On June 2, the three-month respite in domestic terrorism ended with a spectecular terrorist act in the heart of Islamabad: Scores of innocent people, all Pakistani nationals, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, were killed in an earth-shaking car bomb attack outside the Danish embassy located in the capital’s post and resonably secure F-6 residential sector.
Pakistani state investigations into the terrorist incident are still going on. No one has yet claimed responsibility. Still circumstancial evidence, including a series of threats the embassy had received in the past few months after the blasphemous drawings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) re-appeared in Danish newspapers earlier this year, suggests the incident may have been an act of revenge by religious extremists for re-printing the blasphemous drawings.
Did it happen because of a security lapse? There is no doubt. The very fact that some Western embassies have not yet shifted to the secure Diplomatic Enclave and are still located in the capital’s residential sectors makes it impossible for the police and other security agencies to harden possible Western diplomatic targets of terrorism.
Was It Expected?
Was such an incident expected? The answer is partly no, because terrorist incidents in the country had stopped since the coming to power in March of a democratic government, which has preferred to negotiate peace with the pro-Taliban forces in FATA and Swat regions. The answer is partly yes, because despite such dialogue or deal with the militants, the Taliban problem remains largely unresolved in the wake of lingering political turmoil.
However, insofar as the Danish embassy-specific terrorist act is concerned, there was indeed a greater likelihood of its occurrence, if one takes into consideration a series of protests carried out by religious parties across the country preceding the June 2 bombing and successive threats the Danish embassy had received from the militants during the period.
The attack might have been prevented, had the embassy followed its Dutch counterpart to relocate its operations to a safer place. The controversy over the blasphemous drawings began with their debut publication by a Danish newspaper in September 2005. Enraged by the event, Muslims across the world reacted fiercely, attacking Danish and Western targets, especially in the Middle East. The violence claimed the lives of a number of innocent people, mostly fellow Muslims.
The regime in Pakistan was quick to take appropriate security measures, cordoning off the area around the Danish embassy, which was formally closed in February 2006. However, as the storm over the blasphemous publication in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world subsided after few months, the embassy reopened.
In May this year, the Netherlands embassy was relocated from the same residential area where Danish embassy is located to Serena Hotel, after it received similar threats from religious extremists, in response to a film, Fitna, made by Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, which was released on Internet in March. The film intersperses images of the September 11, 2001 attacks and other bombings by religious extremists with quotations from the holy Quran. It urges Muslims to tear out “hate-filled” verses from the holy Quran and starts and finishes with a blasphemous drawing of the holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) with a bomb under his turban, originally published in Danish newspapers, accompanied by the sound of ticking.
Just as the original publication of the blasphemous drawings of the holy prophet, which were consequently published by over 50 newspapers in Western countries (including Norway, France, Italy, and even New Zealand and Australia) and reprinted by Danish media earlier this year had enraged Muslim masses, the release of Fitna has received widespread Muslim condemnation.
Why Pakistan has become the principal battleground for terrorist activities occurring in the name of Islam is a question, which is not difficult to answer. First of all, there is already a pattern of suicide-laden terrorist attacks, which came to haunt the country especially in the aftermath of the security operation against the Red Mosque in Islamabad. Secondly, as long as the battle continues in Afghanistan, and Pakistan remains a frontline US ally in the War on Terror in the region, al-Qaeda and pro-Taliban forces will continue to pose a domestic security challenge.
If amid this broader security environment, blasphemous issues such as Danish drawings or Dutch movie, keep cropping up to enrage Muslim masses, the religious extremists—be they al-Qaeda, or affiliated with it, Taliban or their home-grown sympathizers—will have a genuine excuse from their perspective to commit terrorism.
Given that, as long as a major reason triggering Muslim rage is not addressed, we can only expect more of such terrorist violence, whose victims are principally going to be fellow Muslims. Terrorism has no place in Islam, and even if it is occurring in response to some blasphemous acts on the part of Danish media or a member of Dutch parliament, it cannot be condoned, religiously or otherwise.
