Revisiting religious blasphemy after ‘Charlie Hebdo’ killings

The majority of Muslims throughout the world have the right to condemn the murders in the Charlie Hebdo case last week and say that those radicals, extremists, terrorists or whatever you like to call the killers, do not represent contemporary Islam. The proper judgment, at the very least, is to connect a crime to its perpetrator. Genocides occurred in the last century; they were committed by either religious or atheist people and yet, if we are consistent in our judgment, we cannot conclude their act of killing represented their religion or atheism. In fact, the most critical point is the problem of representation: whether a holy scripture (or, to be exact, a religious interpretation) has a direct connection to what religious people do. 

In the case we say that a holy book is one element representing a religion the most, that we agree to separate a holy book from its interpretations and that those committing acts of violence and terrorism are influenced by their interpretations, then it is not wrong to judge the interpretations. It’s imperative that we are critically aware of this logic in order to avoid a double standard.

The significance of the aforementioned discussion lies in the fact that Islam has various interpretations. Killing innocent people, moreover without a just trial, is in fact a clear violation of the Koran and is considered one of the biggest sins. The Koran (5:32) says, “Whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind.”

And, most importantly, many verses in the Koran record many types of what we today call blasphemy (or istihza) toward the Prophet Muhammad, and yet there is no one single verse prescribing any physical punishment for the blasphemers, let alone capital punishment. (Compare it with the Bible where in Leviticus (24:16) explicitly says, “Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.”)

The Prophet repeatedly faced blasphemies yet the Koran (4:140) states, “When you hear God’s revelations disbelieved in and mocked at, do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse; surely then you would be like them.” The similar is stated also in verse 6:68. This discourse on Islam and blasphemy has been written by many contemporary Muslim scholars. In short, the Koran prescribes no capital punishment for blasphemy. Instead, the spirit of those verses teaches Muslims not to join, but to boycott anti-Islamic rhetoric, not to buy newspapers or magazines that mock Muslims’ sacred symbols. This is a peaceful stance, isn’t it?

Having said that, however, there is an interpretation saying that a blasphemer must be sentenced to death according to several hadith (prophetic traditions) and commentaries from classical ulema. This is also the case of apostasy (no death penalty in the Koran for it, but there is in one allegedly authentic hadith). Among influential classical books concerning this topic, saying there is a death penalty for blasphemy, is one written by Ibn Taimiyah (1263-1328), titled Al-Sarim al-Maslul ‘ala Shatim al-Rasul (Sword Drawn for Insulting the Messenger) — and Ibn Taimiyah is called “Shaykh al-Islam” by many Salafi Muslims nowadays.

In dealing with this case, many moderate Muslim scholars say that one or two hadith, as secondary sources, cannot surpass the Koran as the primary source and that a Muslim cannot rely on one or two hadith while neglecting numerous other verses and hadith preaching mercy — this is what they, the moderates, say about the Islamic State movement’s way of interpreting hadith.

What must be of concern in this case is that, if Muslims wholeheartedly condemn the Paris attack, as a consequence they must also combat the classical interpretation prescribing the death penalty for blasphemy, which is spread today in some Muslim communities. If not, moreover if that interpretation can be incorporated as one part of Islam, the murders in Paris can be said, to some extent, to be “Islamic”.

Concerning the double standard committed particularly by the “Western way” of free speech, criticism by leading European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan on the normalization of Western discourse is worth noticing. He says “people are being killed by the same violent extremists in Syria and Iraq as if this is normal.” It means, 12 lives or more in France are seen as the same as, or even more valuable than, thousands in Arab or Muslim-majority countries. In this case, consistency must be and is an imperative

Nevertheless, as much as Muslims want consistency from the West (although I don’t agree with this Muslim-West dichotomy), Muslims should be consistent themselves. Many Muslim-majority countries have laws against blasphemy or defamation of religion, including Indonesia. According to a worldwide 2013 Pew Research Study, a majority of people in many Muslim-majority countries believe that an apostate, or someone leaving Islam, must be put to death and one committing blasphemy toward Islam must be, at least, put in jail. Indonesia has experienced this. How could Muslims believe such things while supporting freedom of speech (in the West)? 

Present-day Muslims have experienced so-called religious blasphemy: from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the Jylland-Posten’s cartoons, the Innocence of Muslims film, up to the most recent case of Charlie Hebdo. Learning from these experiences, Muslims should take a firm stance in dealing with blasphemy. If necessary, leading Muslim scholars and representatives around the world should officially unite their voices as to how Islam takes a stance toward blasphemy, to be clear and consistent.

~ published in the Jakarta Post, January 14, 2015

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