Anti-Islam Film: Muhammad and Freedom of Expression, By Dr Aliyu U. Tilde


The recent caricature of Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in an American anti-Islam film has provoked anger across the Muslim world. Demonstrations of disapproval of the caricature continued throughout last week. The violent one recorded was in Libya where the American consulate in Benghazi was attacked and the Ambassador there killed.

Reactions of Muslim leaders and commentators throughout the Muslim world are unanimous in condemning the use of violence as tool for expression of opinion or anger in this case. So we also join them to express our disapproval of the violence that led to the killing of the Ambassador and his staff. The blasphemy was the act of an individual, not the country.

This will certainly not be the end of blasphemy against the Holy Prophet by people who have the least regard for his noble personality. It has been a recurring decimal since the advent of Islam. The Qur’an itself has predicted its tenacity to the present time and beyond:

“You (Muslims) shall certainly be tried and tested in (the loss of) your wealth and lives and you certainly receive from the People of the Book and the polytheists a lot of insults. But if you are patient and God-fearing, that will be the most determining factor (for your success).” (3:186)

There are, therefore, bound to be further expressions of anger in any such instances from the Muslim world in the future. This was not the first. The Danish and French cartoons of the Holy Prophet in the early 2000s, and before them Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989, are still fresh in our minds. This will certainly not be the last, especially given that the reaction of Muslims is now predictable from the trend that emerged since the Satanic Verses. Far right and extremist groups that are interested in widening the gap between the West and the Muslims world have now in their hands an assured recipe for provoking havoc.

Whenever such reaction occurs in the future, we pray that it will not lead to further loss of life or property. The Holy Prophet himself would not have approved the killing of a diplomat in his domain. His heart was certainly bigger than that. He has received diplomats even from hostile countries but never has he ordered the execution of any. As President Mursi of Egypt said, diplomats are guests and they deserve our utmost protection.

America on its part should see the loss of the Ambassador as an unfortunate incident and play restraint. Libya is still volatile, very unstable. Anything can happen to anybody there. Gangs still have a free hand. Personal safety measures are paramount, but especially among foreigners. Where an established, stable central government is absent, the posting of diplomatic staff need to be seriously evaluated not only on the balance of strategic interest but also on that of personal safety of the diplomats that will be posted there.

Now, beyond the condemnation of violence, one could say, after listening to several commentators in several English and Arab channels that the whole world, including the American government as clarified by its foreign affairs spokesman on BBC Arabic television channel last night, recognizes the right of Muslims to demonstrate as an expression of their anger against the blasphemy. This is an era of democracy and no opinion should be suppressed.

The point, however, is not much about the expression of opinion by Muslims only. Their anger is mainly directed at America – even among those who do not support al-Qa’ida or Sheikh Omar Abdurahman – because they perceive that it has not shown any resolve to stop the rising tide of blasphemy against the Holy Prophet, the Qur’an and Islam generally in its territory as it stood firmly behind the UN resolution against anything that disputes the Jewish narrative of the Holocaust. As an Egyptian commentator said on BBC Arabic, a way of getting round the problem is for Muslim countries to propose a UN resolution that makes blasphemy against the Prophet a crime. Would America support it or veto it?

However, such a resolution, I suggest, should include the protection of all holy places and personalities belonging to all religions. Here, the Muslim world itself, to tell the bitter truth, has some unfinished work in its domain. We have recently witnessed the most unfortunate destructions of Muslim tombs in Somalia, Mali and Libya in the name of Monotheism. An historic idol of Buddha in Afghanistan was also destroyed under the Taliban regime in 2000. The mutual respect and tolerance of Islam for divergent beliefs and ways of worship are what made such sites and structures to survive in the Muslim world for the past 1400 years. Respect is a three dimensional: the one we have amongst ourselves, another we give to others and the third we expect from them.

Yesterday, MBC 2 showed the Da Vinci Code in which Jesus was portrayed as having a relationship, and even a child, with a female disciple of his. MBC is Saudi financed channel, if I am not mistaken. When the Satanic Verses were published, the Kuwaiti government had substantial shares in the Penguin Books that published it. I am raising these points just to plead for prudence on the part of the Muslim World.

The blasphemy of Basil is not different from that committed by the Danish and French journalists before. When the debate over the Danish cartoons broke out, I published a discourse titled In Defence of Muhammad. Though it was Eurocentric in its references, I think there is no need to rephrase the arguments again. I hereby reprint it for the benefit of my new readers. Those who have read it before may also wish to refresh their memories on its contents.

