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Special rules for Islam?

Fanaticism will continue if we shield the religion from critical evaluation

Hadi Matar arrives for an arraignment in the Chautauqua County Courthouse in Mayville, N.Y., on Aug. 13. Associated Press/Photo by Gene J. Puskar

Special rules for Islam?
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Back in August, we all witnessed the horrific news of the stabbing of author Salman Rushdie in New York. He is reportedly now recovering but has lost sight in one eye and the use of a hand. Numerous injuries can be traced to three neck wounds and 15 more in his chest and torso. His alleged attacker, Lebanese-American Hadi Matar, 24, was a Shiite Muslim zealot who believed Rushdie deserved death because of his criticism of Islam and Muhammad in his novel Satanic Verses.

Matar was arrested but has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and assault. In an interview, Matar was surprised Rushdie survived the stabbings, and said he disliked Rushdie. He also praised Khomeini, who as Iran’s Shiite leader had issued an Islamic fatwa, placing a bounty on Rushdie’s head.

The attempted murder of Rushdie reminds us of two other infamous incidents. In January 2015, two armed Muslims entered the building of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and killed 17 people, including 11 journalists who had drawn Muhammad in caricatures. Then, in 2020, a Chechen Muslim refugee beheaded a French teacher who showed his students cartoons of Muhammad.

These horrific incidents are merely a sample of many attacks that provide one threatening message: Islam and Muhammad are untouchable. The attacks reflect Islam’s problem with freedom of speech and expression. Any negative assessment of the faith or its founder, the radicals declare, will be met with harsh retaliation.

Islam’s rejection of freedom of expression is not new. The Islamic stance has clear roots in authoritative texts that Muslims deem sacred.

In Muhammad’s biography, we read of a Jewish woman who disparaged him. To defend Muhammad, a Muslim “strangled her till she died.” Instead of condemning the Muslim, Muhammad reportedly “declared that no recompense was payable for her blood.” The story seems to exhort Muslims to defend Muhammad at all costs, highlighting how he neither forgave her nor condemned her killer.

Such stories are at the heart of every attack against free thinkers and creative writers who critically assess Islam, its claims, or its prophet. There are other similar stories in sacred Muslim texts—all become prescriptive for Muslim zealots who serve as defenders of Muhammad against criticisms, believing they are pleasing Allah by defending his prophet.

These attacks were aimed at stopping the circulation of a story deemed offensive to Muhammad, although it already exists in trusted Muslim sources.

The problem is even worse if you consider the rage of many Muslims against Rushdie’s novel. He offended Muslim sensibilities by retelling a story clearly found in numerous Muslim authoritative sources, revealing that Muhammad was deceived by Satan and uttered words praising a pagan goddess, not Allah. According to Muslim tradition, these satanic words became verses in the Quran for a while until Allah erased them. The angel Gabriel reportedly then rebuked Muhammad. Retelling the story not only made Rushdie a target, but lumped with him many other thinkers who dared to publish and translate the story into other languages.

Consider these crimes: The Japanese translator of the novel, an esteemed academic, was stabbed to death in 1991. Its Norwegian publisher was shot several times in 1993 but survived. The Italian translator was stabbed several times but also survived. In an attempt to kill its Turkish translator, an angry Muslim mob set a hotel ablaze in Turkey, killing 35 people, while the translator fled by a fire department ladder.

All these attacks were aimed at stopping the circulation of a story deemed offensive to Muhammad, although it already exists in trusted Muslim sources. These incidents highlight not only Islam’s problem with freedom of speech, but also the role anger and retaliation play to intimidate those who dare to think critically about Islam and its prophet.

Muslims, claiming a supreme right not to be offended, are driven by an honor code that non-Muslims find difficult to understand. Sadly, the Islamic honor code can turn deadly.

But there is yet a deeper problem related to Islam and free speech. Not only do we have the predicament of radical retaliation and violence, but we also witness a diligent attempt of many so-called liberal thinkers who try to shield Islam against criticism. They are clearly unwilling to allow any critical evaluation of Islam, labeling anyone who entertains the idea as bigot, Islamophobic, or racist.

But fanatical religious behavior stems chiefly from radical theological teachings fueled by extremist texts. Peace is not well served by shielding Islam from critical evaluation. Unless we challenge the theological source of radicalism and expose the heart of the problem, violent acts —done under the banner of Islam—will only continue to occur.

The stabbing of Salman Rushdie didn’t prove his ideas to be wrong. It only revealed to the world why so many want him silenced.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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