Is Free Speech Good for Muslims?

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SHAFAQNA – I recently watched a curious debate that took place in 2015 at the Free Press Society of Denmark. On one side was Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician and anti-Islam campaigner whose ascendance to power was, I’m happy to say, checked by the elections in the Netherlands this month. On the other side was Flemming Rose, the journalist who angered many Muslims in 2005 by publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten

The crux of the debate was what to do with Muslims and Islam in Europe. Mr. Wilders argued that the Quran must be banned and mosques must be shut down. Mr. Rose, in contrast, explained that this view is unacceptably authoritarian, and Muslims deserve freedom like everyone else. “You cannot deny Muslims the right to build a mosque or to establish faith-based schools,” he said, simply because some Europeans find them offensive.

Most Muslims watching this debate would probably sympathize with Mr. Rose, thinking he was defending them. Mr. Rose, however, was merely defending a liberal principle: freedom for all. It was the very principle that led him to publish the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad — cartoons seen by many Muslims, including me, as offensive.

This is just one of many manifestations of a paradox Muslims, especially those of us living in the West, face in the modern world: They are threatened by Islamophobic forces against which they need the protections offered by liberalism — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, nondiscrimination. But the same liberalism also brings them realities that most of them find un-Islamic — irreverence toward religion, tolerance of L.G.B.T. people, permissive attitudes on sex. They can’t easily decide, therefore, whether liberalism is good or bad for Muslims.

The same paradox can also be seen in the debates over female dress. When illiberal secularists in the West interfere regarding the outfits of conservative Muslim women — with bans on the burqa, the “burkini” or even just the head scarf — the defense is found within liberalism: Women have the right to “dress as they please.” This, of course, is a perfectly legitimate argument in a free society.

But the idea that women can “dress as they please” doesn’t actually go over well with some Muslims — if that means, for example, tight jeans and miniskirts. In Saudi Arabia and Iran women are forced by law to cover their heads. In fact, in some ways Saudi Arabia is a mirror image of the culturally hegemonic dystopia that Mr. Wilders dreams of: a land where the scriptures and shrines of a foreign religion are banned — not the Quran and mosques, in this case, but the Bible and churches.

This is not to say that Muslims who ask for freedom in the West must be held accountable for the lack of freedom in “Islamic” states. But it does mean that Muslim opinion leaders — imams, scholars, intellectuals — should give serious thought to a key question: Is liberalism a good or bad thing for Muslims? Should they embrace freedom or not?

Often Muslims support liberalism when it serves them and reject it when it does not. They use the religious freedom in the West, for example, to seek converts to Islam, while condemning converts from Islam to another religion as “apostates” who deserve death. Or ask for the right to freely organize political rallies in Europe, while you are crushing opposition rallies at home — as the Turkish government recently did during its spat with the Netherlands.

Such double standards can be found in every society. Mr. Wilders himself, who cheers for “freedom” while aiming to ban the Quran, is a striking example. But some contemporary Muslims do it too easily, switching at will between “our rules” and “their rules.” The prominent Turkish theologian Ali Bardakoglu, the former head of the Religious Directorate, wrote about this “double morality” in a recent book and called on fellow Muslims to be more self-critical about it. Muslims should not be, he argued, “people who can surf between different value systems.”

The deeper problem is that Islam, as a legal and moral tradition, developed at a time when the world was a very different place. There was a very limited concept of individual freedom, as people lived in strictly defined communities. There were no notions of international law, universal human rights, the secular state or freedom of religion. Moreover, Muslims were often the dominant faith, making the rules to their advantage — such as tolerating non-Muslims as “protected” but inferior communities.

That premodern world is long gone. There is now an increasingly diverse world where boundaries fade, cultures meet and individuals roam. And the forces that try to reverse this trend — liberal globalization — are often the very forces that despise Islam and threaten Muslims.

Muslim opinion leaders have to decide where they stand. Do we Muslims want a free world with universal principles in which everyone, including us, lives according to their own values? Or do we prefer a segregated world where whoever grabs power imposes their values? And, if we choose the latter, what is going to protect us from all the Geert Wilderses of the world? In fact, what makes us any different?

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