In Defence of Muhammad

By Dr. Aliyu Tilde

International headlines have been dominated in the past three weeks by the reactions of Muslims to the Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, Peace be Upon Him (PBUH). Muslims consider the cartoons as deliberate insults against the Prophet, the person they revered most. In Islam, the personality of all Prophets, including Moses, Jesus, etc, is sacred. It must not be desecrated through mockery or ill comments. For Muhammad, this prohibition extends to drawings and other forms of graphic depictions.

If a Muslim violates the personality of the Prophet, he is accused of blasphemy. Islamic law prescribes his repentance and execution. The most pronounced case in recent times of this kind of blasphemy was the publication of Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie on which late Imam Khomeini (may God have Mercy on Him) promptly delivered a fatwa of death sentence. This is the Muslim side of the ongoing row.

On the other side, the Danish journalist who drew the twelve infamous cartoons does not believe in Islam; neither does he live under its political domain. His basis for the publication is founded on freedom of expression – a concept, a right and a practice that is regarded as a hallmark of contemporary West. Under the umbrella of this concept, writers in the West could say anything regarding norms, beliefs and, ideally, anything under the sun, as long as it is not restrained by law. This has put the writer in the difficult position of self-censorship because in many circumstances the line between the allowed and the restrained is blurred by culture and politics.

In the West, freedom of expression has four basic premises: it is held, one, for moral autonomy of individuals; two, for arriving at the truth; three, to further the cause of democracy; and, four, for self fulfilment of the individual. This can be reduced to saying that freedom in the liberal society which the West claims cannot be realised unless individuals are allowed, through open expressions, to discover the truth and make choices of their own in matters of politics and morality.

We must, as Muslims, recognise that freedom of expressions is one of the most sensitive values of West. It justifiably feels strong about it; and it is ready to guard against its infringement in any form, apart from the few areas of restriction that the law has permitted. That is because it is a heritage they earned at a very high cost, after a long period of suffering and domination by the Church. Though even by the 18th Century, the Church as a political establishment in Europe was already defeated by Enlightenment secularism in the arena of science and philosophy, the influence of its ethics on law and society remained dominant well into 19th Century. This is abundantly clear when we read On Liberty of John Stuart Mill which was written in the middle of 19th Century and much of it was an objection to the restriction by the Church of England to freedom of belief and expression. It is of significance to note that Mill’s essay was published in 1859, few years before Frederick Nietzsche boldly announced that “God is dead”!

This is the more reason why Western politicians and writers found it difficult to apologise for the cartoons. Together with the editors of the newspapers that published them, at their best, they could only say they regret that publishing the cartoons has caused so much offence to Muslims. However, they are also unanimous in drawing the attention of Muslims to the fact that freedom of expression is a hallmark of their society. This response is, for example, typified by the Norwegian Foreign Minister in all his response to questions on the issue in the BBC program Have Your Say last Sunday.

Again we think differently here, our Muslims and Christians alike. As a youth from a traditional society, I was shocked in 1986 to watch Jesus the Evidence, a documentary in which doubts were cast about the very existence of Jesus (May the Blessings of God be upon him)! As if this blasphemy was not enough, ‘evidence’ was adduced to portray him, that was assuming that he actually existed, as someone who had an affair, the nature of which I cannot print on this page. Certainly, my Christian brothers in Africa and other societies where traditional values are still practiced will equally find such films intolerable. As I was too, they will also become stunned to know that the main scholar in the documentary, Dr. Sharosh, was a staff of Oxford , an establishment of the British government. That is why the Christian Association of Nigeria was quick to condemn the cartoons. The West, contrarily, has lost its sense of anything sacred.

But, still, I think the West is either economical with the truth in its defence of the cartoons or it is grossly ignorant of its legislations. To hold that blasphemy is not a crime in the West as the author of the cartoons adduced portrays him as a grossly ignorant person. Though the European Charter on Human Rights has protected freedom of expression under Article 9, it has listed restrictions to that freedom. The European Court on Human Rights has treated a number of appeals regarding infringement of this freedom in cases that involve religion. I will present four of them below.

When Gay News published seditious poems of Professor James Kirkup, ascribing homosexual practices to the disciples of Jesus, both the editor and the publisher were convicted of blasphemous libel. This ruling was upheld by the European Court on Human Rights on the grounds that it interfered with the ‘the right of others’ exception to article 10(2) of the European Charter on Human Rights. Commenting on the judgement in her book Civil Liberties and Human Rights, Helen Fenwick (2004) said, “It was found that once it was accepted that the religious feelings of citizens may deserve protection if attacks reach a certain level of savagery, it seemed to follow that the domestic authorities were best placed to determine when that level was reached.”

