Harris Zafar's Islamic Intellectual Incoherence

Harris Zafar, national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, posted recently at the Washington Post's online Guest Voices blog the article "Making Islamic Sense of Free Speech." Review of Zafar's analysis shows that he makes no sense, Islamic or otherwise, at all with respect to free speech. If anything, Zafar deceptively offers justification for censorship all the while proclaiming respect for intellectual freedom.

Zafar references recent Saudi Arabian prosecutions of individuals for statements deemed offensive to Islam as "incidents" that "have re-ignited the age old debate about... freedom of speech, especially with regards to Islam." Zafar asserts that "many secularists champion individual privileges" (not rights, Zafar curiously writes), while "Islam promotes... uniting mankind and cultivating love." According to Zafar, both Islam and "modern-day free speech advocates" each "endorse freedom for people to express themselves, but Islam promotes unity, whereas" the latter "promote individualism."

Linking to various verses of an online Koran at an Ahmadiyya website, Zafar seeks to show that Islam "promotes free speech when our intention is to serve a good purpose" but not if "our intentions are to insult others or promote disorder." In contrast, free speech's "most vocal proponents" believe "people can say anything and everything on their mind "resulting in "every form of provocation." Such a "legal privilege to insult others... is neither democracy nor freedom of speech." Whatever value free speech has "still pales in comparison to the cause of world peace."

Despite Zafar's relative weighing of "world peace" and free speech, Zafar, in an assessment surely surprising to many, claims that "Islam does not prescribe any worldly punishment for unseemly speech." According to Zafar, the "Prophet Muhammad called differences of opinion a blessing in society and never sought to censor or threaten those who verbally attacked him." Modern Muslims should thus "respond to speech with speech, but our speech is to be better and more dignified."

When "enemies of peace create slanderous videos, cartoons or advertisements -- like the 'Innocence of Muslims' film, Pamela Geller's new ignorant NYC subway ads and Charlie Hebdo's cartoon about Prophet Muhammad," Zafar calls for a rejection of

their claim that an individual's privilege to say whatever they want is more important than the higher principle of uniting people and saving this planet from a path of animosity, hatred and destruction. Rather than falsely accusing Islam of censorship, let us understand the beauty of giving higher consideration to mankind over our own personal privileges.

Zafar's article presents many problems, beginning with his alternative-universe understanding of an Islam that does not use force in the name of faith to suppress opposing criticism and/or condemnation. One London-based Muslim website, Muftisays.com, analyzes the question submitted by a reader, "Is it true that Muhammad (pbuh) had a poet, ASMA BINT MARWAN, killed after she criticized him?" The website answers that the "scholars are unanimously agreed that a Muslim who insults the Prophet (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) becomes a Kaafir and an apostate who is to be executed."

With respect to the story of Asma bint Marwan, according to various Islamic sources a woman supposedly killed in her sleep by an assassin acting on Muhammad's authority, the website concludes that the hadith documenting this murder are "false." Equally well-known to scholars of Islam, though, are the stories of the killings of Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf and Abu Rafi', as Muftisays.com writes, "due to speaking ill against and insulting the Prophet," stories "found authentic" in the Bukhari collection of hadith. Another manifestation of Muhammad's deadly understanding of poetic justice was the killing of Abu Afak recounted in some Islamic sources.

In the present day, Zafar himself references the prosecutions of two individuals in Saudi Arabia for speaking ill of Islam, a country that ought to know something about this faith. Similarly, the Islamic Republic of Iran should have a proper understanding of Shiite Islam, a regime infamous for its February 14, 1989, fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's death after he earned Muslim opprobrium with The Satanic Verses. Two Pakistani officials, meanwhile, Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer and federal minorities minister Shabaz Bahtti, both died at the hands of assassins in 2011 due to criticism of Pakistan's blasphemy laws carrying the death penalty. Zafar's Ahmadiyya Muslim sect also faces persecution as heresy in Pakistan and elsewhere by orthodox Muslims. Sunni and Shiite Muslims in turn respectively repress one another for their divergent theological doctrines.

