Do Muslims Have Equal Right to Free Speech?

Md. Mahmudul Hasan

Professor Julian Petley of Brunel University London in his book Censoring the Word (London: Seagull, 2007) mentions that “all democratic countries possess laws that curtail media freedom in one way or another (the UK has over 60)” (p. 29).

Andrea-Tereza Nitisor in “Speaking the Despicable: Blasphemy in Literature” (2009) states:

“Blasphemy laws still exist in the penal codes of many countries, including European states that boast secular democratic values” (p. 110).

Section 295-A of the Penal Code of 1860 that Bangladesh, India and Pakistan governments use to proscribe written words or to ban writers was introduced by British colonizers during the colonial period. All these facts do not suggest that the West is a site of, or advocate for, limitless free speech.

Western media outlets largely maintain a consistent policy of not maligning Judaism and Christianity and their holy symbols. What is more, most European countries have laws that criminalize Holocaust denial and ban hate speech (especially against the Jews). In 2006 a Vienna court sentenced the British academic David Irving (1938 –) to three years in prison for denying the Holocaust of the European Jews. Imams in masjids in the West are under constant surveillance and sometimes secret agents monitor especially the content of their khutbahs (Friday sermons).

Recently, Russia has banned Ali Muhammed al-Salabi’s book Abu Bakr Siddique, the First Caliph. In the last one decade or so, the country’s Justice Ministry has blacklisted over two thousand titles including a number of classical Islamic books.

The above deliberation shows that free speech restrictions are not a Muslim monopoly, as they exist in many non-Muslim countries on earth. However, a binary of absolute freedom of expression in Western countries and its restriction in Muslim societies features quite prominently in the discourse of free speech ban and intellectual proscription.

Whether freedom of expression should be absolute or there should be some sort of cap on its exercise has generated lively discussion over time. Classical British scholars who intellectually fought against censorship and promoted freedom of expression do not support unbounded or irresponsible exercise of free speech.

John Milton (1608 – 1674) defended free speech and wrote Areopagitica (1644) to oppose the intellectually stifling Licensing Order that the British government passed in June 1643. However, he did not support unconditional right to freedom of expression and wanted religious and political authorities to be watchful over its possible misuse. As he states:

“I deny not, but that it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors” (p. 151).

Another champion of free speech John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) “defines liberty as the right of the individual to think and act as they wish, providing that they harm no one else by doing so” (Petley p. 46).

In our contemporary time, the Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1911 – 2006) describes the limits of freedom of expression in an interview with Mohamed Salmawy thus:

“We need to differentiate between free speech and disrespect for religious symbols. Every man has the right to stretch his arms, for example, but not to the extent that he hits the face of the person next to him” (Al-Ahram Weekly On-line (9–15 Feb. 2006).

I put a similar analogy below which may help illuminate this debate further. Car drivers have to follow traffic rules. They are supposed to stop when traffic lights are red and are allowed to go when the lights turn green. However, this rule is not absolute. Because even if the lights go green but there are cars ahead unmoving, the driver behind cannot exercise their right to go. That is to say, s/he is supposed to consider the presence of the car(s) ahead before s/he exercises their right to go even when the traffic lights are green.

Writers and artists are entitled to freedom of expression, but at the same time they should consider other people’s right to be different and not to be hurt or affected by the irresponsible exercise of freedom of expression. In other words, writers and artists should fully respect other people’s cultural values and sentiments and their right to subscribe to other belief systems.

Therefore, the right to free speech is perhaps a suspect virtue. In other words, writers and commentators may have the right to say what they want and artists, to express what they think or feel curious about. But they are morally obligated to maintain some degree of checks and self-censorship, and consider the socio-religious values and conventional morality that people cherish in a given cultural setting. A book or an artistic piece that insults people’s long-held views, beliefs, convictions and cultural practices and thus can potentially incite violent street demonstrations and can cause death/s is perhaps better not to be produced at all.

