Human Rights, Human Principles, and the Case of Derogatory Cartoons
In 2005, the Danish daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad(saw), the Founder of Islam. In its editorial, the newspaper argued that Muslims should endure insults and mockery, like all others. As shockwaves of indignation spread across the Muslim world, the uninformed, misled by the Mullah, chose to adopt disorderly means of expressing their disapproval. Certain Muslim groups threatened violence against the Danish newspaper, and the cartoonists. In response, newspapers across Europe chose to reprint the cartoons on the pretext of defending freedom of expression. In their eyes, they were under threat from violent extremists, and believed that free speech should not be censured or restricted. Eventually, the newspaper decided to apologise for hurting the sentiments of Muslims, but not for publishing the cartoons.
Similar questions have resurfaced once again in light of events emanating from University College London (UCL). One of the oldest universities in London, UCL is home to over 23,000 students, and distinguished personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi and Alexander Graham Bell once studied there. UCL’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society recently published an image on its Facebook page, which depicts Muhammad(saw) and Jesus(as) drinking beer in a pub. The publication of the cartoons received worldwide media attention, with the BBC and Guardian websites amongst others covering the incident, and its aftermath. Even Richard Dawkins weighed in to the debate providing his support for unfettered freedom of expression.
The publication of inflammatory cartoons raises several pressing questions: How is ‘freedom of speech’ defined according to Human Rights law? How should a Muslim, according to the Sharia, react to the publishing of derogatory cartoons which depict Holy Personages in Islam? And how do we best exercise our fundamental freedoms in order to create a more beautiful world?
Human rights law and the true Sharia of Islam both guarantee free speech, including insulting and offensive speech, provided these freedoms are not exercised in such a way as to cause harm to others.
However, the international human rights treaties and the true Sharia of Islam do not merely put forward a list of rights; they also call upon individuals to exercise their rights according to the common human principles of respect, dignity, peace, equality, justice, compassion and unity, in order to build a better, brighter future.
In practice, one has the right to publish offensive and insulting cartoons if one so chooses, to the extent that they do not cause harm to others. However, one may be minded to remove an image when this type of speech fosters disrespect, indignity, discord, inequality, injustice, disregard and disunity, both within Britain and across the globe. Self-restraint of this nature should not be exercised in response to any form of compulsion or legal obligation, but merely as a matter of human principle.
In response to derogatory speech we as a community, Atheist, Christian, Jew, Hindu and Muslim alike, are called upon by both the human rights framework and the Islamic Sharia to behave in a manner which will maximise the realisation of our common human values. In real terms, this equates to engaging in a process of peaceful and rational dialogue with the aim of creating a more peaceful and harmonious global community.
Human Rights and Free Speech
Both human rights law and the true Sharia of Islam guarantee fundamental freedoms, including free speech. Human Rights are founded on John Stuart Mill’s theory of Liberty. In his seminal work entitled On Liberty, Mill eloquently stated that:
… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’
In essence, everyone must be free to think, speak and act in any way they choose as long as they do not harm others. Similarly, the true Sharia of Islam abhors compulsion and secures freedom. Chapter 2, Verse 257 of the Holy Qur’an powerfully states that, ‘there should be no compulsion in religion.’ As democratically chosen leader of Madinah, Muhammad(saw) placed a particularly high premium on freedom of speech. For example, when Ka’b ibn Ashraf verbally abused Muhammad(saw) in public, the only action taken by the Prophet of Islam(saw) was to ask Hassan ibn Thabit(ra), one of the Companions who was a favourite poet, to compose poetic verses in order to counter the abuse.
However, the international human rights framework and the true Sharia of Islam both limit freedom of speech when it causes harm to others. Thus, Article 10 (2) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) states that the exercise of free speech;
… since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others…
On this basis UK law prohibits speech that incites religious and other forms of hatred and defamation. Similarly, the Qur’an prohibits defamation and outlaws incitement to commit treason.
