Freedom of Expression and the Violation of the “Sacred”: a Muslim Perspective
Nader Hammami 23 December 2020

We cannot talk about democracy without believing in collective and individual freedoms in their universal sense. Freedoms do not have an identity and they do not fragment. This is one of the intangible foundations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Modernity, democracy, and human rights are inseparable, and it is no longer possible today to consider one without the other two. The genesis and affirmation of this trilogy has not been without conflict with religious thought.

If it is true that this conflict is even clearer today in Arab-Muslim societies, historically these societies are far from being an exception; for the relationship between democracy and religions, all religions, has always and everywhere been problematic and complex. If we limit ourselves to the three great monotheistic religions, we can see that they have had, throughout their history, two main functions: a spiritual function, certainly, but also a political and social function, which consists in the justification and legitimation of the established order.

Even today, and in a secular country like France, for example, where there is no blasphemy offence, and criticism, even virulent, of all religions or beliefs remains an inalienable right, freedom of conscience, guaranteed by the Constitution and the 1905 law, is part of the republican base. And the freedom of opinion guaranteed by Article 10 of the Declaration of Human Rights, in the case of the Mohammed cartoons representatives of the three monotheistic religions had openly spoken out against Charlie Hebdo.
It was noted that the right to freedom of expression and opinion always arises in relation to the problem of blasphemy, which deserves some remarks in this context.


At the Roots of Blasphemy

According to the Greco-Latin etymology, blasphemy means to injure a reputation. The evolution of the term since the Sixteenth Century tends to be limited to insulting a religious fact. Blasphemy consists of a word, speech, a written document, whereas sacrilege is an act perpetrated against a religion.

What law governs blasphemy? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, developed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a binding UN treaty ratified by 168 States, enshrines the principle of freedom of expression. However, this freedom is not absolute and may be subject to restrictions. These restrictions must be either to protect the reputation of individuals or to comply with public interest imperatives.
These restrictions do not include blasphemy, according to the position expressed by the UN Human Rights Committee, the independent body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Covenant and the compliance of States Parties with their obligations under the Covenant.

Despite this legal obstacle, many States sanction blasphemy. In Europe, this repression is still provided for in the constitutions or laws of several countries, but it is no longer applied. Some recent attempts at prosecution, notably in Greece, have given way to pressure from the European Union. On the other hand, blasphemy is repressed in most non-lay countries in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia: in Iran and Pakistan it is punishable by the death penalty. The case of the young Christian woman Asia Bibi, sentenced to death by a Pakistani judge, moved human rights defenders.

Aware of this distortion between international law and their domestic law, several States, at the instigation of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, have tried to obtain a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 that would recognize the prohibition of religious defamation. This attempt failed.
Does this mean that any attack on a religion enjoys impunity? Article 20.2 of the above-mentioned Pact prohibits advocacy of religious hatred if it constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.
Blasphemy does not exist under French law. A provision punishing it still appears in the texts resulting from the Concordat governing the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religions in Alsace-Moselle, but it has fallen into disuse.
On the other hand, French legislation provides for heavy penalties, including imprisonment, for insults and provocation to discrimination, hatred, violence, against a person or group of persons because of their membership or non-membership to a particular religion. These facts may result from words, speeches, or writings. Furthermore, apology for crimes such as murder or acts of terrorism are also punished with the same severity.

I believe that it is imperative to take all these elements into consideration in order to understand certain reactions in Muslim countries before and after the terrorist beheading of the French teacher Samuel Paty, an act which once again gave rise to a political and social controversy on the question of the relationship between freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, freedom of conscience, and secularism on the one hand, and the sacred, religious symbols, and incitement to hatred on the other.

Reactions to Samuel Paty’s Assassination

On Friday the 16th of October 2020, Abdullakh Anzorov beheaded Samuel Paty, a history and geography teacher, near the college where he was teaching. This teacher had shown cartoons of Mohammed, that had been published since 2015 in the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, to his pupils as part of a course on freedom of expression, which was the cause of the barbaric terrorist act. In Muslim countries we can distinguish several reactions either at the official or the social level.

The Imam of al-Azhar’s position sums up to a large extent the official reaction in Islamic countries to this terrorist act and can be analyzed. The great Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, condemned the beheading of Samuel Paty on Tuesday the 20th of October, describing it as “a heinous criminal act”, but arguing that insulting religions in the name of freedom of expression constitutes “a call to hatred”. He was speaking in Rome before a prestigious audience of religious leaders from Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism: “As a Muslim and Grand Imam of al-Azhar, I declare that Islam, its teachings, and its prophet have nothing to do with this heinous criminal act”, the Sunni Grand Imam said in the speech, “at the same time, I insist that insulting religions and attacking their sacred symbols in the name of freedom of expression is a double intellectual standard and a call to hatred” he added. “This terrorist does not represent the religion of the Prophet Muhammad”, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar commented in his speech.

Sheikh al-Tayeb’s speech is based on four essential points that have become standard for every terrorist act carried out under the banner of Islam and the defense of its sacred symbols after the beheading of the professor: the condemnation of the act, considering that the cartoons are an insult to religions and an attack on religious symbols, these cartoons are a call to hatred and do not fall within the scope of freedom of expression, the terrorist does not represent Islam as a religion of peace and is innocent of such a terrorist act.

Through a quick analysis of discourse, we can clearly see that the position is rather defensive, and it insists more on condemning the cartoons than the terrorist act, and it tries to limit freedom of expression by infringing on the sacred. In fact, we can see that such discourse can be understood as if the terrorist act is a reaction, it is condemned, certainly yes, but paradoxically it is “justified”.

We must not forget that at the beginning of September, the religious institution of al-Azhar had qualified as a “criminal act” the re-publication in the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo of the cartoons of Mohammed on the occasion of the trial of the January 2015 jihadist attacks in France. And in October, just before the terrorist act, it had judged the speech of French President Emmanuel Macron against “Islamist separatism” as “racist”, denouncing “accusations” against Islam. In my eyes, such a position can only push towards the act, root the feeling of hatred and reinforce the conspiracy theory.

After the beheading, the words of the French president who promised not to “renounce the cartoons” of the Prophet Mohamed have caused a stir in several countries of the Arab-Muslim world and the Middle East where calls for boycotts of French products have multiplied.
Several countries have denounced the publication of the cartoons as an insult to Islam and Muslims. The Organization for Islamic Cooperation, which brings together certain Muslim countries, in turn deplored “the remarks of certain French officials […] likely to harm Franco-Muslim relations”. 

What we must learn from these official and social reactions is that religious symbols and the “sacred”, in general in Muslim consciousness, remain a primary condition for accepting and internalizing universal human rights and the values of secularism. 

This is not only reflected in relation to freedom of expression or freedom of conscience, but we can also see this when we look at constitutions and laws. On the other hand, we cannot overcome the political instrumentalization of terrorist acts on both sides, and this can be a subject that deserves a separate analysis.


Nader Hammami is Professor at Carthage University, Tunisia.


Cover photo: A protest outside the French embassy in Amman, Jordan – October 27, 2020 (Khalil Mazraawi / AFP)

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