There was also the case of Otto Preminger Institut v Austria in which an order was given for the seizure of the film Council in Heaven. “The film”, wrote Fenwick, “portrayed God as a senile old man, prostrating himself before the devil. Jesus is portrayed as a mental defective and is shown attempting to kiss and fondle his mother’s breast. God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary agree with the Devil to punish the world; the Devil suggests infecting the world with a sexually transmitted disease; as his reward, he demands freedom of thought.” Subhanallah.

“The Austrian Government,” Fenwick continued, “maintained and the (European) Court accepted, that the seizure and forfeiture were aimed at protecting the ‘rights of others’ within Article 10(2). The Court found that ‘the manner in which religious doctrines are opposed or denied is a matter which may engage the responsibility of the State, notably its responsibility to ensure the peaceful enjoyment of the right under Article 9. The Court found that the responsibilities of those exercising the right under Article 10 include ‘an obligation to avoid as far as possible expressions that are gratuitously offensive to others and thus an infringement of their rights and which therefore do not contribute to any form of debate capable of furthering progress in human affairs’. Therefore, it might be considered necessary to prevent such expressions.”

Then there was also the judgement of the European Court in Wingrove v UK . In that case, the British Broadcasting and Film Corporation (BBFC) refused to certify a film called Visions of Ecstasy. Fenwick again: “The film depicts erotic visions experienced by St Theresa of Avila , a 16th Century Carmelite nun. In short, … she is depicted in a white habit suspended from a cord being erotically embraced by her own psyche, represented by a half-naked woman. That scene is intercut by scenes showing St Theresa, as part of her fantasies, kissing and embracing Christ who is fastened to the cross. She kisses his wounds and sits astride him in manner reflecting intense arousal. The BBFC took the view that if the video had been granted a classification certificate and shown in the UK, a private prosecution for blasphemy might have been brought successfully.”

In this case, the Court found that “the restriction was prescribed by law, taking into account the fact that the BBFC was acting within its powers… that while the margin of appreciation allowed in to States would be narrow in relation to political speech, it would be wide in relation to offending ‘intimate personal convictions within the field of morals or, especially, religion … that the decision of the BBFC that it would outrage and insult the feelings of believing Christians could not be said to be arbitrary or excessive. The national authorities have not overstepped their margin of appreciation: the exception applied and therefore no breach of Art 10 had occurred.”

With this record, we may ask why our European authors and their political establishments find it difficult to apply the same rules when a blasphemy is committed against Islam, why they could not ban the inciting caricatures of Prophet Muhammd, for example. There are two reasons: one is legal. That is to say the courts of European countries that have blasphemy laws are not willing to extend the laws of blasphemy to cover religions other than Christianity. So, even the European Court is reluctant to do so, not withstanding that there are millions of Muslims under its domain.

The above limitation of the law is sufficiently expressed in the United Kingdom, for example, where blasphemy has been a crime since 17th Century and it remains so to date; the only difference is that the offence applies only to the Anglican Church. If sedition is against other religions, it is not regarded blasphemous. That is why the magistrate courts refused to grant summons against Salman Rushdie when he published his blasphemous book, Satanic Verses. When an appeal was made, the Court of Appeal in Chief Metropolitan Magistrate ex p Choudhury, the fourth case in reference, failed to extend the offence of blasphemy to cover other religions. It ruled that ‘the offence of blasphemy was clearly confined to publications offensive to Christians.” Moreover, it reasoned, if an extension of the law is attempted, there would be the need for a precise definition of religion, something that the courts considers impossible to arrive at sufficiently.

The second reason is political. The Western establishment has always viewed Islam, mistakenly I believe, not only as a religion but as an antagonistic civilisation. In the aftermath of the Cold War, it regards Islam a competitor. Partnership in humanity has never been the contemplation of the West. Its main ideology has been imperialism for over two centuries now. This explains why any blasphemy against Islam gains a very wide acceptance and support of all European and American political establishments. The recent condemnations of the cartoons by Bush, Blair and Chirac were clearly superficial: America and Britain are already in a mess, while France is yet to recover from the racial riots that took place in many French cities two months ago. Their condemnation of the cartoons was intended to prevent a repeat of the riots, in the case of France , and worsening the already terribly bad image of America and its allies in the eyes of Muslims. Otherwise, Bush, for example, lacks the moral locus to demand that journalists should behave responsibly because his invasion of Iraq is the most irresponsible and reckless action embarked by an American President since World War II.

