March issue 2006

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

The publication of some cartoons in Denmark that offended Muslim sensibilities the world over, the defence of the cartoonist in several quarters under the plea of freedom of information, the violent reaction in many countries, especially Pakistan, and the decision to use the OIC to make demands on the western world constitute one of those exceptional cases when something can be said for all the parties involved and much more can be said against them.

The party in whose favour little can be said is the cartoonist. What motivated him while drawing the offensive sketches is far from clear. Maybe he was seriously disturbed by the common (in his country) perception of the threat from terrorism. It is also possible that the Muslim immigrant community in his country had offered him cause to nurse a grievance against it and thus added to the anti-Muslim sentiment that has been sweeping the entire world for quite some time, particularly since September 11, 2001. Whatever the provocation, he stumbled into a grave error when he apparently tried to trace the roots of terrorism in the Islamic belief. Muslims have only recently joined the roll of terrorists. Those senior to them belonged to other religious denominations, while some claimed to be non-believers. Their actions were not attributed to the founders of their faiths. The singling out of Muslim faith for the authorship of terrorism amounted to a dangerous provocation.

However, it may be true that a section of the western public opinion has been influenced by the claims of some militant Muslim groups that they commit acts of terrorism as a religious obligation and in order to win the pleasure of God. That an uninformed western citizen may be led into accepting such claims as authentic is understandable but this cannot be said about scholars among them. They know, perhaps better than their counterparts in the Muslim world, that no religion sanctions attacks on the lives of innocent people for the realisation of economic and political objectives. That the cartoonist in this case did not have the benefit of this insight could be his sole defence, whatever its worth. It is also possible to suggest that he could not foresee his work would seriously hurt the Muslims. That again is no defence.

Unfortunately, the matter has been complicated a great deal by denying the Muslim peoples satisfaction on the grounds that the cartoonist’s right to freedom of expression cannot be challenged. This line of argument, which is based on untenable assumptions, has led some Muslim groups, and even a couple of governments, into demanding new laws to prevent attacks on sacred personages or other offences related to belief. This demand too is based on untenable premises.

The fact is that the human rights code already bars attacks on founders of religions and the beliefs of various communities, particularly if such attacks cause hatred against the target groups and have the potential of incitement to violence.

The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights says (Article 20(2)) that states party to it should “prohibit any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” Similar restrictions on freedom of expression are found in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Religious Discrimination. Under it, all parties are obliged to prohibit “dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin,” as well as participation in “propaganda activities, which promote and incite racial discrimination.” Further, the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 10(2)) declares that the right to freedom of expression carries with it duties and responsibilities and, therefore, it “may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society for … the protection of the reputation or rights of others.”

One may also refer to the European court’s decision in the case of Otto-Preminger-Institut vs Austria. The Austrian government had seized and forfeited a film on the grounds that it constituted an attack on the Christian religion. The court justified the forfeiture on the grounds that the film attacked the “right of citizens not to be insulted in their religious feelings by the public expression of views of other persons.” In France, a person was convicted for denying the Holocaust as such denial fuelled anti-Semitic feelings. And now a British historian has been convicted for denying the Holocaust, although he claimed to have revised his views.

However, what is involved here is not a point of law but a matter of culture. The Christian societies of Europe have developed their culture of free debate to an extent that writers and film-makers can discuss Christianity and Jesus Christ in any manner without angering their majorities or hurting their feelings. Colonial bondage over long decades denied large populations of Asia and Africa, and they include the whole of the Muslim world, the possibilities of developing traditions of free discourse, and of tolerance for dissent. The Afro-Asians in general and the Muslims (Arabs especially) in particular have been the victims of stereotyping and misrepresentation for many years.

The Muslims, in South Asia specially, have been forced to fall back on what Iqbal called the defence mechanism of dogma by suffering denial of their political and economic rights for centuries. They will not be helped to overcome their intellectual and cultural lag by being offensively reminded day in and day out of their inadequacies.

All restrictions on the freedom of expression as well as on academic and artistic freedom are bad and can never be accepted as anything more than a necessary evil justifiable in consideration of the shortcomings found among a community’s children or its grown-ups who display under-developed minds or mindsets that are not amenable to reason. For that reason, certain restrictions on dissemination of writings and audio-visual material among children and impressionable youth can be permitted, but these curbs can neither be made universal nor permanent. All societies have a right as well as an obligation to inculcate habits of free debate and tolerance for dissent that would make censorship or other thought-control methods unnecessary.

Not much can be said for the violent reaction to publication of the cartoons. It is not necessary to add to the sizeable literature in which the poverty of protest methods has been discussed in detail. The wave of anger across the Muslim world is understandable, the form public anger has taken is not. There is little doubt that, once again, religious sentiments are being exploited for political ends and the regime is being threatened by the most favoured of its own protégés. However, three points need to be made.

First, the militants claiming to be inspired by their belief, have gravely undermined their cause by abandoning the high moral ground that the revolutionary terrorists of Asia and Africa had occupied. The so-called terrorists of South Asia occupy a place of honour among the freedom- fighters. And so do the cadres of the African National Congress (led by none other than Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest men of peace humankind has known). They resorted to terrorism only to rid the oppressed of the fear of colonial despotism. They found their targets only among the symbols of oppression or its agents; they swore to spare innocent citizens, especially women and children. They were not ordinary killers. The militants of today, who have targeted uninvolved people, have indicted themselves as mindless criminals. They have vastly reduced their compatriots’ ability to engage the rest of the world in a fruitful dialogue to ensure a peaceful, multi-cultural, pluralist world.

Secondly, Pakistanis have entered the fray with unclean hands. A state that permits discrimination on the basis of belief, and that too by constitution and by law, and gloats over it, is not entitled to protest against such discrimination by others, whether real or imagined. We have to put our own house in order before we can set out to teach others justice and fairplay.

And, thirdly, let us not depend on the rusted medieval guns of the OIC to secure us victory on a battlefield on which the Muslims are the weaker party in numbers as well as in terms of strategic strength. The division of the world into religious blocs will create crises worse than those spawned by the cold war. The OIC should limit its role to intra- Muslim-world matters and may do what it can to promote good governance and social justice in Muslim states, and, at best, as a forum for a dialogue with other denominations. It will destroy itself completely if it chooses the path of confrontation with the non-Islamic world. The only legitimate battle lines on the international landscape as well as in one’s own land are those that divide the haves and the have-nots. All other confrontations militate against contemporary sensibility.

Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.