrary to the views held about Islam with regards to freedom of speech I want to share the views held by Imam Ali AS the successor of Prophet (SAW) the fortress of Islam and leader of the believers with regards the freedom of speech and democratic principles in Islam. These views led Kofi Annan Secretary General of United Nations make recommendations to all governments of Middle East to follow the principles of governance of Imam Ali AS in promoting democracy in the region.

The United Nations advised the Arab countries to take Imam Ali AS as an example in encouraging knowledge and establishing a regime based on justice and democracy.

The UNDP published excerpts in English of remarks made by Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb nearly 1,000 years ago about Knowledge, justice and right rule of people. The UNDP referred to the regime as governance, an English equivalent of ‘Al Hokm’, and said most regional countries are still far behind other nations in democracy, wide political representation, women’s participation, development and knowledge.

In its 2002 Arab Human Development Report, distributed around the world, the UNDP listed six main points in the comments of Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb about ideal governance.

They include consultation between the ruler and the ruled, speaking out against corruption and other wrong doings, ensuring justice to all, and achieving domestic development.

It quoted the Imam as saying: “He who has appointed himself an Imam (ruler) of the people must begin by teaching himself before teaching others”.

“His teaching of others must be first by setting an example rather than with his words, for he who begins by teaching and educating himself is more worthy of respect than he who teaches and educates others.”

I shared these views in Guardian newspaper in response to the article on exemption  of students union from Cambridge and oxford.

Contrary to the popular view held about definition of  Muslim extremist in the world

The Commander of the Faithful says: “If you wish to be fanatic and partial you should side with high morals, good manners and praiseworthy qualities, for example to protect the rights of your neighbour, to honour your covenants, to obey the righteous, to oppose the rebellious, to behave well, to avoid injustice, to remain aloof from bloodshed, to administer justice and not to create mischief on the earth”

Although  Imam Ali was the successor to the Prophet, the fortress of Islam, and the Commander of the Faithful, he did not at all wish that the non-Muslims should be compelled to embrace Islam. According to him the people were free to worship God as they liked and to hold the beliefs of their choice subject to the condition that they did not harm others. 1 He allowed freedom of faith because all human beings are the slaves of God and religion is a means of connection between Him and His creatures.

According to Ali one’s being a human being was sufficient for his being honoured, befriended and dealt with kindly as well as for his rights being immune from infringement by others. In the testament written by him for Malik Ashtar, the Governor of Egypt, he said: “Do not become a ferocious animal for them so that you may devour them. There are two kinds of persons amongst the subjects, out of whom some are your brethren-in-faith and others your equals in creation, and you should be forgiving towards them just as you wish God to be forgiving towards you. You should not feel elated when you accord punishment.

In the circumstances everyone possesses the same rights as you do, even though some or all of his beliefs may be opposed to yours. The object of religion is certainly that it should enable you to establish brotherly relations with others. Others are as much human beings as you are. This similarity of creation is a stronger connection between you and others. You should, therefore, behave kindly with all human beings. If your brother commits a mistake or sin you should overlook his lapse and forgive him, and should not at all feel ashamed in doing so. Purify the hearts of others of enmity and grudge by purifying your own hearts of these bad qualities in the first instance.

It is obligatory for every descendant of Adam, to whatever religion or creed he may belong, that he should sympathise with his fellow beings. He should like that for others which he likes for himself and should not like that for them which he does not like for himself. He should expect from others to the same extent to which he meets the expectations of others. A real believer is he who endeavours to do good deeds. The best act is perfect justice which means that you should be absolutely impartial and should not discriminate between different persons.

Applying these principles would go a long way in dealing with the rigid extremist ideology being followed in the middle eastern countries leading to the current political turmoil as well improve the image of Islam in the west leading to more positive interaction and relaxation of rules with regards to freedom of speech for Muslims in western countries in general and educational institutions in particular.

About the Author

Dr. Sayyid Aqeel Hussain (MRCPsych and FRCPsych UK) is a consultant psychiatrist currently based in UK. He has been working in Kashmir for past 4 years as consultant psychiatrist

About Ali Teymoori

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