Before I begin, I would urge my readers, to take their conversations, interactions, dialogues and debates beyond formal events and try to carry them out on daily basis and into their lives. The best way to do this is to reach out to the people who look different than you, speak unknown languages or eat foods that are unfamiliar to you. We see these people in our communities and campuses but generally we do not know much about them. We must seek and encourage interactions with them without being petrified by any preconceived notions. Think of them as those family members that we all know exist but never really get to know them or visit them. My hope is that this article will encourage you to befriend the diverse group of students on your campus.
My hope is to have established the need to embrace diversity and reach out to those we know little. Now, I would like to talk about the symposium. The three sub topics of the symposium were ‘Free Speech as a Societal Value,’ Satire and Sensibility,’ and ‘Islam and Free Speech.’ I was asked to make a short presentation on ‘Islam and Free Speech.’ The topic is close to our hearts especially relevant after the atrocious tragedy that took place in Paris targeting the Magazine Charlie Hebdo. The event has triggered the unending debate over free speech and its role in our society once again. We must address this question in all honesty. Is free speech being practiced in the U.S. when students were banned from covering Malcolm X for Black History Month in an Elementary school in February 2014?
When our citizens are jailed for trying to do morally and ethically the right thing for their nation? That brave individual is John Kiriakou. A retired CIA agent who has just been released from prison after blowing the whistle on the George W. Bush administration’s torture program or examples like NSA’s whistleblower Edward Snowden. How about learning that four out of five UK universities or approximately 80 % of them do not have freedom of speech?
I echo the words of Dr. Joseph Kelley, an Associate Professor in Religious and Theological Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack, in his Q & A with Jack Minch of Merrimack College right after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy where he said that, ‘I believe with freedom comes responsibility.’ History is full of examples where scriptures of many religions were taken out of the context. Therefore, we can not let extremists control the narrative of about 1.6 billion Muslims. We cannot let them distort and continue to misinterpret Islam and malign Muslims all over the world. Therefore, we need to come forward and engage in informed dialogue in and around our campuses and communities.
Freedom, human rights, and democracy are some of the core values of Islam and these not only liberate us but also help us remedy extremism and help us win the battle against fundamentalism. Nevertheless, dictatorship and refusal to rights and liberty are in contradiction to Islam. The civilized world must understand that perverting cultural values and denigrating religious symbols are contradictory to any religion or tradition. Particularly, the violent assault on satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was a complete insult to Islamic principals and its values. It is our responsibility to question the intentions and motives behind such discourses that are inflammatory and antagonizing.
Recently, four eminent leaders came together at the World Economic Forum from three major religions concluding that extremism is not new. Also, that religion cannot be blamed for the rising threat of extremism rather, it is the perversion of religious beliefs that is a threat to religions and peace at large. President Obama eloquently stressed this point in his Prayer Breakfast speech on February 5, 2015 referring to how extremists in the name of religion perpetrate heinous acts of violence. He said, “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
Therefore, it is pivotal to understand that all this ignominy of images can never affect the dignity of God, Islam, or the Prophet. The Quran tells us to disregard the people of ignorance, it asks us to:
“Exercise forbearance, enjoin them to do what is right and turn away from those who do not care to understand.” 7:199
The Qur'an also encourages us to engage with the people of reason and to debate if they have a different point of view.
“O Rasool (O Prophet) do not entangle yourself with them. You continue your program of inviting people to the way of Allah with wisdom and kindly exhortation and discuss matters with them in the best possible manner. Allah knows best who is following the right path and who has gone astray (12/108).” 16:125
These verse not only provide a lesson into Islamic principles but also enlighten us about the personality of Prophet Muhammad who was an example of forbearance and tolerance. As Muslims, the highest honor we can pay him is by practicing his virtues and moral principles, especially his treatment of other people. To illustrate an example from his life, there is a story from the Islamic tradition that highlights how he responded to the vitriol of a woman who used to dump garbage in front of his door everyday. One day, when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did not find the garbage at his door steps, he went to inquire about her. The tradition says that he took care of her. This is how Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) acted and behaved with people who were merciless to him.
Therefore, Muslims and non-Muslims must reach out and learn about each other. Together, we must fight the prejudice. Often, If arguments lack logic and reason, people adopt the way to mockery and debasement. We should avoid mockery. In order to live together in a civilized manner with harmony, we must exercise mutual respect of religious symbols and one another.
How can we improve our relationships? Do we wish to disengage our world or find a way to assemble peaceful accords? Provocation is not the way to learn about one another or build bridges. Often, Tariq Ramadan, a world renowned scholar says that it is not Islam and the Quran that needs reformation, rather it is the mindset of Muslims and non-Muslims that needs to reform itself. Lastly, remember that the Quran addresses the whole humanity and hence, I believe, it is incumbent upon the whole of the humanity to give themselves a chance to understand the message of the Quran without prejudice and judgement. For example, when we seek some self-help books, no matter what our ethnicity, faith or tradition, we often are impressed and do try to apply the skills taught in books written by well known authors such as, Eckhart Tolle, Anthony Robbins, Dale Carnegie or Dali Lama. However, the Quran does have an author but it is God/Allah (that is the belief of all the Muslims). So we can endeavor to at least find out what is in the Quran or meet some Muslims or visit an Islamic center to enhance our knowledge about our fellow Muslim Americans.
I would like to leave you all with a beautiful quote by Hamza Yusuf, the founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley California. “Every Breath is a step to the afterlife, so have compassion for one another. This is a journey, and the kindness that you show to fellow travelers engenders love. Remember, we are all on this journey together.”
About the Writer: Shua Khan Arshad is an Intercultural and Interfaith Practitioner. She is a Muslim Chaplin at Groton School, Vice President of Groton Interfaith Council, and a member of the executive board at Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries. She is also an active ethnographer and founder of Intercultural and Interfaith Calendar since 2014.
1. Freed CIA Whistleblower John Kiriakou Says "I Would Do It All Again" to Expose Torture: http://www.democracynow.org/2015/2/exclusive_freed_cia_whistleblower_john_kiriakou :
2. Free Speech not at four out of five UK universities:
3. Howard University Middle School Teachers Fired For Teaching Black History:
4. World Economic Forum Religion: A Pretext for Conflict?: