Friday, September 28, 2012

American Muslims, Freedom of Speech, and Cultural Divides

This is a draft of my khutba for this afternoon.


يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَقُولُوا قَوْلًا سَدِيدًا
يُصْلِحْ لَكُمْ أَعْمَالَكُمْ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ وَمَن يُطِعِ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ فَقَدْ فَازَ فَوْزًا عَظِيمًا
[O Community of faith: Be God-Conscious and make your speech truthful and carefully aimed, so that He may make your works felicitous and forgive your sins; and verily whoever obeys God and his Messenger has earned a great reward]

For speech to be carefully aimed, we have first to define our audience. This is not a speech before the United Nations General Assembly or an argument before the Supreme Court of the United States. Neither this speaker nor his audience should lose sight of who we are and what we can do. As the Sufi masters say, ملتفت لا يصل [one who is easily distracted does not reach his destination]. In this context, we should not think too highly of our station or ability to cause positive social change, but we should also understand our surroundings in order to make the positive social change that we can.


So, who are we, and what is our destination? We are American Muslims, who aim to live in harmony both with American and Islamic norms and laws. One of our fundamental convictions is that there is no inconsistency between the two sets of norms and laws, and that is why we live here. (For the small minority who believe that the two are inconsistent, it is a religious obligation on them to follow the orders of their religious scholars and migrate to a majority-Muslim country.)

In recent years, our community has made successful strides both as Americans and as Muslims in almost every arena, professionally, politically, and socially. 


As a relatively new social segment in the U.S., we expected to suffer some of the same social backlash that previous immigrant communities suffered (e.g. Irish and Italian Catholics, European Jews, etc.). 


We were fortunate because the forms of discrimination and persecution in the aftermath of the 1960s civil rights movement had become less vicious and generally more subtle. However, we were also unfortunate because our community was just hitting its stride when the traditional majority and elite demographic in the U.S. (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) were coming to the realization that they will become a minority in the U.S. within one generation. 


The angst from this realization is the driving force behind vicious political as well as social and religious attacks that have found their easiest target in the Muslim community, attacks against which would be rejected as racism and bigotry were they leveled against other more established components of the U.S. social mosaic.


But we must admit that there are indeed points of disharmony between current American and Islamic norms. We must always study our own faults, as the Sufi masters' advice continued:

  ملتفت لا يصل، ومتسلل لا يفلح، ومن لم يعرف من نفسه النقصان فكل أوقاته نقصان
[one who is easily distracted does not reach his destination, one who sneaks in does not succeed, and whoever does not recognize his own shortcomings forever suffers his shortcomings]

One area that is clearly a point of conflict between current American norms and current Islamic norms pertains to freedom of speech on revered religious figures, and those on both sides who wish to escalate a clash of cultures have been exploiting this point of conflict unrelentlessly. 


We  -- American Muslims and similar minded groups -- reject hateful speech that recycles sick anti-Muslim medieval European literature (composed during an earlier episode of Western anti-Muslim angst). Those who use this hateful speech clearly seek to justify bigotry against today's Muslims, but they cleverly exploit loopholes in contemporary free speech protections. 


Limits on free speech, and indeed all laws and regulations, are codifications of current cultural norms (e.g. what are considered to be "fighting words" or "libelous" accusations are determined in social context). Asking others to "respect" your cultural norms, which are by definition different from theirs, by enshrining them in their own laws, is essentially tantamount to asking them to abandon their norms for yours, which is incoherent in the extreme.


We -- American Muslims and similar minded groups -- also reject not only violent conduct, which cannot be justified by any speech, but also misguided calls to curb freedom of speech in medieval ways that have predictable and terrible consequences. Therefore, we reject "blasphemy laws" in some Muslim countries, which contradict the fundamental Qur'anic principle:

وَقُلِ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّكُمْ فَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيُؤْمِن وَمَن شَاءَ فَلْيَكْفُرْ
[and say Truth emanates from your Lord, so whoever wishes may believe, and whoever wishes may disbelieve].

