Free speech: Something better

…and the present to sensationalism

There was a very famous poet who came to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) one day in Mecca, and he told the Prophet, “I have something better than your Qur’an.” The Prophet (pbuh) told him to recite the poetry that he had, and the man did, reciting a poem about the famous Arab prophet Luqman.

After listening to the poetry, the Prophet (pbuh) said, “Those are indeed good words…And I have something better than it.”

The poet was astonished to hear someone tell him, “I have something better,” because that had never happened to him before. The Prophet (pbuh) then proceeded to recite Surah Luqman, which most eloquently describes the exhortations of the Prophet Luqman (pbuh) to his son. At the end of the passage, the poet conceded to the Prophet (pbuh): “Those are indeed good words.” The poet was clearly defeated.

Throughout the ministry of the beloved Prophet (pbuh), scores of people attacked, cursed, smeared, and maligned the Prophet (pbuh), including his own uncle Abu Lahab. Frequently, The Prophet’s (pbuh) response was the Qur’an; he was confident that the words of God he had on his side would always win the day – and they did.

Enter the Maclean’s article of 2006 entitled, “The future belongs to Islam,” in which an excerpt of Mark Steyn’s book was published talking about the rise of Islam in Europe and how it threatened Western values. The article is the subject of a lawsuit before the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, in which two members of the Canadian Islamic Congress say the magazine article stirs up hatred for Muslims and has violated a provincial hate speech law.

After reading the article, however, I came away thinking that maybe the Canadian Islamic Congress overreacted just a little bit. Surely the article is mocking toward Islam and Muslims, a typical rant by the right wing against the presence of Muslims in the West. Yet, the article was more a tirade against the social democratic state and its policies than a polemic attacking Islam.

Steyn wrote:

Age + Welfare = Disaster for you; Youth + Will = Disaster for whoever gets in your way…Islam has youth and will, Europe has age and welfare. We are witnessing the end of the late 20th-century progressive welfare democracy. Its fiscal bankruptcy is merely a symptom of a more fundamental bankruptcy: its insufficiency as an animating principle for society…Over on the other side of the equation, the modern multicultural state is too watery a concept to bind huge numbers of immigrants to the land of their nominal citizenship. So they look elsewhere and find the jihad. The Western Muslim’s pan-Islamic identity is merely the first great cause in a world where globalized pathologies are taking the place of old-school nationalism.

This paragraph sums up the weakness of his argument vis-a-vie Muslims in the West. He makes sweeping generalizations about “Islam” and the “Western Muslim,” and selectively chooses instances of crimes committed by Muslims in the West and generalizing it to the whole. And his qualification that “not all Muslims are terrorists” comes out obviously sarcastic and half-hearted. His article can easily be refuted.

He is of the opinion that the Canadian Islamic Congress should not have sued the magazine for publishing the article, but should have published their rebuttal elsewhere. He even pledged to help it get published in the Guardian newspaper if they dropped their lawsuit. Obviously, the CIC did not take up his suggestion. With all due respect to the CIC, I am inclined to agree with him.

Just as the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) told that poet who challenged him, “And I have something better,” we can tell those who rant against Islam and Muslims that “we have something better than this.” The truth is on our side, and if we can just learn to calmly, methodically, and peacefully contribute to the exchange of ideas – rather than take legal action against this publication or that – the world can see that we are on the side of right.

There will always be those who attack and smear Islam with lies, falsehoods, half-truths, and generalizations. All we have to do is respond with facts, not bombs, Molotov cocktails, burned embassies, burned flags, death fatwas, or even lawsuits.

If the publication in question does not want to give us “equal space,” which may frequently be the case, then we can publish it elsewhere. In fact, why not publish said rebuttals in the burgeoning Muslim media – such as this forum or magazines such as Illume, Islamica, and others – which desperately need our support for them to grow and become first-rate players on the media scene. And you know what, the facts we have on our side are ugly, stubborn little things that will always ruin the beautifully crafted theories about our religion and our people that are simply not true.

While I understand the feeling that may have led to the lawsuit against Maclean’s, the action was truly misplaced. It sends the message that Muslims are not proponents of free speech and the free exchange of ideas. While I agree that speech which incites violence and bloodshed against Muslims or any other group of people should never be tolerated, the Maclean’s article by Mark Steyn- as writer Ali Eteraz said best – “could never, ever, never ever, rise to ‘incitement’” under U.S. case law.

We can be pro-Muslim and pro-free speech, because – just as the Prophet (pbuh) said – “we have something better than this.”

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.


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