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Free speech has not been kind to Muslims

Yes, let everything be said, but let’s also try to speak more wisely

January 14, 2015 1:30PM ET

The senseless murder of 12 people at the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo was sadistic retaliation for the magazine’s sometimes damning content on Islam and Muslims. Such biting, critical commentary should, of course, be protected. However, if free speech should be protected, then that includes criticism of the magazine for its denigration of French Muslims. Instead we woke up this morning to the news that France has arrested 54 people on charges of hate speech and apologizing for terrorism, including comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.

H.L. Mencken said the mission of good journalism is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Charlie Hebdo, by contrast, expended a fair amount of ink afflicting the afflicted. Who benefits from the magazine’s satire of the African sex slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens or depictions of Muhammad as naked and compromised? (Not all readers are as capable as journalist Max Fisher in seeing “two layers.”) In my 25 years of life on Earth, 14 of which have been surviving in an often bleak post-9/11 world, I have rarely been comforted by a public that is so quick to castigate me and silence my voice. On Twitter, just after I confessed my unpopular opinion about Charlie Hebdo, a stranger tweeted at me that Islamophobia doesn’t exist because Muslims aren’t people. 

It’s simplistic to equate the violence of the gunmen who murdered the cartoonists with Islam when their worldview has become so hate-filled by the very way the West has treated Muslims and their nations in the past 100 years. Western intervention and Islamic extremism are linked. Islamic extremism is a modern construct springing from a history of brutal colonialism and military adventurism. Speech that ignores this history may be free, but it isn’t responsible.

There is not a lot of consideration when it comes to this reality for Muslims. We are seen as the root of the problem and hence not also as victims of Islamic extremism. Being a Muslim now is loaded; to be constantly identified as a threat or to apologize for the actions that aren’t yours is exhausting in a world that happily dissects your identity to enforce its own. One thing is especially clear: A lot of people are up in arms about freedom of speech when it serves the purpose of a larger and deceptively innocuous and duplicitous rhetoric. As Glenn Greenwald writes at The Intercept, “One can defend free speech without having to publish, let alone embrace, the offensive ideas being targeted.”

The vilified group du jour

A couple of years ago, I attended a debate at New York University. It was part of the Intelligence Squared debates, Oxford-style live conversations on a range of provocative and timely topics, and this particular one was titled Is Islam a Religion of Peace? It wasn’t a question, however; it was a challenge on how many ways Islam could be dismantled in one evening, for the sake of a debate. Toward the end of the night, the audience members were encouraged to vote, and soon it was decided: Islam was a vicious, vile religion.

For the peace side, there was Zeba Khan, a writer and advocate for Muslim-American civic engagement, and Maajid Nawaz, director of the Quilliam Foundation — a counterextremism think tank. On the opposing side was ex-Muslim and Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali and British journalist Douglas Murray. “Muhammad was a bad man,” Murray said in his argument, referring to Islam’s prophet. I have heard that statement many times already, those voices of assumed reason, those who equate Muhammad with a pedophile or, in Murray’s case, “a warlord.” It’s common for Western journalists to sensationalize conversations around Islam and discredit the religion by reappropriating historical facts or anachronistically targeting customs, while creating fallacious arguments to demonize a faith practiced by over 1.5 billion people with mostly love and compassion.

Liberal voices of Islam are effectively silenced because we, as an entity, do not support the ‘liberals’ on the opposite side.

My family is Muslim, and for most Muslims around the world, living in a post- 9/11 world has been challenging. Muslims were equally emotionally and psychologically affected by the senseless tragedy and acts of violence, yet society appears to want Muslims to apologize for it, as if we were all somehow co-conspirators in these heinous crimes. From random airport searches to the slew of racist comments we receive in the media or in the streets and in some cases even the murder and physical abuse of innocent people in acts of racial hatred, Muslims have become the vilified group du jour. 

Viewing Islam as a monolith, however, is inherently problematic, especially when it comes to dealing with the threat of extremist violence. Not to mention that it is quite obviously racist. To assume that every Muslim thinks, acts and is motivated by the same things is abhorrently misleading and insensitive. A faith, especially one this large, cannot be reduced to one thing. Additionally, insinuating that all Muslims are violent and thus the same inevitably leads only to more resentment within a group of people who inherently want to be understood — thereby creating and sustaining a cycle of misinformation.

