Original article posted here.
Muslims believe in every jot and tittle of the Second Commandment. We are to make no graven images of any living thing, irrespective of whether such images might or might not lure the unwary into idolatry. Orthodox Judaism and many Protestant churches have been similarly direct in following this biblical injunction.
And yet, for such a major item of the Ten Commandments, and for all of Islamic art’s historic capacity to thrive without making pictures, image-making does not carry a statutory penalty in Islamic law. It is for a Muslim judge to determine the exact nature of the offence, and to decide what ought to be done.
Unlike some other commandments, notably those against murder, adultery and theft, the Second is treated as a somewhat marginal issue in the classical manuals of Islamic ethics and law. Making pictures of people is forbidden, certainly, but it is hardly as wicked as missing a prayer, or neglecting the welfare of parents.
Still, this little-known byway of Muslim morality has become the lightning rod for a major European crisis. The disgraceful Paris murders seem to extremists on all sides to prove the inherent inability of Muslims to respect the ambient values of non-Muslim cultures.
The patient mainstream, of course, sees through this easily enough: the murders were the acts of criminals with troubled pasts and little religious knowledge, and have been condemned by a rare show of unity among Muslim leaders in France and worldwide.
So it would be easy to dismiss this as yet another tragic case of fringe elements trampling on the teachings of the mosques. Globally, Muslims admit that such lawlessness is an increasing worry. No significant Muslim scholar supports the radicals in Iraq and Syria, but some young people simply pay no heed. In an age of individualism, angry minds tend to ignore established religious leaders.
But there is more at stake here. Charlie Hebdo, like the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten several years ago, did not simply publish images of the Prophet. That, on its own, would probably have occasioned little comment. The difficulty lay in the evident intention to mock, deride and wound. To portray the Prophet naked, or with a bomb in his turban, was not the simple manufacturing of a graven image. It was received, and rightly so, as a deliberate insult to an already maligned and vulnerable community.
Mosque burnings and a raft of legal disadvantages are increasingly a fact of life for Muslims in Europe. I recently visited a Swedish mosque which has logged almost 300 separate attacks; on one occasion it was burnt to the ground. In this fearful and tense environment, the French cartoons were scarcely a piece of harmless jocundity appearing in a vacuum.
Scorn towards despised minorities is a hazardous business. During the days of Nazi terror, cartoons supplied a key weapon of anti-Jewish polemic. To laugh at the Prophet, the repository of all that Muslims revere and find precious, to reduce him to the level of the scabrous and comedic, is something very different from “free speech” as usually understood. It is a violent act surely conscious of its capacity to cause distress, ratchet up prejudice and damage social cohesion.
It is because of such risks, as well as out of a sense of due civility, that the British legislators who in 2008 abolished the common law offence of blasphemy, have replaced it with a range of legal restraints on forms of hate speech or offensive images. In 2010, to take one example, an atheist activist was convicted for distributing anti-Christian images in the prayer room at Liverpool Airport. The deeply distressed airport chaplain took him to court, and won easily.
The English legal tradition recognises not only the right to free speech, but the right to protection from agonising insult, slander and abuse. In the case of vulnerable minorities that legal concern seems particularly appropriate. It is also in line with the tolerant and courteous national character.
It is for the many Muslims who now populate the Inns of Court to discover whether these legal precepts can in practice be used to protect non-Christians from abuse. A series of complex cases would trigger an overdue national and perhaps Europe-wide discussion on the right to protection from hate speech. Not all the lawsuits would succeed, but the community would have shown that it is determined to enjoy the protection of our country’s laws.
Abdal Hakim Murad is a British Muslim theologian and broadcaster. His most recent book, “Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions”, is published by the Quilliam Press.
Further resources for Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad:
The New Hijri Year – A Cambridge Khutba with Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad
The Role of the Sunnah & Religion in the Modern World – Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (Cambridge Muslim College)