Free will is the very essence of the human spirit. According to the narrative of the Qur’an it is free will that differentiated humanity from the angels at the point of creation. And even when the angels suggested that (as a result) man would “make mischief (on the earth) and shed blood,” God replied, “I know that which you do not” – thus giving divine license to this unique aspect of his creation and acknowledging that while freedom may lead to corruption, it is only through the exercise of free choice that the human spirit can reach the heights for which it was intended.
This is why, contrary to popular belief, the Qur’an asserts that there should be “no compulsion” in faith. The opportunity to believe can only be truly realised and valued when there is also an opportunity to disbelieve. Of course, no freedom is absolute and all those involved in debates on ‘freedom’ or ‘freedom of expression’ acknowledge the need for laws and rules to regulate behaviour – otherwise there would be anarchy. To paraphrase and misquote the line from Spiderman, “with great freedom comes great responsibility”.
But freedom and responsibility tend to clash. While Eastern traditions have tended to focus more on responsibility than on freedom, the European experience has been the struggle to win precious freedoms from monarchs, aristocrats, the Church and others who wielded power – leaving Europeans with a particular penchant for the notions of individual freedoms and rights. Of course duties are important too and have a reciprocal relationship with rights, but the primary emphasis is on rights.
This appears to be a cultural construct and need not be against the spirit of Islam per se. It may be argued that Muslim notions of authority, hierarchy and respect tend to be too romanticised, while Western conceptions of these values have come to be read with more sceptical undertones, at times going too far in that direction.
The issue is therefore to negotiate one’s way around these cultural nuances and differences. The notion of respect, for example, seems very different. Muslims have learned to respect religious symbols and icons more than the people that follow those symbols even though the Prophet Muhammad taught that the life of a single person is more precious than the most sacred site in Islam: “the Kaba, and all its surroundings”. Yet today, an attack on the reputation of the Prophet or his family, or a holy site would cause outrage, but an attack on an ordinary Muslim may go unnoticed.
However, in the British climate of free speech, institutions and representatives of religion are often seen to be fair targets for ridicule, possibly because of the cynicism towards authority and power (especially of a religious nature), but ordinary people are not usually subject to the same treatment. A play or novel could be offensive towards a religion, but Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand went too far in making an individual the target of crude humour. Granted that there are many other complexities around these issues, such as the medium, or Ross and Brand being employed by the publicly funded BBC, but the point could still be made that our notions of freedom, and conversely of offence, are culturally contingent. They are not absolutes. There genuinely does seem to be a clash of cultures here – a difference that gets lost in translation.
Furthermore, the cultural environment in Britain is one in which humour is often self-deprecating. Being able to laugh at oneself is a very British way of expressing self-confidence, and those unable to do so are seen to be nervous and possibly having something to hide.
In this context, while it is important to have laws that ensure people are not harmed, it is unlikely that a law designed to protect religion itself is necessary or even helpful which explains the abolition in May 2008 of long-standing blasphemy law in the UK.
Our approaches to freedom are an important aspect of the cultural negotiation that Muslims are undertaking and we can see important shifts taking place between generations. Starting the conversation from hard positions on either side – “freedom to offend”, or “the book must be banned” – has not helped at all. We need a genuine willingness to listen, to bear in mind each other’s cultural starting points and ultimately, perhaps even ironically, only a climate of free debate and discussion can help the conversation along.