Hate Speech or Blasphemy: What’s the Difference?

Sara Ali

The walls surrounding me were adorned with Arabic calligraphy and an image of a beautiful, large mosque beneath a bright blue sky. As a child, I would gaze at these images, admiring the intricacies of the calligraphy, every line and squiggle elegantly limned with shimmering silver paint. “I don’t know how to say it in English, but it talks about loving Allah,” my mother told me.

My mother, an immigrant from Ammam, Jordan, taught herself English by watching soap operas. Due to the language barrier, she had difficulty translating verses from the Qur’an. One thing was certain: you never talked about Allah’s appearance or that of the Prophet Muhammad. I remember wondering why we didn’t have any pictures of Allah in our home. I asked my mother what Allah looked like. She told me no one would ever know, for if you saw him, you would melt. She said not to talk or even think about what Allah looked like, because it was haram (forbidden).

As a nonreligious person, I thought that was pure insanity. Divine beings were never precious creatures to me, because I regarded them as characters in fairy tales. Whenever my parents upset me, I was tempted to draw pictures of Allah and the Prophet running through a field of sunflowers; just two dudes lollygagging in the sun. That would sure piss them off.

Profanity toward religion was my forte. As an angry teenager, growing up in a Muslim household and constantly being reminded that Allah was watching me, I harbored a deep hatred toward religion. For years, I identified as an atheist and would jump at any opportunity to let my mom know God wasn’t real—and that if he was, he was an asshole. Now, as an adult who identifies as agnostic, I have a deeper appreciation for the idea of religion, the stories, and the dedication I see in many religious individuals. I also have an appreciation for one’s right to criticize religion and to depict sacred beings, even if it offends someone.

Still, there’s a question to which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer: Is it ever acceptable to degrade someone’s religion at the expense of his or her dignity? An image depicting the Prophet drooling at the sight of a little blonde child (a disturbing image I encountered on social media) debases Islamic beliefs by suggesting that Muslims “worship a pedophile.” The artist gets a good laugh and publicity; the Muslim is degraded and ostracized. Muslim filmmaker Akram Shibly said those who blaspheme aren’t simply exercising their right to free speech, “they are infringing upon [Muslims’] free exercise of faith by degrading our religion in the public eye and making it more difficult to express our religious values.”

Is blasphemy of this kind more an attack on a person or persons than it is a sacrilegious act? Where do we draw the line between insulting and offending an individual and negatively impacting his or her life? By no means am I suggesting a ban on blasphemy, nor do I justify the heinous crimes committed toward those who have blasphemed. I only ask: Though it is our right to be blasphemous, should we be?

I set out to pose that question of others in the Muslim community.

“Agnostic atheist” Allan Uthman thinks that to avoid offending religious people only detracts from his right to self-expression. “There’s no need for a constitutional amendment to protect speech that isn’t offensive,” he says. “It’s there exactly to protect speech that you find abhorrent. It’s not my obligation to respect your beliefs; not at all.”

In my experience, such “pro-blasphemy” sentiment is widespread. A majority of those I interviewed believe that blasphemy should be protected. Still, some also believe that while blasphemy deserves protection, there is a time and place for such expressions.

Nurse Daniel Fasciano supports the protection of blasphemous speech but also believes that people shouldn’t go out of their way to produce such material. “The problem is religious people tend to take any critique of their religion as blasphemy because every part of it is divinely inspired. So if you enforce laws to control blasphemy, you’re talking about limiting a nonbeliever’s right to criticize religion.”

It’s easy for me as a non-Muslim to remain emotionally detached when discussing blasphemy. Navigating this sort of objectivity as a Muslim might not be as simple. We saw the violent backlash in 2011, when the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo listed the Prophet Muhammad as “Editor-in-Chief” and published a cartoon of him saying “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing.” Horror stories of men being sentenced to death for committing blasphemy in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan perpetuate the narrative that Muslims are intolerant and extreme.

A plethora of such stories exist, which raises the question: What does the Qur’an say about depictions of the Prophet, Allah, and blasphemy?

There is no commandment in the Qur’an that restricts creating images of divine beings. Although the Qur’an does admonish blasphemy, it does not define any sort of punishment for it. However, the Hadith does prohibit images of the Prophet, Allah, and other divine beings: “Ibn ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger (May peace be upon him) having said: Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created” (Sahih Muslim vol. 3, no. 5268; this is confusing to read, but I think it’s a direct quote. )

One can argue that the Qur’an does make mention of images. Chapter 42, verse 11 of the Qur’an does say: “[Allah is] the originator of the heavens and the earth . . . [there is] nothing like a likeness of Him.” This has been interpreted to mean that humans should not produce images of Allah, and any attempt to do so is an insult to the creator.