Perhaps, the debate, whether or not freedom of expression is absolute, may remain a contentious issue for a long time. However, it is almost certain now that Muslims are currently the primary victims of a conceivable hypocrisy in the free speech discourse. While Muslim societies are maligned for a perceived lack of freedom of expression, Muslims do not have equal right to freedom of expression. The following discussion may clarify this more.

Prominent scholars who are opposed to laws against Holocaust denial include many prominent western non-Muslim academics and commentators. It is perhaps their legitimate intellectual right to seek to decriminalize the denial of the Holocaust and such an academic stance does not harm any. However, if the list of prominent commentators against the laws against Holocaust denial included eminent Islamic scholars, the reaction of Western establishments and mainstream, dominant media would have been understandably different.

Let us examine another example. Soon after the tragic fall of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, the British writer and Nobel laureate Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013) made a characteristically iconoclastic statement. She said: “It was neither as terrible nor as extraordinary as the Americans think.” She refused to toe the line with Western political and media establishments and exercised her right to take a divergent view. But imagine if an Islamic scholar of Lessing’s stature took such an unconventional intellectual stance! What would be the repercussion and media outcry!

In the wake of the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy, many commentators showed the courage to critique the magazine’s editorial policy of exclusively maligning Islam and Muslims. Again, if the majority of the commentators critical of Charlie Hebdo were Muslims in such a sensitive time, many Islamophobic analysts would have jumped to the conclusion that the followers of Islam are pathologically anti-freedom of expression and that something is seriously wrong with the religion.

Also bear in mind the fact that Russian rulers’ proscription of over two thousand titles has not provoked the trial of their religion. But Islam is regularly on trial for any reported misdeeds committed by any of its followers. Moreover, most often the slogan of free speech is actually an excuse for free license to denigrate Islam and to caricature its adherents. For the sake of a healthy intellectual culture globally, the dismantling of hypocrisy and double standard in the discourse of free speech is a crying need and long overdue.


Milton, John. “A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing”. In The Works of John Milton, vol. 1. London: Millar, 1753.

Nitisor, Andrea-Tereza. “Speaking the Despicable: Blasphemy in Literature.” In Ali Riaz ed. (Re)Reading Taslima Nasrin: Contexts, Contents & Constructions (pp. 109–23). Dhaka: Shrabon Prokashani, 2009.

Petley, Julian. Censoring the Word. London: Seagull, 2007.

This article originally appeared on 03 March, 2015 on the website

*Dr. Md. Mahmudul Hasan is with the Department of English Language and Literature at International Islamic University Malaysia. He is the author of ‘Free speech, ban and “fatwa”: A study of the Taslima Nasrin affair’, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 46(5) 2010: 540–552.


Current Affairs Forum Seminar on “Understanding contemporary Islamic Movements”

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A seminar entitled “Understanding Contemporary Islamic Movements” was organized under the aegis of Current Affairs Forum on Thursday, August 25, 2016 at Al-Tabari Conference Room in International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). The speaker was Dr. Malik Badri, renowned academic and holder of the Ibn Khaldun Chair, IIUM. The seminar was moderated by Dr. Elmira Akhmetova on behalf of the forum. It was attended by faculty, staff and students of the university. Distinguished guests among the attendees included Dr. Rahmah Ahmad Hj. Osman, Dean of KIRKHS, Dr. Kamal Hassan and Dr. Abdullah al-Ahsan among others.

The moderator, after a brief introduction for the benefit of the audience, invited the speaker to share his thoughts and ideas on the subject matter. Dr. Badri, after thanking the moderator, began in earnest through identifying a common trait of importance in all movements, that of the quality of charismatic leadership. The quality of charismatic leadership is of importance in all types of movements within Islam as well, whether they are good or bad. To give examples of bad movements within the context of the Islamic tradition, he brought forth examples of the munafiqeen (the fathers of bad Islamic movements), Abdullah bin Khuwaisera (father of the khawarij), Nafi’ Bin Azraq (another charismatic khariji leader of the deviant sect called Azariqa) and Omar ibn Tofail (a challenger to Prophethood during the lifetime of Prophet Mohammad (SAW); miraculously killed by lightning strike) among others. Dr. Badri observed that this charismatic quality was an essential trait in the characters of the prophets as well.

