Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

The truth will set you free not an offensive comic

There is much to agree with in Jerome Taylor's recent article about the issues surrounding cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, the right to free expression must be cherished by any healthy society – not just cherished, but nurtured and defended.

The value of debate and open discourse must always be emphasised. And the value of free speech to debate and open discourse cannot be doubted, for it inevitably contributes towards the wider perpetual search for truth.

These values are not just those of a liberal democracy, or secular society, but the basic principles of any worthy religious belief system. It is these principles that have been advocated as part of a Christian belief system by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Emeritus Archbishop of Westminster, who stated in the Guardian: ''The tradition I belong to has a deep and distinguished history of reason. It is passionately concerned about the truth.'' Indeed, as he pointed out, Jesus said: 'The truth will set you free.'

These are also the basic teachings of Islam and of the Prophet Muhammad himself – that freedom to believe, speak and argue are essential elements in the search of truth and the basis for any healthy society that wishes to grow and develop.

Where Islamic teachings differ from Jerome Taylor is in how it suggests that debate and discourse ought to be undertaken. Taylor's article says that Charlie Hebdo's recent publication of a crude comic depicting the life of the Prophet Muhammad is entitled to be irreverent, shocking and offensive. But just because someone might have the right to be rude, that does not mean that it is somehow morally laudable for them to be so. What Islam teaches is that the right to expression ought to be exercised with moral judgement – with respect, love, kindness, tolerance, and dignity.

Taylor compares a healthy society that boasts scurrilous, deeply irreverent and offensive publications against a stale society which conforms and never says anything that someone else might find offensive. To a certain extent, he has a point. But there is a question over whether rudeness and offensiveness are inherently valuable to a society. What is less convincing is that a society is enriched by an individual insulting his neighbour when he sees him, or mocking his appearance perhaps, or his hair colour.

It is hard to see how a society is bettered when as someone walks down the street and another is rude to them, or insults someone they hold close to their heart. Is it for no reason that we encourage courtesy, respect, tolerance and polite behaviour in our schools and that we discourage the bullying of others, irrespective of the basis of that bullying?

Wherever human interactions are inevitable, they ought to be conducted with dignity, respect, tolerance, and just as rudeness, bullying and insults have no place in decent social behaviour, so too criticism (and indeed, often justifiable criticism) of religions and religious people should not be a cover for wanton abuse and rudeness. This aspect of moral and decent behaviour in how we treat and interact with others, fellow humans that we may vehemently disagree with, is what is so often missing from the public discourse on this topic.

No doubt, a healthy society is one in which there is free choice, free expression, debate and discourse; an individual and collective search for self-improvement and truth. But it should not be one based on rudeness, intolerance, hatred and prejudice.

To be fair to Taylor, this is a point that he appears to acknowledge when he indicates that the debate is often “Islamophobic” rather than “Islamocritical”. This indeed is precisely the point. No one should feel inhibited in criticising Islam if they wish to do so. Indeed, if there are aspects of Islam that bother them, they ought to address those issues through debate and discourse. Likewise, no Muslim should fear such criticism. If their religion is true and divine, as they claim it to be, it will stand up to any criticism.

The founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, welcomed criticism and debate. Writing this as Muslims who promote debate and discussion about Islam, its founder and its teachings, we are confident in the claim of Islam and welcome debate and discussion on any topic.

But to reduce “discussion” to vulgar and often pointless inaccuracies; to spout lies and half-truths, often simply hiding prejudice, ignorance and hatred, and to then claim that this is somehow laudable in promotion of liberalism or democracy is a perversion and mockery of these enlightened values and principles. All that ensues from such a “discourse” is a base vicious cycle of degenerative hatred, which in no way promotes community values, or even serves the very value of free expression, namely the search for truth.

We need to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in. When our scientists debate with each other, do we want them engaging intellectually with one another, listening respectfully to each other’s views, to state their positions based on truth, evidence, clarity and a genuine search for knowledge, or do we prefer them being rude and disrespectful about those that disagree with them? Do we want our politicians to be engaged in tolerant and respectful understanding of the views of those who differ from them, to be open and honest, or do we want them to base their criticism of others on insults and lies?

Likewise, we should be mindful of how we engage with religion, personal beliefs and convictions, which should of course be open to criticism, but without prejudice, rudeness and disrespect.

And so, rights of course exist, with the right to free expression standing as one of the most valuable of those rights. But each individual, organisation, and community should give serious consideration to how their rights ought to be exercised, and should treat others in society with respect and dignity. As for those who are criticised, they should defend themselves with reason, debate and open discourse.

A healthy society is one filled with debate and open discourse. It is not, however, one in which rudeness, hatred, prejudice and lies are somehow seen as laudable values; nor one in which violence is needed to protect values or ideals. If a debate and public discourse over Islam is to be had, then let us have that debate.

Adam Walker is national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association

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