Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement

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Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, & USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture

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Freedom Of Expression Dr. Fathi Osman

The main goal of God’s message to humankind is the attainment of justice in all of its fairness. This justice, the foundation of Islam, cannot be achieved unless human rights are secured for every individual and group in a Muslim state. The member of such a state must be free to choose just rulers, to observe these rules as they practice their authority, and to stand firm against any injustice from them. Primary among human rights are the rights to believe, to express one’s beliefs and to assemble to defend one’s group’s beliefs.

The rights of expression and information cannot be separated from rights to think and believe. Intellectual and linguistic capabilities characterize human beings, and thus, the right to form and express opinions represents an essential manifestation of human merits and of God’s gifts. The right to express and to be informed should, therefore, be secured by all who are respectful of humanity or grateful to God. Indeed, if one is allowed to think and believe, but not to communicate with others or exchange views, one’s freedom of thought and belief is actually restricted. As the human being is a social creature, genuine intellectual activity in which a thinker considers more than one perspective on an idea and learns the strength and weakness of it debated, cannot be practiced individually or in isolation. Moreover, the basic condition for freedom of expression and information is that it extends to different viewpoints; otherwise, expression is merely an imposition of ideas and exercise in brain-washing.

Many national and international documents which declare human rights acknowledge the fact that freedom of thought and freedom of expression are intertwined. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was issued by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1948 has dealt with both in two successive articles (18, 19).

Freedom of thought and belief is repeatedly emphasized in the Quran:

“There shall be no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256)”And had your Lord so willed, all those who live on earth would have attained to faith - all of them, do you then think that you could compel people to believe?” (10:99)

“Said (Noah): O my people - what do you think? If ( it be true that) I am taking my stand on a clear evidence from my Lord . . . to which you have remained blind, can we force it on you even though it is hateful to you?” (11:28)

“And so (O Prophet) exhort them; your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel” (88:21-22).

As long as freedom of expression and information is maintained, different views should be expressed and respected:

“Call you (all humanity) unto your Lord’s path with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the most kindly (and convincing) manner (16:25).

The Quran repeatedly reports the arguments of atheists and polytheists and replies to them objectively in order to teach Muslims how freedom of expression and information should be maintained to make such a dialogue fruitful. According to Islam, freedom of expression and information is a basic human right. Islam condemns spreading lies and false information as well as passiveness and reluctance when the truth should be spoken:

“And do not overlay the truth with falsehood, and do not knowingly suppress the truth” (2:42).

A believer who is conscious of God should always maintain and defend truth and justice:

“O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth, for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk.... “ (4:135)

“... Be ever steadfast in your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity, and never let hatred lead you into the sins of deviation from justice .... (5:8)

Providing false information about an event which one has witnessed (22:30, 25:4, 72, 58:2), as well as refraining from providing the facts that one knows (2:146, 283, 3:71, 167) are both considered grave sins that should be avoided and prevented by every possible means.

The teachings of the divine message should be revealed to the public and not concealed, even when the message criticizes or condemns an influential party or authority (2:159). It is significant that the Arabic word kafir and its origin kafara mean originally “to conceal, or to hide.” (See the word in a lengthy Arabic dictionary such as Lisan al-Arab; and see the Quranic verses 6:35, 37:14; and 31:32.)

The vice of hypocrisy (nifaq) is not less condemned in the Quran than kufr:

“They (the hypocrites) are the real enemies . . . , how perverted are their minds.” (63:4)

“Behold, together with those who deny the truth, God will gather in hell the hypocrites . . .” (4:140)

“Verily the hypocrites shall be in the lowest depth of hell . . .” (4:145)

Likewise, one who is reluctant to provide the facts is actually concealing the truth and such a person is described as “evil at heart” in the Quran (2:283), and as “a muted devil” in the tradition of the Prophet. Providing the known facts and cooperating constructively so that truth may prevail are fundamental parts of the Islamic obligation of enjoining the doing of what is right and forbidding the doing of what is wrong. (3:110)

One who provides false information or is reluctant to provide the right information becomes a participant in the prevalence of falsehood and evil.