Over the course of the next section of his speech, Dr. Badri went on to share his observations and memories of some of the figures of the Islamic movements whom he had met at various points in his life. Both Sennousi and the Mahdi of Sudan were highly charismatic figures who were able to successfully lead the Islamic movements within their countries. This was also true for the character of Hasanul Banna, the charismatic founder and prominent leader of the Brotherhood in the Arab world, and Maulana Abul ‘Ala Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami in the Indian subcontinent. The early assassination of Hasanul Banna left a crisis of leadership within the Muslim Brotherhood due to a lack of charismatic leadership which could replace his role. On the other hand, the selfless contribution of Maududi, including his simple life, prolific writing and untiring leadership made Jamaat into a strong movement in the subcontinent. However, Dr. Badri feels that the Jamaat, due to its stance against Sufism, fell back on the issue of spirituality, a move that alienated scholars such as Abul Hasan Al-Nadwi, who disagreed with Maududi on various aspects of the movement and eventually disassociated himself from it.

Speaking on his personal experiences, Dr. Badri expounded on his own participation within the Islamic movement, namely as a central figure in the Islamic movement in Sudan, until the coup d’état in 1969 by Numeiri. His differences with the viewpoints of Hasan Turabi and an accumulation of observations over time eventually led to his withdrawal from Islamist politics and more into academia. Finally, he spoke of his personal experiences with Malcolm X, a deeply charismatic black US Muslim preacher who eventually came to accept true Islam due to his connections with scholarly individuals and personal study on Islam. In this regard, Dr. Badri reminisced about a deeply moving speech given by Malcolm X at the Sudan Cultural Attaché premises at Beirut after the latter’s embrace of true Islamic faith in place of the deviant beliefs of Elijah Mohamed’s Nation of Islam.

Lastly, he spoke of the negative implications of Islamic movements in the context of present Muslim societies, through which he also outlined the reasons behind his eventual abandonment of Islamic movements. The very concept of the Islamic movement, according to Dr. Badri, is a bid’ah or an innovation within Islamic tradition. Within the context of present Islamic societies, apart from being a force for seeking a public role for Islam in the affairs of the society, the Islamic movements had several negative impacts. Firstly, in terms the moral impact on the society, such movements tend to identify and react to modern societal ills in a manner that forces them to veneer to the other end of the spectrum through strict moral policing and conditioning, instead of adopting a balanced approach. Secondly, the very nature of a grouping based on the concept of a common brotherhood brings about the in-group and out-group mentality within members of such a movement. According to Dr. Badri, this mentality, although absent or minimal at the beginning, gradually solidifies over time and even leads to a takfiri attitude, whereby others are seen as lesser beings. Moreover, he felt that Islamists were rather prone to violence, despite propagating a peaceful approach, due to the fact that their literature tends to condone fiery spirit and illiberal views of others, which he felt was very much prevalent in the writings of Maududi. Dr. Badri further iterated that the model upon which the Islamic movements operated, the unit or usra, was a concept adapted from the Communists or Marxists. He finally wrapped up his discussion with the conclusion that there was a need to understand that leadership within Islamic movements had its strengths and also its weaknesses, and thus evaluate them accordingly, citing examples such as Hassan Turabi of Sudan in this regard.

The moderator, after thanking Dr. Badri for sharing his experiences on understanding Islamic contemporary movements, opened the floor for the Q&A session. In the session that followed, a lively discussion ensued as Dr. Kamal Hassan shared his views on whether there was a need to redefine the very concept of the ‘political party’, which he believed was a Western construct which brought with it the assorted ills associated with such a concept, such as the view that the party was a sacred animal for which all members were ultimately expected to sacrifice alternate thinking or differences in opinion at any cost. There were also comments from Dr. Abdullah al-Ahsan and questions from the audience regarding the nature of contemporary Islamic movements and alternate solutions to their drawbacks. The session was concluded by the respected moderator, who thanked all participants for their engagement and time to make the discussion lively and fruitful.