Thousands of people have been calling for a boycott of France in response to the remarks by Emmanuel Macron-French President due to recent Paris Attacks. The sheer magnitude of the protests asks for a case study in cognitive dissonance. Nobody can deny that the sentiments of millions of Muslims are hurt when the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is insulted, and this constitutes a valid ground for limiting freedom of speech.
If we accept this line of reasoning and take it to its logical conclusion: People’s sentiments shouldn’t be hurt, right? What about the following:
“And we’ve cast among [the Jews] animosity and hatred until the Day of Resurrection… they strive throughout the land causing corruption” (Quran 5:64)
If you’re a Jew, won’t your sentiments be hurt by this? What if you demanded the Quran be banned because it insults Jews? What about the hadiths that talk about killing gays in an ideal Islamic state? Or those that mandate murder of ex-Muslims in a similar setting. Isn’t it far worse than mocking them? What if Jews, gays or ex-Muslims around the world start demanding a ban on the teaching of Islamic scriptures because their sentiments are hurt?
You understand the problem now? The rationale for allowing the recitation of the Quran and the teaching of hadiths is that they’re protected under freedom of speech. Nobody can come and demand that these books be banned because they promote hate and murder of various communities in idealized conditions. Shouldn’t the same courtesy be extended to others? After all, the cartoonists aren’t calling for the murder of a particular people, unlike the scriptures quoted above.
But here’s the thing. As soon as you read this, your mind desperately wants to find excuses as to how all this doesn’t fit your particular case. You scramble to find ways to project insult of the Prophet as a completely different category of hurt. And you’ll succeed, of course. It’s not very difficult to come up with arbitrary categories supported by post-hoc justifications. But know that it’s special pleading. You want to insulate the Prophet from insult, and instead of thinking of a genuine principle that protects everyone’s sentiments, you’re coming up with principles that protects your particular notion of hurt, while allowing you to teach and recite books that hurt (let’s say) gays and other communities.
The whole thing isn’t really about the Prophet; he isn’t with us anymore. It’s the sentiments of his followers that’s the real issue, and it’s these sentiments that protection is being demanded for. Imagine if disbelievers started demanding protections for their sentiments.
Let’s talk more about the oft-cited Quranic verse that urges Muslims to refrain from insulting gods worshipped by other people. Not long after the above verse was revealed, God commanded the Prophet to annihilate all pagan temples in Arabia, and raze their idols to the ground. All of this just shows how our unexamined intuitions of what constitutes hurt are so tied to the culture we grew up in. We are perfectly okay with extremely hurtful acts or speech, as long as those that are hurt have been successfully demonized in our minds.
The famous incident of Abraham is narrated in the Quran where he smashes all idols and then put the axe around the largest one’s neck. When questioned by his townspeople, he pointed to the one remaining idol, and said, “Well, why don’t you ask him?” We all laughed at this in childhood. Here was the great Abraham, teaching stupid pagans how idiotic it was to worship idols who could neither speak not protect themselves. Never did we pause to think how hurtful it is for anyone to see his gods desecrated like that. We revelled in the triumph of “right” over “wrong”, without sparing a thought about the pagans whose beloved gods were being so violated and defiled.
The argument can go on endlessly. The world populace especially Muslims must introspect if “their” definition of insult is in consonance with the “others”. We live in a pluralistic society governed by various laws. Any reaction to a situation must be looked through the lens of laws & customs of the land.