Today 12 people were murdered, including four cartoonists, in Paris in an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Muslim scholar Nasr Abu Zayd (1943-2010) experienced persecution in Egypt when he tried to exercise intellectual freedom. In a 2009 interview conducted by James Le Sueur, Abu Zayd talked of the importance of not being terrorized by those who use aggression to oppose other viewpoints to the point that people “give away any kind of academic integrity.”
In the interview he also discussed the problem of some Muslims responding to art, cartoons included, with violence today. Starting at 1:50:17 he comments on the Salman Rushdie case and similar situations today.
Abu Zayd saw the core of the problem as the “fragility” of religious discourse among Muslims. This, he argued, is what must change. He said, “The religious discourse in the Muslim world are [sic] so fragile that a nothing would present a threat to an entire civilization called the Islamic civilization.”
Abu Zayd rejected this fragility. He instead saw challenge and thoughtful response to challenge as integral to healthy, robust, rich engagement by people of faith with their own religion. When facing differing, even opposing, views in arts and cartoons, Abu Zayd wanted to see fellow Muslims,
respond in a civil, rational way to any kind of challenge. Muslims should take this as a challenge, not a threat. [When] it is a threat, you immediately, you know, make retaliation. But in case of a challenge, you have to think about what was said. Criticism of religion, criticism of religious figures, is something that is very important to the development of religious ideas themselves, and the history of every religion is the history of…going beyond the challenge of the dogma, and only when the dogma is challenged, only after being challenged it is able to reconstruct itself. Otherwise it would be frozen. This is the history of the development of all religions.
Similarly the former Prime Minister of Indonesia Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009) rejected the idea that God is so weak, so fragile, that God would need human defense against blasphemy. He too did not fear challenge. In his essay, “God Needs No Defense,” he argued, “Defending freedom of expression is by no means synonymous with personally countenancing or encouraging disrespect towards others’ religious beliefs, but it does imply greater faith in the judgment of God, than of man.” (And by the way “God Needs No Defense” is available in Arabic too.)
Press releases today denouncing this terrorist attack in Paris will not suffice. Active rejection of fragility and embrace of challenge are needed.