Laws against "despising religion" are also incoherent, because rejecting the religion of another clearly implies at the very least an accusation of untruthfulness. We expect at least some of those who reject Islam not to think well of it, and expect some of the latter to vocalize their negative views. That is not at all surprising. The Prophet (p) reacted clamly to insults from his tribe of Quraysh, and said:
صحيح البخاري
‏..‏.
‏ ‏‏ ‏عَنْ ‏ ‏أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ ‏ ‏رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ ‏ ‏قَالَ ‏ ( ‏قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ‏ ‏صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ ‏ ‏أَلَا تَعْجَبُونَ كَيْفَ يَصْرِفُ اللَّهُ عَنِّي شَتْمَ ‏ ‏قُرَيْشٍ ‏ ‏وَلَعْنَهُمْ يَشْتِمُونَ ‏ ‏مُذَمَّمًا ‏ ‏وَيَلْعَنُونَ ‏ ‏مُذَمَّمًا ‏ ‏وَأَنَا ‏ ‏مُحَمَّدٌ ‏ ).
["Are you not amazed how God deflects the insults and curses of Quraysh: They insult and curse a blameworthy person, and I am praiseworthy?" (a pun on the meaning of his name: Muhammad)].

Even some of the hypocritical Muslims insulted the Prophet (p) as chronicled in the Qur'an:
وَمِنْهُمُ الَّذِينَ يُؤْذُونَ النَّبِيَّ وَيَقُولُونَ هُوَ أُذُنٌ قُلْ أُذُنُ خَيْرٍ لَّكُمْ يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَيُؤْمِنُ لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَرَحْمَةٌ لِّلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنكُمْ وَالَّذِينَ يُؤْذُونَ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
[and some of them (hypocritical Muslims) hurt the Prophet and say that he's a gullible listener (literal translation: "he's just an ear"), say he is a good listener for you, who believes in God and believes in the believers, and he is a mercy to those who have faith among you, but those who harm God's Messenger will have a great punishment]

God ordered the Prophet (p) to ignore his ignorant adversaries
خُذِ الْعَفْوَ وَأْمُرْ بِالْعُرْفِ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْجَاهِلِينَ
["Accept what comes easily to your companions, enjoin righteous common courtesy, and avoid the ignorant"] 

Some traditional scholars went to extremes demanding earthly punishment for Muslims who insult the Prophet (p), but none over the centuries demanded punishment of non-Muslims who insult the Prophet. Those who demand it now are not reacting to religion so much as pent up anger looking for a seemingly honorable outlet. Their anger is not about the Prophet being disrespected so much as it is about them and their sensibilities not being respected. It's about their own self image and ego, formulated in their insular cultural bubble, which is increasingly impossible to maintain in today's globalized world.


So, we believe that free speech is a fundamental Islamic and human principle. However, we feel pain when we hear hurtful speech that aims to hurt psychologically in the short term and justify material injury in the medium to long term. Then, we feel double the pain when our co-religionists exhibit fundamentally un-Islamic reactions and make incoherent legal demands with which we disagree. 

We are caught between unsynchronized cultures at this critical time. 
This is not cause to despair. On the contrary, as Ahmad narrated, that the Prophet (p) said:

مسند احمد ابن حنبل
...
عن عبد الرحمن بن سنة انه سمع النبي صلى الله عليه و سلم يقول: (بدأ الإسلام غريبا ثم يعود غريبا كما بدا فطوبى  
للغرباء). قيل: (يا رسول الله ومن الغرباء). قال: (الذين يصلحون إذا فسد الناس
...
["Islam started as a stranger, and it will again be a stranger, so glad tidings to the strangers." He (p) was asked: "Who are these strangers?" and he replied: "those who act righteously when others don't".]

When the time for speechmaking is over, we must get back to work on reform and calls to righteousness, individually and collectively. 

Pursuit of major and quick cultural changes is folly and distraction from the righteous straight path -- ملتفت لا يصل. The Prophet (p) said: "قل آمنت بالله ثم استقم" [say I have faith in God and then stay on the straight path]. Do not get distracted off that straight path -- ملتفت لا يصل.

(My late father taught me many years ago that one can indeed make a positive difference, but only if one does not demand that the difference is big, and one is willing for someone else to take credit for the change.)

All reform is slow, all politics are local, and all da`wa (calls to righteousness) are personal.

We do our best work in our daily lives, when we are not thinking about making major changes. Our biggest challenges are distractions from that work.

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