However, insulting and offensive speech does not necessarily cause harm to others and thus an individual must be free to exercise their right in this manner if they so choose. In particular, the European Court of Human Rights has affirmed the protection of offensive speech under Article 10 of the ECHR:
… free speech protections are “applicable not only to “information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that shock, offend or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no “democratic society.
Similarly, Islam permits an individual to exercise their freedom of speech in an insulting and offensive manner provided they do not cause harm to others. The practice of Muhammad(saw) was founded on this principle of tolerance. Throughout his lifetime Muhammad(saw) was repeatedly insulted and verbally abused by countless individuals and groups. One of the most offensive was Abdullah Salul. After numerous insults and verbal attacks, Abdullah’s own son, who had converted to Islam, approached the Holy Prophet(saw) and asked for permission to kill his father for his hurtful and malicious dialogue against the Prophet. The Holy Prophet(saw) merely smiled and said: “No, there is nothing to be done, your father will not be punished by anyone.” This path of tolerance is inspired by the Holy Qur’an, which calls upon humanity to respond to offensive speech with peaceful speech in order to generate harmony and avoid discord:
And the servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on the earth in a dignified manner, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!’ (Ch.25:V.64).
In sum, both human rights law and the true Sharia of Islam guarantee free speech, including insulting and offensive speech, provided these freedoms are not exercised in such a way as to cause harm to others.
Human Principles and Free Speech
The international human rights treaties and the true Sharia of Islam do not merely put forward a list of rights; they also offer guidance as to how these rights should be exercised. They call upon individuals to enjoy their rights according to the principles of respect, dignity, peace, equality, justice, compassion and unity, in order to build a more beautiful world.
Principles of Humanity
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the global community set forth a vision of a reformed global order founded upon the values of human dignity, equality and freedom. Thus, the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that:
‘Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.’
Similarly, the South African constitution rose from the ashes of the Apartheid era in order to‘heal the divisions of the past’ and establish a society founded on the values of ‘human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of rights and freedoms.’
The true Sharia of Islam also calls upon individuals to exercise their rights and freedoms in order to foster and promote universal respect, dignity, peace, equality, justice, kindness and kinship. Muhammad(saw) famously commanded his companions to exercise the highest standards of respect:
“O People! Surely your blood, your property and your honour are as sacred and inviolable as the sanctity and inviolability of this day; that is the day of Pilgrimage.”
According to the Holy Qur’an, humanity has been imbued with innate dignity and thus:
It is provided for thee that thou wilt not hunger therein, nor wilt thou be naked. And that thou wilt not thirst therein, nor wilt thou be exposed to the sun.’ (Ch.119-V.120).
Further, the true Sharia calls humanity to the highest standards of peaceful coexistence and harmony:
…hold fast, all together, by the rope of Allah and be not divided; and remember the favour of Allah which he bestowed upon you when you were enemies and He united your hearts in love, so that by His grace you became as brothers. (Holy Qur’an Ch.3:V.104).
Islam requires humanity to aspire to complete equality and remove all remnants of discrimination and prejudice. The last address the Holy Prophet(saw) delivered before his demise is an epitome of the entire spirit and teaching of Islam. In one part of the address, he said:
‘… Your God is One and your ancestor is one. An Arab possesses no superiority on a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab over an Arab; A white man is in no way superior to a black, nor for that matter is a black man better than a white, but only to the extent to which he discharges his duty to God and man…God made the lives, property and honour of every man sacred.’
The value of justice forms the fountainhead of Islam and we are instructed to; Weigh all things with justice and fall not short of the measure (Holy Qur’an, Ch.55:V.10). Yet, we are inspired to aim even higher and to treat each other with such kindness, grace and overwhelming benevolence as one would treat one’s own family; I ask you no fee from you, except loving kindness to all as you show to family (Holy Qur’an Ch.42:V.23).
