By: Rasul Bakhsh Rais
The cowboy logic is very simple and has been known for ages; if you cannot beat them, join them. This is what the Government of Pakistan has done in closing down the country and announcing that the major ruling party, the PPP, will join the protest marches against the blasphemous video, produced by a small group of Christian extremists in Los Angeles. Those who have seen and written about the video Innocence of Muslims abroad, say it is stupid, sacrilegious, offensive and in our vocabulary, blasphemous. This is not the first episode of its kind; in our memory, it started with the publication of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, then the Danish cartoons, and then more such material began to flow out.
Offensive as these acts are, they are defended by the freedom of expression argument, which is tradition and political culture in Western democracies. Their own leaders, prophets and religions have not escaped caricature abuse or what might constitute insult. The governments, media and society don’t even take notice of such productions. They ignore such writers, producers and abusers, terming them ‘nuts’. Nor does the general public care about the ‘nuts’. Some of them may buy and read or watch such material and laugh it over. Let us be clear, the West has a culture of tolerance, freedom of expression and celebration of creativity, even when it crosses some established cultural norms. Government actions there are constrained by law.
Those of us who understand a bit of American or European intellectual tradition know well that deviation from common social standards is becoming a norm more than an exception. Its justification lies in personal, individual choices and freedom of expression. The conservative sections of society there lament about it but cannot do much to curtail individual freedoms.
Attacks on Islam and the demonising of Muslim culture and society by some extremist groups exploit freedom of expression. However, these acts are planned and they deliberately seek to provoke Muslims. We have reacted the way they wanted us to react by burning down and killing ourselves. Sadly, a French magazine followed suit by publishing insulting cartoons and selling all copies within 24 hours — only adding more fuel to the fire. We have the right to protest against the production of abusive material. But shutting down the government and every public and private institution is not the right way. Governments can protest by issuing statements or writing letters to foreign governments over such matters and provide designated space to the public for protest.
In our case, protests are too many, by too many factions, on too many issues, and on too many days. Pakistan has adopted a culture of protest as marches on the street happen all year round, on one issue or another. On all streets, cities towns and space from the mosques to markets, the protesters consider it their right to march through. While doing so, they burn and destroy public and private property. They come prepared with sticks, stones and in some cities, firearm.
Hardly any protest continues without some violence. With an overplay of emotions, reason on leave, and the fanatics loose, we cannot know how to protest and influence world opinion on such an important issue like blasphemy. Our Muslim majority’s own hate material against Jews, Hindus, Christians and even our minority Muslim sects also goes without any check. This does not place us on any moral high ground to convince the world to take action against those who insult us.