Individuals who criticize Islam in Western democracies are not necessarily safe from angered Muslims and their allies either. Elisabeth Sabbaditsch-Wolf in Austria and Geert Wilders in Holland have both undergone legal prosecution under various hate speech and blasphemy laws for denouncing elements of Islam. This author's past writings have documented German legal actions against a journalist, a website operator, a medical historian, and a self-proclaimed prophet who all offended Islamic sensibilities in one way or another. The Pakistani refugee Imran Firasat also ran afoul of Spanish authorities for his condemnation of Islam. The Innocence of Muslims film, meanwhile, provoked a number of world leaders to call for restrictions upon similar speech attacking Islam.

At least, though, these individuals did not end up dead like Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, Holland, or bombed like the offices of the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo noted by Zafar. Nor did a Muslim murderer attempt to kill them with an ax, a fate Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard narrowly avoided by fleeing with his five-year-old granddaughter to a purposely built "panic room" in his home. Nor did a Muslim man assault them on the street in Pennsylvania for wearing a "zombie Muhammad" Halloween costume as an expression of atheism, only to have an American Muslim convert give an Islamic justification for this assault while presiding as a judge over the trial. Individuals like Westergaard and Wilders, though, do live under police protection.

The logical substance of Zafar's article is also problematic. Zafar dismisses free speech advocates and various opponents of Islam as merely seeking to "promote individualism" and "to insult others or promote disorder," the latter word evoking the often repressive Islamic concept of fitna. Completely absent in Zafar's discussion is the historic understanding of free speech as a trial and error method of distinguishing truth from falsehood. Thus a lone individual who may be right deserves to be heard by a majority that may be wrong, even if the individual's message offends the majority. Such a principled conception of free speech as a means of intellectual and informational interchange stands apart from any debate over "hate speech" or the "fighting words" used merely as insult referenced by the United States Supreme Court in the 1942 decision Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire.

Zafar's description of Islam, meanwhile, uses, in the words of Robert Spencer's analysis of Zafar's writing at Jihadwatch, "glossy Orwellian language." Islam, in Zafar's mind, merely promotes "cultivating love" and serves a "good purpose" in the name of the often totalitarian-connoted concept of human "unity." Knowledgeable readers of Zafar's own Koran (which seems to number traditional Koranic verses transposed by one, e.g. 33 becomes 34, in contrast to other Koran texts), though, often have a less benign impression of this book and the faith of Islam. The Koran contains all manner of verses describing Muslim use of force against non-Muslims (e.g. 8:13) listed in the traditional numbering; 9:29 also in the traditional numbering; 47:5), the inherent superiority of Muslims to non-Muslims (compare 3:111 with 98:7 and both of these verses with 48:30), a Muslim duty not to take Jews and Christians as friends (5:52), corporal punishments such as amputation (5:34), polygamy and sex slavery (4:4, a verse encompassing "what your right hands possess"), wife-beating (4:35, "chastise" is the specific English translation here), a second-class status for women with respect to issues like inheritance (4:12) and testimony (2:283), and hostility towards Jews (5:61 with its infamous description of Jews made into "apes and swine who worship the Evil One," a description used in the "better and more dignified speech" of the current Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2010;5:82).

Individuals like Geller who bring any critical attention to such issues seem to merit in Zafar's view the harshest of damnation, even as he denies any attempt at censorship. In Zafar's Orwellian description, such people are no less than "enemies of peace." Zafar has falsely decried Innocence of Muslims as "slanderous", an offense under tort law, even though this terribly-made film is actually based upon canonical Islamic sources. Evoking Chaplinsky, Zafar intones that the "legal privilege to insult others... is neither democracy nor freedom of speech." Such "provocation", the often destructive consequences of which Zafar holds the speakers and not the actual perpetrators responsible, has a value that "pales in comparison to the cause of world peace." No matter Zafar's denials, he has provided every justification for sharia-conformal suppression of free speech. That such denial of basic intellectual freedom can find a prominent venue in modern America is troubling indeed.

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