How should Muslims respond to the recent controversy, which erupted out of publishing 12 caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in one of the Danish newspapers? What is the ruling for blasphemy in Islam?A Christian surveyor, Professor Edward reported in the TIME Magazine of April 16, 1979 that in a span of 150 years, from 1800 CE to 1950 CE over 60,000 books have been written against Islam. It works out to more than one book against Islam everyday.
Today there is virulent propaganda against Islam in the international media, in international newspapers and magazines, on radio broadcast stations and satellite TV channels. A section of the media is attacking Islam, and this has reached epidemic levels especially after eleventh of September, 2001.
This is not the first occasion where the media has been used as a tool to malign Islam.
On the 30th of September 2005, one of the Danish newspapers (Jyllands - Posten) published 12 defamatory caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) which included images of the Prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse and showed him as a knife-wielding nomad surrounded by veiled women. These drawings were later reprinted on January 10, by a Norwegian evangelical newspaper “Magazinet” in the name of defending “free expression”. These sparked boycotts and demonstrations against these acts throughout the Muslim world. Islam prohibits any depiction of the prophet (pbuh), even if it is done in the right spirit, as such images could possibly lead to idolatry.
Recently, an interesting article appeared in the ‘Guardian’ (weekly newspaper of the UK) on Monday, February 6, 2006. Three years ago in April 2003, a Danish illustrator Christopher Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ, to Jyllands-Posten. However, the cartoons of Christ were turned down by Jyllands-Posten on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were surely not funny.
A British historian David Irving was recently given a three-year sentence on charges stemming from two speeches he gave in Austria in 1989 in which he was accused of denying the Holocaust. (The Times of India, February 24, 2006). The report urges us to contemplate why is “freedom of expression” conveniently forgotten when it comes to topics that may hurt a section of this world?
With regards to how should Muslims respond to this sort of defamation against Islam, broadly, I can classify the Muslim response into six different categories.
1. Replies via the Media
The first way is to reply via the media i.e. using the same tool, which is often used against us. Replies can be in the form of letters, articles, pamphlets and books, which can be sent to newspapers and magazines and posted on the Internet. Appearances on satellite TV channels and giving public lectures in order to present the correct picture of Islam are also another possible way. Common non-Muslims throughout the world have become victims of a section of the media and its propaganda. One cannot blame a common non-Muslim for being against Islam unless we Muslims clarify their doubts and remove the misconceptions prevalent in their minds. It is the job of every Muslim to respond to allegations against Islam and clarify misconceptions.
2. Peaceful Protests and Demonstrations
There can be peaceful demonstrations or protests in the form of a congregation. A large number of Muslims can march to parliament house and protest against what has happened. Muslims can also give a letter to the embassy of that particular country and request the Prime Minister to take action against the offender.
3. Filing a Legal Suit
We can even take legal action against the defamer in his country or file a case in the International Court of Law if the nation where the act has taken place is condoning the act. We can sue the offenders by pulling them to court, which is one of the good ways of preventing such things from occurring in the future.
A striking example in this respect can be cited of CAIR (Council on American - Islamic Relations), which is the largest Islamic civil liberties group in the U.S. In 1997, CAIR succeeded in shaking down Nike when they filed a defamation suit objecting to a pair of shoes manufactured by Nike, which had a design on the heel similar to the Arabic word for “God”, Allah. However, there was an out-of–court settlement and Nike not only publicly apologised but also agreed to give several million dollars to the Muslim community, which were spent to build three playgrounds at Islamic Centers in the United States.
4. Economic Embargo
The fourth strategy is to put an economic embargo, a very effective weapon aimed at weakening the economy of any country. Muslim countries can get together and apply economic or business pressure against that country if it continues to publish defamatory things. It is advisable to boycott certain goods if we know that boycotting products of that country can create a huge effect on the country’s economy. During the gulf war, a few countries in the Middle East boycotted American products and caused a big loss to the U.S. If a section of the western media has “freedom of expression” then we Muslims too have the freedom to use or abstain from using a product. Say for example if the western countries wish not to procure oil from the Muslim world, it is their choice for which we cannot compel them. Similarly, if the Muslims do not want to buy products from a particular country, it is illogical for anyone to have any objections to their decision.
5. Political Pressure
This takes place on a higher level i.e. between political authorities of countries. The leaders of different Muslim nations can apply pressure on a political level. The Muslim governments can withdraw their ambassadors from that country and shut down its embassies as part of a political boycott, if they refuse to give a public apology and do not stop defaming the Prophet (pbuh).
6. Moderate Force
The sixth strategy is to carry out demonstrations using a limited amount of force. As far as the first five strategies are concerned, no Muslim or non-Muslim can have any objections. If there is freedom of speech then we Muslims also have the freedom to reply in the media, to participate in peaceful demonstrations, or take legal action seeking punishment or compensation. We can even boycott goods or apply political pressure since it’s a matter of personal choice.
Alhamdulillah, I feel that this time Muslims across the globe have responded very well and we have been united in our protests and succeeded in voicing our displeasure at the cowardly attempts on ridiculing the Messenger (Pbuh) by a section of the civilized world. (except a few stray incidents where violence was used at a higher level which Islam does not permit). The response from the Muslims came in almost all of the above six categories. Muslims did not react immediately; rather we gave ample enough time to the Prime Minister of Denmark to use his good offices to intervene and ensure that Jyllands-Posten apologise for hurting the sentiments of 1.3 billion (Muslim) citizens of this world. Muslims exercised restraint until they were forced to come out on the streets when other European newspapers reprinted these provocative images.
We gave our replies via the media – numerous letters, emails, and articles were written in newspapers, magazines and were also put up on websites. We held peaceful protests and demonstrations across the world in almost every nation that has a considerable Muslim population. We levied an economic embargo as well – the Middle East boycotted Danish goods and products, which caused a huge loss to the Danish economy since Middle East happens to be one of the largest consumers of Danish products importing more than a billion dollar of goods annually.
Besides this, we also applied political pressure when the Danish government refused to apologise for publishing the caricatures, citing freedom of thought, Saudi Arabia and some other Arab nations recalled their ambassadors in Copenhagen and imposed restrictions on Danish goods. This immediately prompted the Danish Industrialists’ Association to ask the Jyllands - Posten daily to apologise for publishing the cartoons.
The punishment for blasphemy in most of the major religions is death. It is stated in the Old Testament of the Bible, which is the authority for both the Jews and the Christians:
And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: [Book of Leviticus 24:16]
Moreover, if we read Manusmriti, the Law book of the Hindus, it says:
“If a man born of a lower class intentionally bothers a priest, the king should punish him physically with various forms of corporal and capital punishment that make men shudder.” [Manusmriti 9:248]
Regarding the punishment for blasphemy in Islam, it is mentioned in the Glorious Qur’an:
“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter;” [Surah Al-Maidah 5:33].