Simultaneously, however, we need to understand that in some parts of the world—in this case, the Muslim world—people are extremely touchy about religious issues. The Western world may have reached a level of modernity where even religion or sacred religious personalities could be criticized or made fun of. However, we cannot preclude the fact that there are still vast regions of the world where people are very conservative and traditional and they can be expected to engage in reactionary violence—however irrational or irreligious it may be—if their holy prophet or the holy scripture is brought in disrepute.
The Muslim Rage
In retrospect, the current Muslim rage—however irrational and militant its orientation may be—can only be prevented by responsible behaviour on the part of a section of European media and governments. Unlike Denmark, the Netherlands and France, European/Western governments and the media—in fact, the broader society—have displayed a responsible outlook on the issue, by consistently calling for balancing the right of freedom of expression with the responsibility that comes along with this freedom, especially with regard to respecting religious values of people of a particular faith, that of Muslims, in the present case.
In the Muslim world as well as the Western world, while the majority of population seeks accommodation with each other, a minority does aspire for promoting antagonism between Western and Muslim civilizations. Most regimes on either side of the civilization divide have been actively pursuing a dialogue between them, the urgency for which has arisen in response to the events of 9/11 and consequent developments.
Seen in this backdrop, the deadly controversy over the re-publication of the inciting drawings in Danish press couldn’t have happened at a worst time. These drawings reportedly depict the holy Prophet (pbuh) wearing a turban clad with bomb. This is an offensive attempt, clearly aimed at linking the most sacred Islamic personality with terrorism; or, to be more specific, to portray Islam and terrorism as one and the same thing.
It has malicious intentions for two reasons. One, it is difficult to imagine that Danish newspaper editors are unaware of the Muslim sensitivity over issues of blasphemy, especially when it comes to the person of the holy Prophet (pbuh). Two, they already know how much violence the original publication of these drawings had generated over two years ago, including the burning down of the Danish embassy building in Damascus.
Freedom of Expression
Freedom of expression is, indeed, a fundamental principle of Western civilization. The European Renaissance was grounded on the separation of the Church from the affairs of the State, and transfer of sovereignty from the God to the people. However, nowhere in the centuries-old evolution of Western democracies, the right to hurt the religious feeling of the people of a faith other than Christianity, or even those belonging to any other Christian denominations than one’s own, was institutionalized as a fundamental human right.
The people obtain rights by surrendering some freedoms to the State. The rights of the people matter as much as their obligations. Hurting the religious feelings of the people of a particular faith is in itself a violation of the right to freedom of expression.
As already argued, it is true that the Western world has advanced to such a level of individualism that, in recent decades, the Holy Christ has been a target of criticism and ridicule in Western media and movies. Since Muslims respect the holy Christ and all other prophets who came before him, such blasphemous attempts emanating from Western literature and cinema have not gone down well in the Muslim world. For the same reason, the Muslims have never attempted to bring the person of the holy Christ in disrepute.
Had Islam come before Christianity, or had both come before Judaism, then we could have faced imagined a tit-for-tat situation between the Muslims and Christians of being blasphemous towards each other’s most sacred religious figures. What is most tragic is the fact that it has largely been a one-sided affair, whereby the Muslims have not—and would not—dare to be critical of the Christ as one of their sacred prophets.
Coming back to the current controversy, needless to say, some Western European governments and media have engaged in a sheer act of irresponsibility. Don’t they know that reactionary Mullahs in the Muslim world—especially those living in the Western world, who are more conscious of their Muslim identity than their counterparts living in the world of Islam—will most certainly make an issue out of the publication and reproduction of such a blasphemous drawings or a highly inciting film such as Fitna, as they have?
Are Danish and Dutch governments and their publics not that much bothered about the consequences of such malicious media attempts, and refusing to take to task those responsible for such acts, because they still by and large uphold racist attitude towards Muslim immigrants?
One is not necessarily trying to depict the entire West European population as Christian or anti-Muslim. It is to highlight the fact that some anti-Muslim circles in Western Europe commit the “original sin,” making their governments and majority population hostage to a climate of confrontation vis-à-vis the Muslim people living in the West and the world of Islam.
It is, however, a good omen that both the Vatican and the upholders of Judea-Christian tradition in North America have consistently condemned the publication or re-publication of the blasphemous drawings. It is pertinent to point out here that in America’s founding as well as the state of Israel, West European racism and religious dogmatism played an important part. Had this not been the case, then the Pilgrims would not have migrated to the New World to build a “city upon a hill,” that took over a century and a half to become the world’s premier power.