Every believer is a witness and protector of the truth during his/her whole life:

“... so that you may bear witness to the truth before all humanity ....” (2:143)

God Himself is the “Ultimate Truth” according to the Quran (22: 6, 24:25), and it is incumbent upon every believer to support the truth in all forms so that it will always prevail. Muslims are addressed as a community to work together in their efforts for progress. The right of assembly is thus essential to secure correctional efforts against any powerful supporter of deviation from truth and righteousness:

“And the believers, both men and women, are responsible for (or the supporters of) one another; they all enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong” (9:71)

“And that there should arise among you a band of people who invite unto all that is good and enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong” (3:104)

“But help one another in furthering virtue and God-consciousness, and not in furthering evil and enmity.” (5:2)

“And enjoin upon one another the keeping to truth . . . and enjoin upon one another patience (and firmness) in adversity” (103:3)

Freedom of expression and information, constituting both a right and a duty for every believer, should be established and maintained by all Muslims - men and women, rulers and ruled. The Quran orders those who have been entrusted with authority:

“To deliver all that you have been entrusted with unto those who are entitled thereto, and whenever you rule between people to rule with justice” (4:58-59).

The rulers are responsible for securing the doing of what is good and preventing the doing of what is evil. (22:41) Their responsibility is not limited only to allowing the people to express themselves as individuals or groups, but they must develop a sound public opinion by also providing correct information to the people. The authorities cannot maintain their credibility among the people, if they expose only what supports their position while concealing what may arouse criticism of their rule. If individuals can be blamed for not revealing the truth, then rulers must receive greater blame for such an evil: they have been entrusted with authority by the people for the public benefit; moreover, they have the sources of information and the authority and capability to obtain information. How can Muslim rulers discharge their responsibility of forbidding what is wrong unless they themselves provide a model by courageously airing their faults?

“Do you bid other people to be pious, while you forget your own selves, and yet you recited the divine writ; will you not then use your reason?” (2:44)

Rulers may not, by concealing or manipulating information whose sources they may monopolize, use their authority to conceal facts that may hurt them personally or hurt their authority. Their responsibility is to maintain freedom of information, allow its flow and tolerate any individual effort to obtain essential information from governmental sources within reasonable limits of state security, which themselves ought to be delineated by the people. Rulers have the obligation to display all facts and release required evidence about an issue, either at their own initiative or in response to a request even if their interests suffer:

“ . . . if they but refer - any matter pertaining to peace or war - unto the Conveyer of the (divine) Message and unto those from among them who have been entrusted with authority , such of those who are engaged in investigating the matter would indeed know it (directly and properly).” (4:83)

According to Islamic teachings, the Muslim people may not be passive subjects, and the Muslim rulers do not enjoy absolute powers. To use political terminology, Islam establishes an institutional and constitutional authority, not a personalized one.

This set of restrictions on Muslim rulers is similar to which Rousseau has elaborated on: In any society past the primitive level, the ruler’s authority and the citizen’s rights and liberties may not conflict with each other. The citizens’ rights are opposed by the ruler’s authority only in a society which is deprived as a whole of participation in the practice of political power; in such a society only the rulers enjoy absolute authority.

The Islamic state is an institutional and constitutional one because the divine law, sharia, defines the rights and obligations of the ruled and the rulers. The Islamic rulership by the contract of the Caliphate or the imamate is a legal and historical fact. The Quran stresses that absolute sovereignty and authority belong only to God, and that anyone who is entrusted with authority from among the believers by them should be obeyed as long as such a person maintains divine justice and public consent. The Muslim people are not always expected to be obedient, as cases of variance and even clashes of views between rulers and ruled are possible. According to the Quran and sunnah, such differences should not be settled by suppression, but through a constitutional political and judicial process. (3:159)

The rulers should not use their authority to conceal facts from public control or from judicial inquiry. Such a principle is reminiscent of the classical legal principle of habeas corpus, regarded as “the great writ of liberty” when it was formalized in the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 in England.

