Belfast Telegraph

Charlie Hebdo tragedy and the way forward: weapons and aggression can never serve as a means for settling differences of opinion

Farhad Ahmad looks back on the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the issues that arose in the aftermath

By Farhad Ahmad

January's horrendous and barbaric attack that occurred at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine was vicious and inhumane as was the subsequent attack at a Paris kosher shop two days later.

Where these attacks caused global pain and sorrow, they particularly distressed the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion peace-loving Muslims. Admittedly, many Muslims have long felt that the offensive nature of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) represent an enormous abuse of our cherished right to free speech.

However, in my experience the majority of Muslims believe that such cartoons should be challenged through the strength of sound argument. More importantly, according to Islam, weapons and aggression can never serve as a means for settling differences of opinion - no matter how divisive they may be.

Every time an incident of this sort occurs, many consider Islam to be the root cause. However, the attack that took place has no foundation in the Qur’an or in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Rather, Islam strongly opposes violent attacks and declares “there should be no compulsion in religion”.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), in whose name this evil crime was committed, would never have permitted or desired such violence and cold-blooded murder. In his lifetime he was repeatedly mocked and insulted but never did he permit anyone to retaliate with violence. Rather, he said that a true Muslim was he from whose tongue and hands other people are safe.

There were many people during the Prophet’s lifetime that mocked him. One of the most offensive was a man called Ibn Sulul.

After numerous insults and verbal attacks against the Prophet, Ibn Sulul’s own son, who had converted to Islam, asked for permission to kill his father for his hurtful and malicious insults directed at the Prophet.

In contrast to today’s so called ‘’followers’’ of the Prophet who are hell-bent on hurting others, there was no angry reaction and the Prophet merely smiled and said: “No, there is nothing to be done, your father will not be punished by anyone”. So, Muslims who pick up arms while claiming to ‘avenge the Prophet Muhammad’, do an injustice to the very man they claim to ‘avenge’.

However, there is a crucial issue that demands our attention. There is no doubt that freedom of expression is a fundamental right of all human beings and a most precious value, nevertheless, we have to ask ourselves the question: if we wish to live in a harmonious society, then how do we best exercise our freedoms? And whether or not a legal right is also an ethical one?

We all have, and should have the right to passionately express our opinions, agreements, and disagreements; but does freedom of expression carry with it a licence to wilfully and intentionally provoke discord between fellow humans?

The definition of ‘sacred’ given by the famous nineteenth century philosopher Nietzsche was that the 'sacred' is whatever it is in a culture at which one cannot laugh.

For example, as a proud British citizen I may have the right to laugh at and to demean serious concepts such as racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, disability, etc. However, to do so would be highly unethical and plainly wrong in today’s British society - and rightfully so! Put simply, having the ‘right’ to offend does not mean it is right to offend.

There ought be no doubt that the publishing of such ‘satirical’ material about a person considered to be sacred causes anguish to millions of people around the world.

In a world which has become a global village and where there is no shortage of tensions between people, such acts that exacerbate further tensions can only result in risking the peace within society. And like freedom of speech, peace is also a freedom we should cherish, nurture and value.

In fact, I would say that living in a peaceful and tolerant society whose foundation is ‘respect’ is a freedom that we should cherish and value above all other freedoms. To achieve this we must recognise and understand our individual responsibilities.

The media is a powerful tool that can bring people together, but also clearly has the capacity to push them further and further apart. The British media has shown impressive restraint and responsibility during the past out of a sense of social responsibility.

These are crucial times where everyone, including Muslims, are united in a state of mourning and emotion. A number of decisions lie in the hands of the media at that crucial moment in time.

If the decisions being made now are based on wisdom, mutual respect and common sense, the tragedy of the Charlie Hebdo attacks can serve as the thunderclap that makes us all come to our senses and realise that we breath the same air and share the same land.

The fact that a minority of twisted individuals have acted in a criminal and inhumane way is unquestionable. It was undeniably wrong and finds no defence. However, if one, or a few people commit a wrong, it does not mean that another wrong can correct that injustice.

Hence, the reproduction of the offensive cartoons by the media organisations or any other person will further increase disunity.

The principles of respect, dignity, peace, equality and justice that the West dearly adheres to must continue to be practised, especially in these delicate times when they matter the most.

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