In short, we are afforded freedom under the international treaties and the true Sharia, but we are called upon to think, speak and act beautifully, rather than destructively. How then, should these rights and principles be applied in the context of the publication of derogatory cartoons mocking the Prophets of God, such as the recent case of the UCL Atheist cartoons, which depict Muhammad (saw) and Jesus (as) drinking beer in a pub?
Human Rights, Principles of Humanity, and Derogatory Cartoons
Firstly, a person has the right to publish offensive cartoons if they so choose. This freedom of speech is protected and it must not to be limited by law, or any other means of compulsion, since the cartoons do not necessarily cause harm to others. In particular, they do not currently fall within the English law definition of inciting religious hatred nor do they amount to defamation.. This is the position under both the Human Rights Act and the true Islamic Sharia, for the reasons given above.
However, we may ask ourselves whether those publishing such cartoons, have chosen to exercise their freedom of speech in a manner which will promote and foster greater respect, dignity, peace, equality, justice, compassion and unity within our already fragile community. Will the posting of these cartoons lead to a better Britain? Will the posting of these cartoons lead to a better world? The answer is surely no. In fact, this type of speech is more likely to promote the values of disrespect, indignity, discord, inequality, injustice, disregard and disunity. But why might an individual reach this conclusion?
In order to answer this question we need only consider a simple example: imagine that someone posted a doctored image of your mother, father or another loved one online for millions, perhaps billions, to see which presented them in a demeaning, degrading or denigrating light. Since you love this person you would naturally feel hurt and would suffer emotional pain. You would likely feel that your loved one had been treated with disrespect and disregard and that an injustice had been perpetrated against them, which in turn may foster discord and disunity between yourself and the person who posted the image. In a “worst case scenario” your mutual bonds of love and solidarity may even be placed in jeopardy.
Muslims hold Muhammad(saw), Jesus(as) and all of God’s Messengers in such high regard that they aspire to base all of their thoughts, words and actions on the practice’s of these Prophets. Ahmadi Muslims, in particular, seek to generate such love for Islam and the Prophets that they pledge, as condition of their allegiance, to “hold faith, the honour of faith, and the cause of Islam dearer to him/her than his/her life, wealth, honour, children and all other dear ones.”
As a result of this love Muslims feel deep sadness and hurt when they see cartoons of this nature. Just as in the example above many Muslims feel that their loved ones have been treated with disrespect and disregard and that an injustice has been perpetrated against them. Thus, discord and disunity may spread and mutual bonds of love and solidarity may be jeopardised. In short, to understand the impact of these cartoon’s we simply need to empathise with the Muslims who are so hurt by them.
However, both the international human rights framework and the true Sharia, impose duties not to use force, or any other method of compulsion, which may limit an individual’s right to post and/or host these cartoons, despite any hurt or upset one may feel.
Any Muslim organisation or group who does seek to use compulsion in this manner acts contrary to the Practice of the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw). How ironic that certain Muslims, on the pretext of upholding the honour of Muhammad(saw), forget the peaceful, tolerant and loving model the Prophet(saw) left behind for Muslims to follow.
A Beautiful Response?
Rather than resorting to compulsion, the human rights framework and Islam call upon British citizens to respond in a manner which will maximise respect, dignity, peace, equality, justice, kindness and kinship. In particular, Chapter 16 Verse 125 of the Holy Qur’an commands that we respond with wisdom, reason and patience; Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the better way. Chapter 41 Verse 35 of the Holy Qur’an further explains that we should respond to destructive deeds with acts of goodness in order to build a peaceful and flourishing society;
And good and evil are not alike. Repel evil with that which is best. And lo, he between whom and you there was enmity will become as though he was a bosom friend.