In fact, the caricatures and their publications were politically motivated. There is nothing that prevents the author to fight against terrorism using his own trade. The Muslim World would have supported him if he had done so without resorting to insults. If his caricature had depicted Ben Laden, al-Zawahiri, al-Zarqawi or Abu Hamza, for example, few people would have cared to respond and it would have passed unnoticed because, justifiably, these are the actual perpetrators whose terror does not differentiate between Muslims and non-Muslims. But going beyond these figures and capturing the Holy Prophet is clearly intended to insult Muslims and court attention.

Beyond the selfish urge for recognition which the author sought and got, I cannot see how the cartoons have helped the cause of the West against Muslims. I have not heard a single Muslim, not even the most nominal, who supported the publication. For the first time, all Muslims rallied to support one cause: the defence of Muhammad. That is a plus for Bin Laden and his group, and a minus for the West.

Iran is not left behind. While we try to test the limits of freedom of expression by reviewing cases on the matter, Iran followed a shorter route. It run a competition on the holocaust, depicting it as a Jewish fabrication. This move is calculated to spite the West since, from its position of guilt, economy and power, the West is very sensitive to anything it regards anti-Semitic.

However, I beg to disagree with my Iranian brothers on two reasons. One, in any case, we must realise that in a war of insults, Islam will be the loser. As al-Qardawi has repeatedly said, Islam is not against Jews, people to whom it has given sanctuary whenever they were expelled from Europe in the Middle Ages; it is only against Zionism, the political ideology that has deprived Palestinians of their land and right to dignified living.

Two, on the one hand, the West has long lost it sense of things sacred. It does not even spare God, as we have seen in the comments of Nietzsche and Council in Heaven above. To Muslims, on the other hand, we cannot make a caricature of Jesus or Moses; both are Holy Prophets and Messengers of God; we believe in them and pray for their peace, as we do to Muhammad. As for Mary, we regard her as the greatest woman that has ever lived. Not only our cousins, the Jews and Christians, we are not even allowed to insult the idols worshiped by others because, as God said in the Quran, “the idolators will insult God (in return) out of ignorance.”

The best option for us, therefore, is to uphold the Islamic values of respect to the religion of others, along with whatever they regard sacred or that which will touch their deep feeling. If the Gay News and Otto Preminger cases were brought before a Muslim jury, nothing would have prevented their conviction for blasphemy. This is the stand of Islam which will never change. I understand that suppressing the temptation to retaliate in kind requires a strong resolve. But this is exactly what God has prescribed in the Qur’an on this matter when he said: “You shall certainly hear much that will grieve you from those who received The Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if you persevere patiently and guard against evil, then that will be a determining factor in all affairs.”

Here, I completely agree with Prince Hasan bin al-Talal of Jordan, who called for dialogue and for the evolution of an international code that will streamline ethics such that contradictions like these are minimised. If, as in this case, on the one hand, blasphemy against Christianity is regarded an offence by the European Court on Human Rights or by the domestic legislation of countries like Britain and, on the other, it is also regarded an offence throughout the Muslim world against both Islam and Christianity, then we have a common ground for an international legislation that will protect religion and its values against the vilificatory excesses of reckless authors. The excuse that there will be a difficulty in arriving at a sufficiently clear definition of religion is not a valid excuse because we may equally argue that few things are sufficiently clear in law or at the inception of any legislation. Law always starts somewhere; then it is refined over time in accordance with demand.

International legislation on ethics is required also to protect other religions from excesses in the Muslim world. For example the Taliban destroyed an ancient Budhist idol and the international community was handicapped to do anything other than condemnation. The Muslim world did not support the destruction because such actions are against its long standing teachings and practice of tolerance and respect for other religions. In Egypt , Syria , Iraq , India , etc, for example, Islam has for centuries preserved even the idols of past civilisations whose religions have become extinct.

The call for dialogue between Muslims and the West was long made in 1998 by Khatami, the former Iranian President, as an alternative to Huntington’s clash of civilisation. Carried by its sense of victory, the West was less interested in any dialogue. In its place we now have a dialogue of violence: terror attacks, missiles, nuclear weapons and, now, cartoons.

So, both the probability of this civilizational dialogue and the prospect of that legislation on international code of ethics are bleak because from all indications, as Prince Hasan has observed, Muslims and the West are in a cold war which is not cold at all.

15 February 2006

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