Islam and Religious Criticism

A Question of Decency and Tact

Muhammad Kalisch, Professor for Islamic Studies at the University of Münster, Germany, sharply criticises that Islam in Western media is often portrayed as "the enemy", but argues that there must be absolute freedom of speech

Protestors in Berlin (photo: AP)
Criticism of Islam is, according to Kalisch, legitimate. Yet, "The problem is that we Muslims are often viewed as nothing more than a uniform mass to which negative characteristics are attributed wholesale and without exception", he adds

​​Those who know that Muslims find the depiction of the Prophet particularly offensive, but are critical of Islam and would like to discuss this criticism with Muslims in an honest dialogue should ask themselves whether there are not other ways of expressing their criticism; ways which do not dilute or obscure their criticism in any way, but ways which are less offensive to the other party. It is a question of decency and tact.

Nevertheless, it is important to emphasise that conflicts that could arise from such a discussion cannot and should not be resolved in a criminal court. In the conflict between the freedom of speech and academic freedom on the one hand and religion on the other, there must be absolute freedom of speech and academic freedom, even if these freedoms offend religious sensitivities. Any attempt to impose restrictions in this regard is not compatible with the system of fundamental rights and history shows that no good can possibly come of such restrictions.

Nevertheless, there are limits. However, these limits relate not to people's religious denomination, but to their personal dignity. If the followers of a particular religion – whether they be Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Baha'is or whatever – are depicted in caricatures or other forms of expression in such a way that they are made to look like a mere conglomerate and are all tarred with the same brush of negatively charged properties such as falsehood, deceit, or even a desire to murder without any attempt at individual distinction, then there can be no doubt that their human dignity has been offended and that the depiction in question sought to stir up hatred.

Muslims or Christians must accept the fact that people may describe their religions as blood-thirsty, quaint, or anti-democratic, even if this description is complete and utter nonsense.

Free and entirely open discussion on Islam

If this was not the case, judges would be required to pass judgements on the nature of Islam or Christianity and free academic research could be censored at any time on the grounds that it was portraying religion incorrectly. Conversely, it cannot be that a person automatically falls under general suspicion and is described in criminal terms simply because they are a member of a certain religious community.

In such cases, the state must indeed take decisive action!

The discussion about Islam – or about any other religion for that matter – can only be conducted as a free and entirely open discussion in which the only thing that counts are the arguments that back up the assertions made by both sides. In discussions such as this, groundless assertions are quickly exposed as such. Freedom of speech and academic freedom will ensure that agitators and demagogues do not win the day.

Muhammad Kalisch (photo: Larissa Bender)
Muhammad Kalisch: "With their policies, conservative parties are making it unmistakeably clear that they support the fact that religions are not all treated in the same way"

​​Much nonsense is written about Islam and there are many incredibly one-sided portrayals. There are, however, also very defensive portrayals that are capable of making distinctions. I am firmly convinced that in a society that consistently guarantees the freedom of speech and academic freedom, a balanced image of religion will emerge in a public debate in the long-run and portrayals that are completely one-sided and intentionally distortional will always meet with harsh criticism.

There are undoubtedly portrayals of Islam in which the authors intentionally select facts in a one-sided manner and distort certain aspects with a view to stirring up hatred. But there are also portrayals of Islam that do not seek to stir up hatred or distort facts, but that nevertheless present and evaluate facts in a manner that is offensive to a Muslim.

However, there can never be a reliable differentiation between these two cases in a court of law. Consequently, if we are to preserve the freedom of speech and academic freedom, we must accept that these freedoms can be abused. Followers of every religion just have to be willing to hear severe criticism of their own religion.

Protecting the dignity of individuals or groups

However, criminal law must be used to protect the dignity of individuals or groups and these groups or individuals may not be portrayed as criminals or liars simply because they belong to a certain religious community. One may describe Islam as a religion of terror and violence, which it is not. However, such a groundless assertion must be accepted for the aforementioned reasons as part of the freedom of speech.

We must assume that a specific person or group of people is behaving legally until such time as a violation of the law is proven in a court of justice using the rule of law. This is a pillar of democracy, states governed by the rule of law, human rights, and pluralism.

If we uphold this principle, then those who really believe that all Muslims, Jews, or Atheists are criminals can no longer enjoy the protection of the freedom of speech because they do not accept the foundation on which freedom of speech is built, namely the dignity of humans and the view that guilt can only ever be individual and never collective, which is why it is nonsensical to dismiss entire groups as immoral and accuse them of illegal behaviour.

The image of human beings on which democracy and the freedom of speech are built does not assume that any individual or group of humans has per se evil intentions or does evil deeds, and considers the notion that members of a specific ethnic group or religion are fundamentally evil to be irrational.

Muslims are being presented as the enemy

And this, in my opinion, is the crux of the problem. This is no longer about the criticism of Islam. As I have already explained, such criticism of Islam is, of course, legitimate. The problem is that we Muslims are often viewed as nothing more than a uniform mass to which negative characteristics are attributed wholesale and without exception. Islam and we Muslims are being presented as the enemy, oftentimes using the tools of agitation.

Distinctions are no longer being made. A small group of violent terrorists is associated with an entire religious community. We are always expected to distance ourselves from terrorism and violence, which would appear to imply that we in general support such activities.

A general suspicion of Muslims is developing – unfortunately with the support of politicians in this country, as the "Muslim Test" in the state of Baden-Württemberg shows. In my opinion, the debate about headscarves is ridiculous because it in practice leads to the exclusion of emancipated Muslim women from the labour market.

With their policies, conservative parties are making it unmistakeably clear that they support the fact that religions are not all treated in the same way, a situation that, in my opinion, cannot be of lasting duration in terms of the constitution. In spite of this fact, there has been much talk recently about the Jewish/Christian foundations of the Occident.

Interestingly, with the exception of the Palestine conflict, which is a political conflict, Muslims and Jews get on very well. This is why it is incomprehensible that people claim that Christians get on well with Jews, but not with us Muslims, even though the Jews and Muslims are theologically more closely related that the Jews and the Christians – a fact illustrated by every religious trialogue.

Muhammad Kalisch

© Muhammad Kalisch/Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

This text is an excerpt from the original version, published by Muhammad Kalisch in reaction to the Mohammed cartoon crisis. You read the complete version of the text here, on the website of the Center for Religious Studies of the University of Münster, Germany. (in German only)

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