In this era, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), the Promised Messiah and Imam Mahdi, who was prophesied to appear by the past scriptures of religions and by the Holy Qur’an as the Messiah, has explained to us the true teachings of Islam and the correct practice of the Holy Prophet(saw). Hence, in light of his teachings, when the Danish cartoons were published in 2005, the Community he left behind – the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, under the auspices of the 5th Successor to the Promised Messiah(as), Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih V(aba) – displayed the true manner in which Muslims should react to such incidents. Whilst some other Muslims caused damage and destruction to life and property, Ahmadi Muslims presented the true and exemplary teachings of Prophet Muhammad(saw), and used peaceful means of voicing their protest.
Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih V(aba) also delivered a series of Friday Sermons, beamed around the world through the Community’s 24-hour satellite television station, Muslim Television Ahmadiyya International (Sky Channel 787 in the UK) in which he unequivocally denounced hurtful speech, and also the disorderly reaction of certain misinformed Muslim groups. He expounded the beautiful model of the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw), and explained how a true Muslim should behave in such situations. Thus, an article was prepared by the Ahmadiyya Community which was sent to the newspaper that had published the cartoons. Islam’s real teachings were expounded as well the appropriate manner in which to protest; namely through peaceful ‘Jihad [struggle] of the Pen’ to express disapproval and anguish at the publication of the images, rather than inflammatory public rallies. The people of Denmark received the article positively, which was published in the newspaper. The President of the Journalists’ Union extended an invitation to the Ahmadiyya Community, where the matter was further explained. The Union were told of the beautiful teachings brought by the Holy Prophet(saw); his high morals, tolerance, compassion for others and also his civility. Numerous meetings were held with ministers and others, articles published, and discussions took place where the correct teachings of Islam were explained. One cartoonist plainly stated that had such meetings taken place previously, and had he known what Islam truly stood for, he would never have made the caricature.
It is strongly believed that when a person becomes acquainted with the true teachings of Islam, he or she would never harbour a desire to ridicule its religious personages, but would instead praise the virtues Islam promotes. And when certain misled Muslim organisations comprehend the true meaning of the verses of the Holy Qur’an, they would not react violently to criticisms of Islam, but would rather respond with wisdom, love, prayers and logic—which was the manner in which Muhammad(saw) himself responded to insult and offensive speech.
Jonathan Butterworth, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, is the Coordinator of Just Fair, a human rights organisation which seeks to advance the realisation of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the UK, and works as a Public Law Teaching Fellow at University College London (UCL), and a Guest Teacher at London School of Economics (LSE). Whilst studying at UCL he co-founded and was President of the UCL Student Human Rights Programme (UCLSHRP).
(Note: The author does not speak on behalf of the above organisations in relation to this article).
- See “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill (1859 Library of Liberal Arts edition) at 13
- See Al-Bidayah wa’l Nihaya by Ibn Kathir, Vol. 5 at 326 to 336
- Article 10(2) The European Convention on Human Rights (1950) (ECHR)
- 29(B) 1 Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 “a person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred”
- See A v Norway 12 November 2009, Application No. 28070/06 ECHR at 64 “The same considerations must also apply to personal honour. In order for Article 8 to come into play, the attack on personal honour and reputation must attain a certain level of gravity and in a manner causing prejudice to personal enjoyment of the right to respect for private life”
- Chapter 24 Verse 2 of the Holy Quran
- Chapter 5 Verse 34 of the Holy Quran
- Handyside v. United Kingdom 7 December 1976 1 EHRR 737 para 49
- The Seal of Prophets – His Personality and Character by Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh)Khalifatul Masih IV (2003 edition) at 33-34
- Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
- Preamble and Article 1 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996)
- Sahih Bukhari
- Sahih Bukhari
- See 29(B) 1 Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006)
- See A v Norway 12 November 2009, Application No. 28070/06, ECHR at 64
- See Ch.3:V.32 of the Holy Quran
- Conditions of Initiation in Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, The Promised Messiah and Mahdi(as) (January 12, 1889) Condition 8
- The Blessed Model of the Holy Prophet(saw) and the Caricatures, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba), Khalifatul Masih V, p.19, Islam International Publications Ltd. (2006)