Islamic Extremism and Freedom of SpeechMurder of Theo Van Gogh, November 2, 2004 | Charlie Hebdo Attack, January 7, 2015 | Curtis Culwell Center Attack, May 3, 2015

Resources » Islamic Extremism and Freedom of Speech



The principle of freedom of speech has come into intense and sometimes violent conflict with radical Islam in parts of the world, which considers blasphemy against its religion and its prophet Mohammed a punishable offense. While this can have profound implications for international relations and national security, it also poses a danger for individuals who offend Islam. When Salmon Rushdie published his novel The Satanic Verses in 1988, the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini issued a “fatwa,” an Islamic legal opinion, calling for Rushdie’s death for blasphemy. Rushdie was forced to live in hiding and under police protection for years afterwards, and several other people involved in the book’s publication were shot and stabbed. In 2004, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was shot to death for his short film Submission about the mistreatment of women in certain Islamic societies. In 2011, Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine that had published controversial cartoons depicting Mohammed, was firebombed after it published an issue with Mohammed on the cover. In 2015, two Islamist gunmen forced their way into the magazines’s headquarters, killed twelve of their staff, and wounded eleven. Four months later, gunmen attacked the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, when it exhibited art depicting Mohammed and hosted a contest for Mohammed cartoons.




Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses. London: Viking Press, 1988.

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Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Rushdie Fatwa, 1989

‘The author of the ‘Satanic Verses’ book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death,” said Ayatollah Khomeini, whose word is considered law by millions of Shiite Muslims. ”If someone knows them but is unable to kill them, he should hand them over to the people for punishment.”

From the New York Times.



Salman Rushdie. “The Disappeared: How the Fatwa Changed a Writer’s Life.” The New Yorker, September 17, 2012.

In this article Rushdie chronicles the aftermath of the fatwa against him and his life in fear of Islamic extremists.

Read it at the New Yorker.



Theo Van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Submission. 2004.



Charlie Hebdo

Visit the magazine’s website.



The Koran and Ahadith

The violent acts of Muslim extremists continually raise the question of what the true Islamic understanding of blasphemy is. Are violent punishments for blasphemy justified by the teaching of Muhammed? Is there room for toleration of blasphemy in Muslim law? Answers to these questions must take their bearings first of all from the Koran—the Muslim bible—and secondly from the ahadith—the various collections of “reports” about Muhammed and his sayings.

Line-by-line English Translation of the Koran at

Collection of Translated Ahadith at




Marzouki, Nadia. Islam: An American Religion. Translated by C. John Delogu. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

Discusses several aspects of religious tolerance and freedom of speech in the Islamic context.

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Find it on JSTOR (restricted access).

Asad, Talal. “Free Speech, Blasphemy, and Secular Criticism.” In Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

Discusses the tension between freedom of speech and traditions of blasphemy in the context of the 2006 Danish cartoons controversy.

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Find it on JSTOR (restricted access).

Lewis, Bernard. “Islam and Liberal Democracy.” The Atlantic, February 1993.

“Is Islam by its very nature antithetical to the development of democratic institutions? A distinguished historian contemplates this difficult question, one whose answer is fraught with consequence for several troubled regions of the world.”

Read it at the Atlantic.

Totten, Michael J. “Radical Islam’s Global Reaction: The Push for Blasphemy Laws.” World Affairs 175, No. 5 (2013): 25-31.

Read it at World Affairs.

Find it on JSTOR (free access).

Bollinger, Lee C. “Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age.” Foreign Policy 197 (2012): 52-53.

“Across the world, the battle for free speech is pitting governments and corporations against activists and average citizens.”

Read it at Foreign Policy.

Find it on JSTOR (free access).

Lagon, Mark P. and Ryan Kaminski. “Clash of Elites: What Lies Behind the Defamation Debates.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 14, No. 1 (2013): 93-100.

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Norton, Anne. “Freedom of Speech.” In On the Muslim Question. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

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Read it on JSTOR (free access).

Kolig, Erich, Ed. Freedom of Speech and Islam. London: Ashgate Publishing, 2014.

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Hashim Kamali, Mohammad. Freedom of Expression in Islam. Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1997.

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Mondal, Anshuman A. Islam and Controversy: The Politics of Free Speech After Rushdie. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

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“Charlie Hebdo and the Freedom of Speech.” We the People, National Constitution Center Podcast

South Park, Season 10, Episode 3: Cartoon Wars I

In this episode of South Park, the town of South Park begins to panic over threats by foreign Muslim leaders to retaliate after the cartoon Family Guy decides to air an episode depicting Muhammed. The clip below mocks what it presents as typical Western responses to such threats. The full episode and its sequel can be found at Hulu.