In the absence of the Jewish holocaust by Hitler’s Germany, we might have had a different Middle East. Had the Americans not intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo on behalf of NATO, the German-French insensitivity to the Muslim plight could have resulted in a Muslim holocaust in the Balkans.
As for the Muslim world, there have been numerous instances of anti-Semitism, which are condemnable. As far as the present rage among the Muslim people is concerned, it is not without a cause. There could be no two opinions about it. Where one would like to differ is on the reaction of the Muslims and its possible consequences. By reacting violently, they would be falling into the trap of the West European racist forces. This is exactly the kind of reaction that they would like to have from an enraged Muslim people, to prove the point that they maliciously wish to make by publicizing the inciting drawings or film.
Instead of reacting violently to European racism on the asking of the pundits of religious bigotry, the Muslims have a rare opportunity to expose those in the West who want a clash with Islam and to tell the entire world that Muslims are large-hearted enough not to take the matter to its ultimate extreme, even if this has been the case before. However, the urgent requirement for both the Muslim and Western leaderships is not to let their respective divisive forces strengthen their confrontational domains. There are a lot many media, academic and public entities in the West and the Muslim world who preach accommodation, tolerance and harmony among civilizations.
The hope for a better global future rests upon consolidating religiously inclusive trends in the East and the West. The Ayatollahs of Iran over-reacted to the publication of Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdi by issuing a fatwa for his death, and we ended up making the British novelist of Indian origin a peer of contemporary literature.
A terrorist reaction such as the bombing of Danish embassy in Islamabad will help little to resolve the issue. It will, in fact, bring greater harm to Pakistan, in terms of significant reduction in Western engagement in the country’s socio-economic developments. Such incidents obviously defame the religion of Islam, because they are carried out in the name of Islam.
Back in late 2005 and early 2006, after the drawings were initially published, we had seen a violent public reaction in Pakistan, causing the destruction of public property as well as loss of innocent lives. The rioters had gone on a rampage in Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad, setting on fire a number of buildings, including that of the Punjab Assembly, and several dozen automobiles. Passer-bys in cars or on foot were beaten up by violent mobsters, just for no reason.
Respect for Religion
Is this a rational way of protesting against an incident, which has really hurt the religious sensibilities of the people? The cause of protest is real, what does not make sense is the mode of protest. Terrorism is an irreligious and inhuman act, and it can, and should, never constitute a manner of protest, however serious the reason triggering such protest may be.
The issue can only be addressed through a rational debate, which will surely conclude in favour of the Muslims, because the reason, if not the manner, of their protest is completely justified. The Muslims must en masse reject a terrorist response to the issue, which a minority of people among them who have deviated from the path of Islam are engaged in. What is needed in the world of Islam, including Muslim immigrant minorities in the Western world, is a debate over Muslim rights and responsibilities over nasty Western challenges such as the above.
The most important point to highlight in this debate is that freedom of expression should go along with respect for religion. Both of these ideals are equally important. While the former is a right, the latter is an obligation. No right is right until the obligation that comes along with it is also duly fulfilled. A violent Muslim reaction would add to the sufferings of millions of Muslim people settled in Europe. It would help Europe’s anti-Muslim circles justify their linkage of Islam with terrorism and portrayal of Muslims as terrorists.
For argument’s sake, we need to put into perspective the freedom of expression as well as the freedom of faith. For instance, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed in 1948, states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
With regard to the freedom of religion, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays down in Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Both of the freedoms—the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion—have to be considered together. One cannot be claimed without adherence to the other, and that’s the heart of the matter in this latest ‘Islam and the West’ row over the malicious drawings and film, whose sole aim is to instigate the Muslim masses.
In sum, both the Muslim world and the European/Western are in need of a broader societal reaction. The Muslims need to come out openly to condemn terrorism and take to task those few among them who misuse Islam to commit it. The West needs to come out openly against the few European miscreants, whether in media or politics, who are out there to defame Islam and Muslims in the name of terrorism.
Access column at weeklypulse.org