I am the sort of person who would draw a Mohammed cartoon, if I could draw, which I can’t, and if I was good at satirical cartoons, which I’m not. Yes, we do understand that you find cartoons depicting Muhammed offensive. We understand that you value the reputation of Muhammed more than that of your own family, and that Western cartoons about your prophet are, to you, utterly disrespectful and blasphemous. We are not drawing cartoons just for the sake of being insulting, nor because we hate you. We draw cartoons because we regard doing so as important for a free society.
Over human history many ideologies have been totalitarian. The Christian religion used to burn people at the stake for heresy. The Soviet Communists sent people to the Gulag for any dissent from communist ideology. The Nazis murdered millions to further their fascist ideology.
All totalitarian regimes control what people can say, and in particular they repress any questioning of themselves and their control of society. The right to question authority is among the most fundamental rights in a free society. Even the right to vote is predicated on the right to discuss and argue about the merits and demerits of the government. Where people cannot question their rulers, society is not free. And that means, overwhelmingly, that economic prosperity is lower, technological advance is hampered, cultural flourishing is restricted, and quality of life is lower. Across the world these things correlate with political freedom and thus with freedom of speech.
The Islamic world, sadly, is different. Political freedom is not accepted. Rather, the greatest good is held to be unquestioning acceptance of Islam. Where Islam dominates, Islam is totalitarian, controlling what people can do and say.
In Saudi Arabia the blogger Raif Badawi is flogged for asking for political freedom. In Egypt a student is jailed for being an atheist. In Mauritania the death sentence is imposed for the “crime” of apostasy. In Pakistan, dozens are killed or sentenced to death for the “crime” of blasphemy.
Questioning a totalitarian ideology is the highest heresy, the greatest outrage, to be punished to the fullest extent. That’s how totalitarian ideologies perpetuate themselves.
In Islam this means that the words of Muhammed may not be questioned, only accepted. The Quran is taken to be Allah’s unalterable revelation. Any non-acceptance of Islamic dictats, any blasphemy or apostasy, must meet the harshest penalties. As Islamic scholar Azzam Tamimi explains:
“… the Prophet Muhammad and all the other prophets cannot be drawn and cannot be produced in pictures because they are, according to Islamic faith, infallible individuals …”
To accept the Islamic taboos on depicting Muhammed is to accept that Islam is beyond criticism. Islam is not just a religion, it is a whole way of life. Islam does not recognise the secular ideal of church–state separation and instead seeks to control political systems. The combination of political control and the outlawing of scrutiny and criticism is the very essence of totalitarianism.
It isn’t reasonable to try to outlaw criticism of Islam by calling it “offensive” and reacting as though criticism were an attack on people. Yes, you have rights, but your ideas do not. You should be treated with respect, but your ideas need not be respected. The Muhammed cartoons do not attack people, they attack the idea of Islam. Muhammed is not a person alive today, rather, the idea of him is a theological construct. As the Muslim Council of Britain has said:
For Muslims, love of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is a NECESSARY part of our FAITH. He is dearer to us than our parents and children.
But even that statement admits: “There are laws to protect the dignity and properties of people”. Yes, people should be protected, but political systems should not! We would not accept a communist trying to prohibit any criticism of communism by saying that such criticism is an attack on themselves. We would not accept that from a fascist, or from a capitalist or socialist, or indeed from anyone. All political systems, all influential idea systems, must be open to scrutiny.
Iyad Madani, head Saudi-Arabia-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has called for prosecution of Charlie Hebdo, saying:
No sane person, irrespective of doctrine, religion or faith, accepts his beliefs being ridiculed.
That is why Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most oppressive countries, not even allowing women to drive. The West enjoys much greater quality of life precisely because we do accept our beliefs being ridiculed!
There is little such freedom in most of the Islam world. Few parts of the of the Islamic world are democratic. Few Islamic nations allow freedom of religion. Few Islamic nations allow citizens to openly criticise the government. Few Islamic countries recognise individual human rights.
Most of the people in the Islamic world want democracy, want freedom, want more rights. But the governments and the Islamic religion don’t want them to have it.
That is why it is important and indeed necessary for us to flout Islamic taboos. We need to draw Muhammed precisely because Islam says that we cannot, and that we should be subject to Islam’s rules. That is an attack on the very fundamentals of freedom in the West. The consequences of Islamic taboos are blatantly demonstrated in the lack of political freedom across the Islamic world.
It is Islam that needs to change. It is the Islamic nations that need to embrace freedom, and, yes, that does include the freedom to blaspheme, the right to apostasy, and the liberty to draw Muhammed and to criticise sacred tenets of Islam.
The people who suffer most from the totalitarian nature of Islam are overwhelmingly the Muslim citizens of the Islamic world! There are brave and far-sighted Muslims who want to reform Islam, and we should support them.
We secularists in the free West are not opposed to Muslims as people, we are opposed to the totalitarian nature of the Islamic religion. This is not just about free speech, it is more basic than that, it is about the right to live in a free society.
We only have that freedom because, in past times, many of our forefathers stood up to the Christian religion and stopped it imposing its own rules on those who didn’t want them. More recently many have had to stand up to communism and fascism.
Those forefathers established the principle of religious freedom, that one may voluntarily adopt and impose religious rules on oneself, but not on others! Your freedom to impose your religion ends where another person begins! Islam does not recognise freedom of religion, which is why we now need to stand up to Islam and flout its taboos. That’s why we draw Mohammed. It is not an attack on you as people, it is directed at the powerful idea system of Islam.