I am not what would come to mind when you think of a Muslim. I don’t wear hijab, nor do I privilege modesty. I am who I am, and I find it offensive that media commentators would claim that I am not a real Muslim but rather a cajoling interlocutor because of how I choose to represent myself. In the Intelligence Squared debates, Hirsi Ali had the gall to suggest that peaceful, or liberal, Muslims were blinded to the realities of what she claims to be the true Islam, and what she purports to know has become the accepted norm. It is interesting how easily “liberal” voices opt to dismiss my choices. Liberal voices of Islam are effectively silenced because we, as an entity, do not support the “liberals” on the opposite side, and thus their accepted anti-Muslim narrative. Therein the misinterpretation of Islam is twofold: There are fellow Muslims who misinterpret the religion and practice it in violent ways, and there are those on the outside, looking in, refusing to acknowledge the existence of a majority that is not radicalized, who condemn radical violence and want peace. 

Where are the moderates?

Islam is a complex, beautiful faith, and a fluid, honest dialogue about the teachings of the Quran should be encouraged, especially among Muslims young and old. Yet the only rhetoric around Islam seems to come from the outside, the voices of disdain and discouragement that profess to know so much and yet truly convey so little.

Last year comedian Bill Maher went on a highly publicized spiel denigrating Islam and Muslims. In somewhat of a response, University of California at Riverside professor Reza Aslan astutely explained in a recent op-ed in The New York Times that many religious texts are teeming with violence. So selectively citing violent portions of the Quran while ignoring similar passages in the Old and New Testaments reveals bias. So too does harping on the religion of disturbed murderers of unarmed civilians when they are Muslim while ignoring the religion of such murderers when they are not (e.g., Elliot Rodger, James EaganHolmes and Adam Lanza), instead focusing on their disturbed mental states and troubled pasts.

Pundits such as Bill Maher and Ayaan Hirsi Ali openly incite violence, claiming freedom of speech, but Muslims are held to a different standard.

The conservative American Freedom Defense Initiative recently published an anti-Islamic advertisement under its banner (showcased by the MTA in New York) stating, “Yesterday’s moderate is today’s headline.” This statement mirrors the ethos of Maher and Murray, who insist that given the opportunity, Muslims will inevitably turn on you because they are practitioners of a bad religion. However, I want to ask, if, as these critics surmise, Islam is so evil because of the Quran, then how do we justify interpretations of the text that have espoused ideas of tolerance, compassion and mercy throughout so many Muslim communities historically and now? How do we factor them into the equation? How can we talk about Islam as a violent monolith when it has been so influential and beneficial for so long?

In his 2003 book, “Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern,” English political philosopher John Gray claimed that Islamic extremism is a modern phenomenon, a modern illness. It is unfair and dishonest to view a religion with such a vast population, one that has existed for more than 1,500 years, as an unstable component that has not been affected by the sociopolitical circumstances surrounding the rise of extremism or Western interventionism in the Muslim world.

Conducting a long-term war in the Middle East to supposedly end terrorism — while killing Muslims, many of them civilians — only legitimizes the defense of the people being pillaged. It’s a privilege to disregard this key sociopolitical context. Figures such as Maher, Murray and Hirsi Ali are obsessed with facts, and yet they somehow very conveniently ignore the effects of colonialism and imperialism in the Islamic world and the extremism that has come as a direct result of it. They are new atheists, new polemicists, with bullying bravado who have theorized their hatred by decontextualizing information to make a case against a mythology that we are now accepting. This is not scholarship; this is a war of attrition on a religion, based on half-truths to justify U.S. interventionism. Pundits such as Maher and Hirsi Ali openly incite violence, claiming freedom of speech, but Muslims are held to a different standard. This effort to normalize racism and Islamophobia is Orientalism at its finest.


To refuse to understand Muslims is itself an illiberal act of exclusion and intolerance; to assume that we are all a faceless, amorphous mass and disregard nuance is racism — and it is most certainly analogous to anti-Semitism. It is a racism that, similarly, excuses violence against a particular group of people. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are specific terms for racism, but they are the same. If it is vile to make racist remarks about Jews (or anyone), then you should feel the same way about disparaging Muslims.

Individuals of all religious backgrounds sometimes adopt vicious identities, but that is the person’s fault, not their faith’s. If we want to move toward a more humane and intelligible society, it would do us good to not polarize facts or people.

My father taught me that Islam is a philosophy and encouraged me to learn as much as I could about everything. As a young girl, I was obsessed with learning. I still am. In all my years, I have never ceased to be fascinated by the fact that the first word in the Quran is “read.”

I would encourage opponents of Islam to do just that: Read.

Fariha Róisín is a writer based in Montreal.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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