I greet you as someone who was once involved in your faith. I studied it adamantly for many years of my life, under as many Islamic scholars as my city had to offer. My parents, in an attempt at conveying a sense of morality and meaning, believed that drowning me in faith would force me to swallow some watered down version of religion. Parents continue to force religion on their children – often not in an attempt at maliciousness but in an attempt at cosmic protection, in an attempt of sublimating metaphysical casuistry, some certainty that the child’s ‘soul’ will be safe. Parents’ duties often are about protecting their child. To those terrified of a godless life – which probably rests more in the fear of life being meaningless rather than the soul condemned to hellfire – dunking children’s heads in water, whispering Arabic phrases in their ear, and severing parts of their genitalia could be equivocated to strapping on their seatbelt or holding their hand across the road.
You might think I am mocking your beliefs but I do not doubt a parent’s sincerity in protecting his or her child. It is no fault that our society views the so-called ‘great questions’ – what is my purpose? Who am I? How am I to live? What is good? – as falling strictly within the domain of the religious, when it should be for all and any who care to participate, using rational arguments and an open approach to dialogue. I received engagement with these ideas only after my secular schooling day ended, as the sun passed into dusk, with the haunting melodies of the imams as their long shadows stretched before me in the afternoon sun. I learnt about my life’s meaning in the words of the Prophet; I learnt about right and wrong from what Allah said to the Prophet through the angel Gibreel (Gabriel to the Christians); I was moved to tears by the beauty of the Prophet’s visions and his attempt at making the world a better place.
But I no longer see Islam that way. I see only flaws in answering any moral questions with religion. Many continue to talk about how beautiful Islam is or, more insultingly, that Islam is about peace. From my first days of Islamic scholarship, its history whispers its blood-trail as often as it does its conquest. Muslims will tell you with pride that Islam grew at an unprecedented rate, as great armies fell to the Muslims. But, like a boxer, they quickly switch feet and eloquently reprise the history of Islam’s peaceful blooming. Islam is premised on war, on conquering. The world is bifurcated between the lands of Islam and lands yet to be conquered. And, now, in these places the Muslims would consider yet to be conquered, the inhabitants have begun expressing their opinions about the Prophet, using monochromatic exclamations marks of deliberate offense.
You, my Muslim friends, see this as those of us who ‘worship manmade’ world-views tracing deep borders. You see us, like ballerinas with one foot deep in the sand, encircling you. You see us as we separate ourselves and you, as we give in to the war-mongering of ‘us and them’. You imagine that this border creation is exactly what to expect from us lovers of ‘freedom’ above ‘god’s laws’, idolisers of manmade values over ‘god’s word’, fornicators, masturbators, child molesters, Satanists, feminists, womanisers, prostitutes, homosexuals. I have been called some of these terms by Muslims before – many of them blatantly not true (homosexual, Satanist, child molester, etc.) and some which I am not ashamed though would not call myself (feminist, womaniser, fornicator, etc.).
To think that those cartoonists who depict caricatures of Muhammad, that writers who depict their version of the Prophet’s early life, are doing so to deliberately incite violence is to miss the point. Many of these people – some are my colleagues – are beyond bullying, beyond name-calling. Most of them are against violence of any kind, instead trying for peace in a world that rejects it. Some of us, like myself, have given up fighting for peace or a good world, realising that this will never happen; instead opting for amelioration over utopianism. Why even attempt this letter? For two reasons: firstly, if it can help push one person over the precipice of dogma into reason, then my job would be complete. Secondly, it serves to raise consciousness for this very important matter concerning a free, open world, in which we are able engage with our most important ability: freedom of expression. Freedom of expression, not violence, not bullying, not ‘incitement of religious hatred’ (what a horrific, arrogant notion) – but the ability to express our thoughts and minds without being killed for it.
We fight battles of every kind – individual and societal, subjective and global, familial and governmental. In order to bring light to those areas canvassed by the shadow of oppression, we must and can only use our free expression, our opinion and our passion. This ability has helped not millions but billions of people; since freedom of expression is the cornerstone of science, our longer and healthier lives are a result of it. And how many lives have changed, because enough expressed their dissent at being marginalised as a result of their sex, sexual orientation and ethnicity? And not just biological well-being but philosophical, too: how do we view the world, what are our opinions on the good life? The conversation of humanity is temporal as well as spatial, as we reach back in time to Plato for answers just as we would like to reach across the veils to our Muslim sisters. You are human. The circle you imagine we draw is not to separate you but to include you; as we come to realise the shortness and horror of life, the vivid transience that occurs with a subtle reflection on what it means to be human, we all wonder what can be done to at least make this little life better for all. The circle is an attempt at enclosing all of humanity in a single conversation, using free expression, without threats of violence. In a pluralised, adult world, there will be things we do not want to hear. But that is the cost of being in the adult circle, the adult world.
The conversation of humanity is also a tapestry, filled with vivid colours from multiple minds. You are part of that tapestry. By drawing your Prophet we confirm that you are grown up enough to realise you live with other fallible humans. Sure, we might be wrong. But by virtue of being human, this is the chance we take and why we must be allowed to offend. There is always the chance that what you hold to be sacred will in fact come to be considered absurd. Humanity is known as much for its brilliant ideas as for its very stupid ones, and both have probably been held with equally strong convictions. But by not being able to express our opinions on them – whether right or wrong – we will not discover our faults, our failures and our inconsistencies; we might all burn (especially people like me, who should be hunted and murdered according to your hadith, which also is mainly where the directives to oppose blasphemous depictions come from). But right now we are all struggling. We want you to laugh with us at the absurdity of stupid drawings, we want you to draw our leading thinkers with giant noses and turban-bombs. We want you to tell us about your secretive lives, your thoughts, your beliefs. I am interested as I am interested in this species as a whole. I do not have to like you – I do not like most people – and you do not have to like me. But liking does not preclude tolerance. We tolerate many things. And toleration leads to information as we glean much from the things we encounter every day.
Many Muslims say it is insulting and offensive to draw Muhammad. What point does it serve? As I have said, if we cannot express ourselves – within limits – we have nothing to show for freedom. Freedom is not licence; but your offense and hurt feelings are no reasons to limit the expression. This ability is not restricted to us: it involves your participation too. Freedom is not freedom if it is only the hands of one group; it is not freedom if it is not being defended; it is not freedom if it is not being displayed. People might get hurt, innocents might suffer because some cartoonists wanted to have a laugh. But many would risk their lives for freedom rather than sit as silent robots tuned to the dictates of religious bullying.
A cartoonist should not have to apologise because Muslims are not grown up enough to be insulted. Everyone deserves to be insulted. Muslims are not special, they do not deserve kid-gloves. More insulting to Muslims are those who believe they cannot act as adults and ignore books and cartoons that insult their Prophet, or laugh it off as heathen ignorance. And those who deeply insult you are yourselves, as you abdicate your moral resolve to stupid councils and ignorant imams, whose talk is bloodthirsty and pumped for fighting. Who are these fools who tell you what to eat and take offense with? Decide for yourselves, you are adults and you should be proud of your rational abilities.
Remember, above all else, you are not special. If you mess up, if you believe silly things, if you create theological mazes which justify violence, the oppression of women but also somehow world-peace – if you do these things, don’t expect us to nod and smile and pat your heads. Others might treat you like children, passing you the candy-cane of patronising indulgence, but I will not. Your religion is not special, your beliefs are silly to me, but you are human. I am not perfect, I am not special. Scorn me with words, draw pictures of my giant nose. I have not raised a weapon to you, save my words. I only ask one thing: can you be adult enough to do the same?