By Najmuddin A Shaikh
September 26, 2012
THE result of the uproar caused in the Muslim world by showing on YouTube a trailer of a movie that will probably never see the light of day was apparent in its starkest form in Karachi. A number of people were killed and injured and damage to and loss of property amounted to billions of rupees.
Economic activity was paralysed in the city that drives Pakistan’s economy. The leaders of the religious parties, whose flags the demonstrators carried, were nowhere to be seen as the demonstration deteriorated into an orgy of arson and looting.
There was violence elsewhere too in the Muslim world, most notably in the Libyan city of Benghazi, where the American ambassador and three other Americans died in attacks on the makeshift consulate. This has now been classified as a terrorist attack and has led the Libyan people, possibly prompted by the government and the high regard in which the ambassador was held, to attack the offices of unofficial militias particularly of the Ansar al-Sharia suspected of the attack on the US officials.
It is early days yet to say whether this incident will prove decisive in moving Libya towards establishing the writ of the elected government and rid its newly created body politic of poisonous militias. But the hope can be entertained.
In Pakistan it is difficult to see any silver lining. The government has established that it is weak, lacks political foresight and has eroded the administrative structure once known as the ‘steel framework’.
The religious parties have proved that playing on religious sentiment for cheap popularity trumps any concern for the wellbeing of an economically distressed populace. The majority of demonstrators, presumably peaceful, have proved that they cannot prevent miscreants from bringing them into disrepute. Pakistan and its standing have been diminished in every possible way.
It is a consolation of sorts that despite difficulties and the example of other Muslim countries, no damage was done to the American diplomatic missions in Pakistan. Yet the US administration has to take account of the reaction to the ads it placed on Pakistani TV channels at a cost of $70,000 in which both President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton are seen condemning the film. The US embassy’s Facebook link to these ads has, according to the embassy’s assessment, evoked an “overwhelmingly negative” response.
It needs to be noted that the French closed down or tightened security at their diplomatic offices in Muslim countries following the publication of equally offensive cartoons in the humorist magazine Charlie Hebdo, some days after the Innocence of Muslims came to the notice of the public, but there has not, so far, been any untoward incident involving the French.
Charlie Hebdo is of far greater importance in French social life and is read by a far larger number than the hits attracted by what had been an obscure trailer on YouTube. This came into the limelight only after its Arabic-dubbed version had attracted the attention of the Egyptian media.
The disproportionate attention to events in America is understandable. It is the sole superpower and the Western power that has some of the lowest approval ratings in the Muslim world.
It is seen as the power that refuses to use the leverage it has to bring about the two-nation solution of the Palestinian problem to which successive US administrations have committed themselves. The Americans, before the recent promise of $30bn in military aid, had already given Israel some $160bn largely in military aid. Administration after administration has been generous in allowing the Israelis access to their missile defence technology and even more generous in allowing them to spend American aid dollars on acquisition from Israeli rather than American companies.
Yet Israel’s prime minister can speak in almost threatening terms to the US president with regard to Israeli demands on the issue of nuclear confrontation with Iran. Whether there are other Muslim countries that are also concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme is beside the point. It is Israel that is seeking to dictate what the Americans should do and in the process it has pushed well beyond the back burner the quest for a two-state solution and the end of its occupation of the West Bank.
The Americans would like the Muslim world to remember what they did to save Muslim lives in Bosnia and the effort they made to allow Kosovo with its Muslim majority to become an independent state. Instead, as Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi has said, they are remembered for supporting dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. What they are remembered for is the invasion without cause of Iraq and the continued bloodletting in Afghanistan with no prospect of peace returning to that benighted land.
Rarely do superpowers enjoy high approval ratings even among their friends but the United States appears to have touched new lows despite the fact that in many circles there continues to be admiration for the ideals the Americans profess and occasionally pursue.
Returning to the question of the film, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said in a speech on Youm-i-Ishq-i-Rasool that ‘if denying the Holocaust is a crime, then is it not fair and legitimate for a Muslim to demand that denigrating and demeaning Islam’s holiest personality is no less a crime’. This is a fair argument to make in Europe, where a number of countries do have such a law but not in the United States where Holocaust denial has not yet been termed a crime.
What can be pursued is a plaint by Muslims in the US for a reaffirmation of a Supreme Court decision of 1942 commonly known as the ‘fighting words’ decision in the case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire which states in part, “it is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which has never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libellous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words — those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace”. This would seem to be exactly what would make the denigration of Islam or its Holy Prophet (PBUH) punishable.
Such a plaint may not succeed. Recent media coverage suggests that any such reaffirmation if it covered what we seek to have covered would meet with strong opposition particularly since many subsequent Supreme Court decisions or interpretations by lower courts have tended to dilute the clear purport of the above quoted judgment. This, however, would have a better chance of success than the resuscitation of efforts at the UN to have an international convention adopted.
Najmuddin A Shaikh is a former foreign secretary.