Under this law, any authority who detains any person for any reason is forced to bring the detained person to a judge, to explain what has led to the detention, and to report procedures followed in affecting the detention. The judge, in addition to deciding what allegations are to be brought against the person being detained, must also ascertain that any harm which has befallen him/her - including death - has not been caused by the delivery authority.

No abuse of power on the side of the authorities should be tolerated, and all relevant evidence should be introduced. The responsibility of the authorities to provide relevant documents in general with certain specified and conditional exceptions has also been stated recently by certain legislations in the United States, Canada and a few other countries (see for example James Michael, The Politics of Secrecy).

Such a guarantee of freedom of information is required in principle by Islam and should be formulated in detail and sanctioned. Facts must be displayed by anyone who holds them, and Islamic authorities have greater responsibility than ordinary individuals in this respect, “to bear witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against their own selves.”

At the same time, Islam cannot ignore a reality accepted by contemporary legislation, namely, that in some cases freedom of expression and information may be restricted temporarily or partially to maintain other human rights or public interests. Privacy and justifiable security requirements, especially in time of war, have to be considered. According to Islamic legal principles, a line should be drawn, in practicing the right of expressing one’s views, between criticizing an ordinary man and criticizing one who occupies a public office, especially a high office. Freedom of expression has a broader range, in the latter case than in the former, especially with regard to public activities and to behavior in personal life that may affect the practice of public authority. The ethical values and legal principles of Islam which secure privacy and forbid spying or any violation of personal rights should be observed. A groundless allegation cannot be tolerated:

“ . . . if any iniquitous person comes to you with a tale, use your discernment lest you hurt people unwittingly, and afterward be filled with remorse for what you have done.” (100:6)

In sharî’ah, calumniation, libel and slander or any other offense of that kind are forbidden and punishable. However, the right of self-defense may justify some permissiveness in this respect:

“God does not like any evil to be mentioned openly, unless it be by him/her who has been wronged . . .” (4:149)

“yet indeed as for any who defend themselves after having been wronged - no blame whatever attaches to them; blame attaches but to those who oppress (other) people and behave outrageously on earth, offending against all right . . . but withal, if one is patient in adversity and forgives - this is indeed something to set one’s heart upon.” (42:41-43)

In any expression of thoughts or feelings by words, drawings, music, performance or otherwise, one should observe the values of Islam and present them. A speech, writing, work of art or any other human expression cannot by any means persuade a deviation from Islamic values or a perpetration of what is prohibited. Any discussion which may arise about the beliefs and the laws of Islam should observe objectivity and avoid illegitimate offense, agitation and provocation. Arguing with non- believers, as the Quran cautions against, would necessarily draw them to defend their beliefs which are rejected by Islam or to give their opinions about what they are invited to follow.

Maintaining the human rights of expression and wisdom in presentation and argument are essential for such a dialogue which must be conducted on both sides within methodological and ethical guidelines in order to make it fruitful. Those who are born Muslims should not be deprived of the right to a similar discussion of their faith within the same lines.

Rights of expression and information should be protected by all authorities: legislative, executive and judiciary, internal and universal. A specific Islamic court for human rights should be established in every Muslim country and on a global level; the special court of the glorious historical precedent which was concerned specifically with cases of injustice committed by any of those who occupied public positions or were politically or socially influential should be revived. Disputes with the rulers should be settled according to the superior legal sources: the Quran and sunnah (4:59). Any violation of human rights from rulers or from any group of the ruled (baghy) should be stopped (49:9). Islamic judicial protection of human rights must be more comprehensive and effective than what may be known in the contemporary world. It must show concern for any moral harm that is caused by the authorities to individuals, groups or the whole society, as well as for material transgression:

“... and who can be a better lawgiver than God?” (5:50)



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