The freedom of expression and religion
Weekly Pulse
February 12-16, 2006
The burning down of Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus on February 4 shows remarkable similarity to the November 21, 1979 arson of the US Embassy in Islamabad by students of Jama’at-e-Islami at the Quaid-e-Azam University, despite differences in the factual factor triggering the Muslim rage in the two cases.

26 years ago, a militant group of mainly Egyptian and Yemeni religious dissidents led by Saudi Huhayman al-Utaybi occupied the Holy Ka’aba, as the latter’s brother-in-law Mohammed Abdulah al-Qahtani declared himself as Imam Mehdi. The tragic development was essentially an outcome of the intra-Wahhabi struggle for power in Saudi Arabia, threatening the political hold of the House of the Sauds. However, due to the lack of information from the Saudi authorities, the rumours were instantly spread across the Muslim world, depicting it as part of a US-Israeli conspiracy to control the citadel of Islamic faith.

The biggest casualty of the consequent Muslim rage then was the US Embassy in Islamabad, which was completely burnt down, and had to be re-built later entirely with Pakistani money. The incident also claimed some casualties. However, there is an essential difference between what happened in 1979 and what is happening now.

The former Muslim reaction was a result of widespread misinformation and rumour-mongering about an event that touched the inner religious sensitivities of the entire Muslim populace.

The current Muslim rage is occurring in response to the publication of a cartoon desecrating the most sacred personality of Islam, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in a Danish newspaper in September and its reproduction in the past couple of weeks by newspapers in Norway, France, Italy, and even New Zealand, Australia and Jordan.

What is happening now, therefore, is not incidental but intentional—even though it has the same effect on Muslims’ religious sensitivities as the former incident did.

The deadly Muslim reaction in 1979 was wrong, since it was essentially grounded on faulty information, on total misinterpretation of a reality—although the broader climate in the Muslim world characterised by Western-inspired, Israeli-related injustices in the Middle East could have contributed to the process. The Muslim rage of today—however irrational and militant its orientation might be—could have been prevented by responsible behaviour on the part of the European media and governments.

The offensive pursuit of freedom of expression by a handful of newspapers, especially in Denmark, Norway and France, has simply led to an offensive reaction by a minority of extremist elements in the Muslim Middle East in the defence of Islam. From Indonesia to Syria, the Muslim regimes and religious establishments are, however, urging the Muslim masses to restrain their reaction.

While the Danish and Norwegian governments have condemned the burning down of their embassies in Damascus, the former did apologise officially for the publication of the cartoon in a Danish newspaper, after Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia banned Danish products. Meanwhile, the Vatican has urged the European media to balance its right to freedom of expression with the respect for religion.

Unlike their French counterpart, the governments of the United States and Great Britain have also called 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 publication and re-production of the inciting cartoon in the European press couldn’t have happened at a worst time. The cartoon is said to have depicted 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.

First, it is difficult to imagine that the Danish newspaper editor, now fired by the paper’s owner for publishing the debut cartoon, was unaware of the Muslim sensitivity over issues of blasphemy, especially when it comes to the person of Holy Prophet (PBUP). Second, the way French newspapers have publicised the issue—with one newspaper reproducing the cartoon on its front page four times in a week, and Le Monde running “Help Voltaire” as its banner headline—speaks volumes of their prejudicial outlook on Islam and Muslims.

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 people of a religious faith other than Christianity, or even those belonging to any other Christian denomination than one’s own, was institutionalised as a fundamental human right.

Given that, Voltaire’s whole discourse about the people’s right to free speech the people is quoted out of context by Le Monde, which has historically been a respectable publication progressing with the march of democracy in France. 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.

It is true that the Western world has, rightly or wrongly, advanced to such a level of individualism that, in recent decades, the Holy Christ has been a target of criticism and ridicule in the 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, the Western European governments and media have engaged in a sheer act of irresponsibility. Don’t they know that the 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 cartoon, as they have?

Does the French insensitivity to this highly volatile issue, both at the state and the public levels, have anything to do with the recent riots by the Muslim immigrants of North African origin, which brought to the fore the essentially racist nature of the French Republic? Are the Scandinavian 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 many of them want to prevent a future Muslim inclusion in Europe a al full membership of Turkey in the European Union (EU)?

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 Catholic Pope and the upholders of Judea-Christian tradition in North America have come forward in condemnation of the publication of the cartoon desecrating the personality of Holy Prophet (PBUH). 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. Similarly, on the question of Turkey’s accession to the EU, the Dutch, the Germans, the French, and the Austrians have spared no effort in reminding us about their inherently racist outlook towards a Muslim nation.

As for the Muslim world, there have been numerous instances of anti-Semitism, which are condemnable. As far as the present range 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 their possible consequences.

By reacting violently—as the supporters of Hamas did on top of the EU offices in Gaza, or the violent Muslim mob did by burning the two Scandinavian embassies in Damascus—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 publicising the inciting cartoon. 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.

The Grand Mufti of Syria and the country’s Interior Minister have done the right thing by calling upon the enraged Muslim protestors to show “self-restraint.” The President of Indonesia, the Muslim world’s largest nation, has also done the right thing to emphasise moderation. The Saudi action to boycott Danish products may be construed as a spur-of-the-moment reaction.

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. Let’s not over-react to the European West’s newest publication slander!