Protest we must, but peacefullly
Weekly Pulse
February 17-23, 2006
The recent rioting in Pakistan over the publication of blasphemous cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in European newspapers has resulted in the destruction of public property as well as loss of innocent lives. The rioters went 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.

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. In the worldwide campaign against the publication of the blasphemous cartoons, various means of protest are being employed.

Other Means

In a flurry of emails and text messages, for instances, people are being asked to register their protest at the forthcoming display of the cartoons in a BBC News-Night programme and its publication in the Canadian press. The main purpose behind such campaigns is to collect enough signatures, either on the net or through text messages, and pass them on to the relevant Western media outfits so as to prevent them from reproducing in any form the blasphemous cartoon.

These and many other means of peaceful protests can be employed to highlight Muslim sensitivity and anger to the latest slander against Islam from the West European media. How does the burning of the Punjab Assembly building, or the beating up of innocent pedestrians, serve such a purpose? The events in Lahore and other places in the country, which may only be answered by a thorough national debate over Muslim rights and responsibilities over nasty Western challenges such as the above facing the world of Islam.

A violent Muslim reaction would add to the sufferings of millions of Muslim people settled in Europe. It would further provide a justification to West European governments and publics to delay Turkey’s total inclusion in the EU, which the Americans always enthusiastically back. And, more importantly, it would help Europe’s anti-Muslim circles justify their linkage of Islam with terrorism and portrayal of Muslims as terrorists.

Leadership Factor

One understands that crisis caused by the consistent re-production of the blasphemous caricature is acute. So much so that at an international conference in Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Badawi of Malaysia, who normally pursues a very moderate approach to Muslim world’s issues vis-à-vis the West, linked the Muslim world’s revitalisation to the end of foreign occupation in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly titled “Who Speaks for the Muslims, Who Speaks for the West,” the conference was participated by several leading scholars from the Muslim world and the Western world. Both the Muslim elites and the publics seem to have been equally offended by the Scandinavian slander against Islam.

It was, however, timely, on the part of the Prime Ministers of Turkey and Spain, Erdogan and Zapatero, to plea for “respect and calm” in an op-ed piece that co-author in a last week edition of the International Herald Tribune. Both of them head the UN-supervised Alliance of Civilizations Project, launched last year.

Here is what they have essentially argued: “In a globalized world, in which the relationships and exchanges among different civilizations continue to multiply, and in which a local incident may have worldwide repercussions, it is vital that we cultivate the values of respect, tolerance and peaceful coexistence…Freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of our democratic systems and we shall never relinquish it. But there are no rights without responsibility and respect for different sensibilities. The publication of these caricatures may be perfectly legal, but it is not indifferent and thus ought to be rejected from a moral and political standpoint.

“In the end, all of this lends itself to misunderstandings and misrepresentations of cultural differences that are perfectly in harmony with our commonly shared values. Ignoring this fact usually paves the way for mistrust, alienation and anger, all of which may result in undesirable consequences that we all have to work hard to avoid. The only way for us to build a more just international system is through maximum respect for the beliefs of both sides.”

Voltaire’s ‘Freedom’

I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. This is the quote for French philosopher Voltaire, which the editors of the West European newspapers, which have published the blasphemous caricature of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), are using in their defence. However, one is afraid that Voltaire’s quote is being used out of context.

Is it freedom of expression to deny freedom of faith to particular people? Islam prohibits the drawing and photographing of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Why should anyone, be he or she a deviant Muslim or an anti-Muslim non-Muslim, try to caricature the sacred most person of Islam. If someone is doing so, what point she or he wishes to make. To instigate Muslims, who happen to be emotional people! To instigate them, to the extent that they start destroying violating diplomatic immunities and burning embassies to the ground!

Let’s revert to the debate on the freedom of expression versus the respect for religion. 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. 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 caricature, whose sole aim is to instigate the Muslim masses. Have they been instigated? Yes. Should they be instigated more? No. Let’s not fall into the trap of a section of European populace, which is racist, anti-Muslim.

By reacting violently to the repeated publication of an offensive caricature of Holy Prophet (PBUH) by Western Europe’s racist newspapers and their Australasian counterparts, a section of the Muslim populace may end up proving the same point that the former wish to prove: that of Islam as terrorism and Muslims as terrorists.

It is abundantly clear now that Western media publications behind this vicious campaign to defame the most sacred personality of Islam are not guided by their so-called right to the freedom of expression; rather, their sole intention appears to be motivated by the sole agenda of instigating a violent Muslim reaction.

Meant to Instigate

First, it is difficult to believe that the editor of the Danish newspaper, now fired by its management after the Prime Minister of Denmark issued a formal apology, published the blasphemous caricature out of sheer ignorance. Second, it is also difficult to comprehend that a French newspaper published the slanderous caricature four times in a week just to pay homage to Voltaire who coined the concept of freedom of press.

It is important to mention here that the Muslim reaction to the initial publication of the blasphemous caricature in the Danish newspaper was confined only to the Muslim immigrant community in Denmark or its Scandinavian neighbours. It is only after the French and other West European newspapers intentionally began reproducing the nasty publication that it assumed a violent dimension. Here one is not necessarily trying to justify the violent Muslim reaction, but only to place in a proper context.

Another important fact that we need to understand, and appreciate as well, is that in North America, including the United States and Canada, the newspapers and the governments have so far acted in a responsible manner on the issue. The question that we seriously need to consider is this: why a section of the West, that is North America, is showing responsibility, while the rest of the West, including most of Western Europe as well as Australia and New Zealand, is acting irresponsibly on the matter.

Two reasons may explain this sheer contrast in Western behaviour: First, the New World, as North America was known among its first wave of European immigrants—which is today known as the United States and Canada—was itself created out of racism within European Christianity. When liberal Christians found it difficult to survive in a dogmatic Christian Europe, they decided to migrate to North America. Guided by Puritanism, the Pilgrims escaped religious persecution, landed in the New World to establish what they called a ‘city upon a hill.’

North American Distinction

As against North America, while Australia and New Zealand were also created by European immigrants, but their reason for migration was not religious persecution. That is why the reproduction of the blasphemous cartoon in the two countries is guided by the same racist intentions as those of several countries of Western Europe.

The second reason explaining the dichotomous stands on the matter North America on the one hand, and Western Europe and Australasia, on the other, has to do with politics.

Last year, the Muslim immigrants from North Africa brought the entire urban life in France to a standstill. The issue was simply that of racism. The French Republic was discriminating its population on the basis of colour, race and religion. After the burning of thousands of cars and the consequent adoption of punitive measures, the deadly affair was somehow silenced. However, the racist, nationalist elements within the French establishment were only looking for an opportunity to settle their scores against the North African Muslim immigrant citizenry. And that opportunity was provided by the Danish press next door.

In the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands in particular, as well as Austria and Germany, the ultra-nationalist or conservative forces have gained enormous political clout in recent years, including the capture of political power. The same has been the case in France, which last year rejected the European Constitution. The growth of racism, nationalism or conservatism in several countries of Western Europe means greater suffering for the Muslim immigrant population there as well as greater uncertainty of Turkey’s decades-old quest for full membership of the European Union.

While it would be irrational to expect Muslim masses not to react to a filthy move by European racists, it would make sense to synchronise this reaction to the politics of the issue as well as the North American and West European dichotomous approaches towards it. An offensive Muslim reaction to an offensive racist European move could only be counter-productive to the former.