COMMENT : Dangerous precedents — Dr Mohammad Taqi
Invoking blasphemy and apostasy have been successfully used within Muslim countries to crush any debate about whether religion should play a role in matters of the state
From being a prayer and reflection day, Friday, over the years, has effectively become a day of rage and rampage in the Muslim countries. Protests and mayhem are planned around this day of the week, when the rabblerousing clerics can and do unleash hatemongering congregations utilising the well-oiled infrastructure of violence. This past Friday was no exception in Pakistan. Over 20 lives were lost and a church was burnt protesting the infamous video Innocence of Muslims. Fortunately, major diplomatic disasters were averted as the law enforcement agencies thwarted the attempts by the Islamist parties and banned terrorist groups to reach and potentially destroy western embassies in Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave.
The federal government capitulated to the rightwing parties by declaring a national holiday on September 21, setting an extremely dangerous precedent. Government not just ceded the narrative to the mullahs and media but some of the most ominous calls came from within its own ranks. Minister of State for Labour and Manpower, Sheikh Waqas Akram was perhaps the first one to go on primetime television stating that if he had his way he would have killed the maker of the offensive video. Not content with just that, Akram then said that he refuses to accept anyone as a bona fide Muslim if that person is not infuriated at the video. Not to be outdone, the host of the show stated that he agreed with Akram. In the same show, Senator Hasil Bizenjo, while brandishing his liberal credentials, claimed that he was once so enraged by a Dutch artist’s sacrilegious work that he could have killed him. In the next breath, Bizenjo lamented that due to radicalisation under the late General Ziaul-Haq, Pakistani society had become very violent. The show ended with calls for peaceful protest!
What takes the cake is the $ 100,000 head money announced by the Federal Minister for Railways, Haji Ghulam Ahmed Bilour for anyone who kills the producer of the hateful video. Given that Morris Sadek aka Sam Bacile aka Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is in the US, Bilour was effectively inciting a cross-border terrorist hit. He did not just stop at that but stated that any Taliban or al Qaeda carrying out the murder would be eligible for his 100 grand. The minister has stood his ground and stated that he does not have a better way to put an end to what he considers are routine insults to Islam. He also defended his pleading with the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists saying that he chided them to coax them actually into acting against Bacile so they could leave the local targets alone.
The federal government and Bilour’s own party, the Awami National Party (ANP) have ‘distanced’ themselves from his vitriol, describing it as his personal opinion. A tip of the hat though to the ANP’s Bushra Gohar, MNA, for squarely denouncing Bilour’s nonsense. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, however, turfed the issue to the ANP to decide Bilour’s fate. Well, there is no such thing as a personal opinion when a federal minister goes on instigating a terrorist hit and offering head money. Bilour is a member of the PM’s cabinet and the PM must fire him at once, if not sooner. The ANP must act but the buck stops with the PM in this case.
Bilour perhaps took advantage of the religiously charged atmosphere to divert attention from his horrendous performance as the railways minister. He is probably pandering to the ultra-conservative local voters in his Peshawar constituency where, as per the grapevine, he may face a Jamaat-e-Islami-backed Imran Khan in the general elections. While the minister’s motives appear to be petty and local, the Islamists are waging a larger ideological battle against the western world over the freedom of expression and independence to criticise organised religion and dogma.
From Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons to the present controversy, the organised Islamist groups have pounced on every opportunity to stifle dissent not only at home but to also encroach upon the freedom of speech and exchange of ideas in western societies. Invoking blasphemy and apostasy have been successfully used within Muslim countries to crush any debate about whether religion should play a role in matters of the state. Blaming their critics for defamation of religion is the time-tested ploy of the Islamist political parties to shield themselves against any critique of their harsh, conformist political agenda.
Another tactic perfected by the Islamists is their declaration that they respect all prophets and faiths. The plight of the Baha’i in Iran and the state-sanctioned persecution and mandatory denigration of the Ahmedis in Pakistan clearly shows the opposite to be true. Furthermore, in the case of Jesus and Moses, while the Muslim clergy claims to hold the two in esteem, the worst kind of vitriol against the Christian and Jewish people is considered fair game. Muslim televangelists like Zakir Naik and Amir Liaquat Hussain pull no punches when disparaging ‘the People of the Book’ on a daily basis.
The campaign to repress the unorthodox and progressive thought within Islam is as old as the religion itself. However, diplomatic vigilantism to enforce the same views on the western world is a relatively new phenomenon. Mobilising the OIC and UN to impose a de facto censorship and self-censorship on the world has been going on since 2005. Economic boycotts, lawsuits and outright terrorism like burning embassies has accompanied such efforts. The hate-speech bans thus sought of the liberal democracies are nothing but a thin veneer for the blasphemy laws in effect in countries like Pakistan.
With the US and NATO involved in military conflicts in Muslim countries at present, there is a tendency among some in the west to acquiesce to the blackmail from the Muslim street. The liberal democracies must realise that conceding even an inch on freedom of expression goes an extra mile to strengthen the Islamists whose ultimate goal is to avoid all criticism and impose their illiberal interpretation of Islam at home and abroad. Going into an apologetic mode for something that the US government had nothing to do with could have serious ramifications for Muslims Diasporas — especially the second generation and after — and the population and activists who stand up to bigotry and repression in the Muslim countries. A firm, not wishy-washy and ad hoc stand by the west is needed in the face of a sustained campaign for censorship lest a dangerous precedent is set.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com. He tweets at http://twitter.com/mazdaki