Muslim convert Julie Algubani not only finds such depictions disgusting and insulting but confusing as well. “Allah is God, neither male nor female. Allah has no gender, yet people assign Allah to have one and depict Allah in a certain way. It doesn’t make sense because no one except for the angels know who Allah is,” she says, adding: “As far as drawing the Prophet, it is disrespectful. We don’t have movies that even show a resemblance of his face out of respect, so anyone that does draw him is intending to be disrespectful and upset our community.”

My father agrees that such depictions are a sin, and those who commit this sin will have to face Allah for punishment. According to my father and his interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith, depictions of these sacred beings may lead to the worship of false idols. He worries that the image, rather than the divine being, will become the object of veneration.

Akram Shibly believes it is a God-given right to blaspheme but says it is important to distinguish between what is a right and what is right.

One should not take that freedom and abuse it to offend and hurt people. Those who purvey slanderous depictions of religious figures deceptively dress their malicious intentions as criticism and exercising free speech. The truth is blasphemy is not necessary to criticize. Depictions of our prophet, Allah, whatever, are done simply to enrage and infuriate Muslims who harbor these beliefs deep in their hearts. It is not civil. It is not honest criticism. It is malicious, and done purely to offend and then point the finger when a riot occurs “look at those barbar
ic Muslims!”

Shibly also says that blasphemy does not excuse violence, and it is crucial that Muslims carry out their responsibility to respond with compassion and wisdom.

Michael Muhammad Knight, author of The Taqwacores, a novel about a fictitious group of Muslim punk rockers, says that Islam has a rich history of blasphemy, citing “a deep tradition of free thought and less-than-pious humor in Muslim history.” He also holds that the Qur’an contains nothing about blasphemy or divine depictions, although many argue otherwise. “Lots of people would say yes, but I don’t deal in telling people what Islam says,” he declares. “I can, however, speak historically and say that throughout Muslim tradition, Muslims have depicted the Prophet in paintings and have done so as Muslims, making devotional Islamic art for Muslim eyes.” Knight believes that free expression should not be punishable or policed. His concern lies more with bigotry than blasphemy. “I don’t want to see blasphemy as a vehicle for racism.”

Are blasphemy and bigotry moral counterparts? Does expressing xenophobic views come in the guise of blasphemy? Blasphemy can appear to be hateful and in the case of the image on the previous page, Islamophobic. Rewinding back to the question: Is being blasphemous an attack on an individual more than it is a sacrilegious act?

As someone who believes it is every individual’s right to blaspheme, I must ask the question: At what point does it become hateful and tasteless? And does that matter? Does one’s right to self-expression and creativity trump another’s right to practice one’s religion peacefully and without harsh repercussions?

In my personal experience, blasphemy was a form of catharsis. My parents never forced Islam on me, but the religion surely impacted my daily life. Constantly being told that Allah was watching and judging me was exhausting. Profane talk about Islam was my escape. Blasphemy was a sort of taboo-breaking release for me, a way of finding humor in a religion my parents held so sacred. If one is brought up Christian or Muslim, a rite of blasphemy is appropriate. Islam wasn’t a good fit for my natural inclinations or spiritual orientation, so blasphemy served a valid purpose. It was my escape.

When I see non-Muslims producing images such as the one on page 25, I interpret that as a hateful tactic to further negative stereotypes against Islam and its followers.

I’m no bleeding-heart, and being offensive can be a healthy way of encouraging people to question their beliefs and feelings, but I find it unproductive to create ostentatious images that elicit no intellectual thought but seem intended simply to shock and offend.

Blasphemy is a right that must be protected, but perhaps it benefits from self-restraint. Blasphemers should ask themselves if their content is likely only to incite hate and intolerance. If so, is creative expression an adequate justification?

Sara Ali

Sara Ali is a freelance journalist who lives and works in Buffalo, New York. Her career includes a stint with Karibu News, which strives to help immigrants and refugees integrate into the new communities

The walls surrounding me were adorned with Arabic calligraphy and an image of a beautiful, large mosque beneath a bright blue sky. As a child, I would gaze at these images, admiring the intricacies of the calligraphy, every line and squiggle elegantly limned with shimmering silver paint.

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