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Sunday, September 23, 2012

At the mercy of bigots

When it comes to the exercise of freedom of speech or action, there exist no absolute principles. Even in the West, lines drawn to protect such freedoms are largely arbitrary. They are products of the historical evolution of those societies, as well as their existing social consciousness and power matrix and not the outcome of the consistent application of any principle. US law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnic or national origin, but denigrating the beliefs of Muslims is defended as an essential human liberty. 9/11 did many terrible things to this world, one of which was allowing bigots all over the world to wear their hate on their sleeves and practice it freely. The hypocrisy and double standards are all too obvious in the West as well as the Muslim world. 
Bigotry and racism are penalised for being illegal in some situations and celebrated as markers of freedom in others. There are laws against anti-Semitism in many western countries that have a history of tormenting the Jewish people. There are laws prohibiting the denial of the Holocaust. These are useful laws introduced to curb religious hatred and acknowledge widespread persecution of Jews in the past. But if anti-Semitism is prohibited (as it rightly should be, being a product of racism and bigotry) why have manifestations of Islamophobia, motivated by the same sentiments of hate and prejudice, come to be celebrated as expressions of necessary human liberty worth protecting? 
Let us consider three unrelated concepts to understand competing narratives on the problem of blasphemy, bigotry and mindless violence. The first is John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’ propounded in his essay “On Liberty” – that remains a foundation for contemporary liberal thought – where he argued that, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant...” The right to free speech and action is an extension of the right to think freely. An assumption implicitly included within Mill’s harm principle is that speech in itself can cause no harm. 
The second concept is one presented by John B Finch, who highlighted the limits of ones freedom of action by asserting that, “my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” And the third is apublic policy concept that justifies prohibiting free speech when “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” will produce a “clear and present danger.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., while declaring illegal the distribution of pamphlets opposing the draft during the First World War had argued in the US Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States that, “the question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent...” 
What is the logical basis to argue that words can do no harm? If ‘words can do no harm’ is an immutable principle, why criminalise Holocaust denial? Why recognise provocation as a mitigating factor in criminal law? Why contrive the crime of defamation or ban hate-speech? Why prohibit anyone from yelling fire in a crowded theatre? Let us not forget the difference between law and justice. Justice is the ideal that law has historically failed to realise being a tool in the hands of the powerful. The point is simply this: there exists no absolute right to free speech, expression or action anywhere in the world. The policies reflected in the law meant to protect these liberties are products of arbitrary choices made by power wielders based on their own sensibilities, worldview and taste. 
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that entered into force on March 23, 1976, mandated that, “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” If presenting the Prophet of Islam, whose humanism and virtuosity forms the cornerstone of the faith of over 2 billion Muslims, in the vilest possible manner doesn’t constitute advocacy of religious hatred and incitement of violence, what else will? Just because liberal political thought in the West is rooted in the history of separation of church and state that brought along mockery of religion, doesn’t necessarily mean that mockery of Muslim faith and sensibilities must accompany expansion of liberties in Muslim societies. 
Let us agree that Machiavelli got it right. Those who wield power determine what is and isn’t acceptable conduct. So what should Muslims do when they feel that the dominant West is promoting and defending hate speech against them and their Prophet in the name of liberty? In terms of taking constructive action there are two obvious strategies. There is a moral argument to be made: justifying manifestations of Islamophobia meant to hurt Muslim dignity and faith is wrong and such conduct must be discouraged within civilised societies through legal and social censure. The real-politick argument would be that Muslim states and societies must acquire such power and influence that their sensibilities can no longer be ignored in global power corridors. 
But how do we choose to respond? We cut the nose to spite the face. We indulge in vandalism, burn down public property, attack our own police, and terrorise fellow citizens for the offense caused by bigots on the other side of the world. The reaction in Pakistan to the offensive film against our Prophet corroborates views of Dominique Moisi in The Geopolitics of Emotion. Moisi has suggested that Muslim societies around the world have been enveloped by a sense of humiliation nurtured by loss of hope in the future. This causes despair and breeds a sense of revenge. Such revenge, being a negative emotion, doesn’t aim at rising to the level of ones perceived tormenters but bringing them down to one’s level through violence and destruction. 
So what is our strategy? That we will react to provocation by bigots abroad by cultivating and unleashing on ourselves the biggest hoodlums and bigots possibly conceivable? And that acting blindingly incensed will somehow terrorise the whole conspiring infidel world into respecting Islam and our Prophet? The ironic part is that the bearded bigots amongst us who have transformed hate mongering into a profession are most incensed on being served a taste of their own medicine. The Ishq-e-Rasool Day – when Pakistanis ought to have projected the values of civility and humanism that we associate with our Prophet – has brought into full public view the predatory tendencies of our society and the pusillanimity of the state. 
So what is the brave new idea of our ruling power elite: let us highjack the agenda of the bigoted brigades. And how is that to be accomplished? Simple: let the non-bearded act and prove to be bigger fanatics than the bearded. If the few days of Shariah enforcement in Swat under Sufi Mohammad and Fazlullah opened people’s eyes to the catastrophe that had hit that serene valley, the conduct of our bigoted brigades and their mindless recruits and followers on Ishq-e-Rasool Day should be a wake-up call for all thoughtful minds in Pakistan. Gen. Zia-ul-Haq might have sown and nurtured the seeds of bigotry and intolerance as a matter of state policy, but subsequent regimes have continued to water those plants. They are now bearing fruit. 
Intolerance is the biggest threat confronting Pakistan today. It is becoming an auto-immune disease proliferating and radicalising the society. Our power-wielders and thought leaders must understand that appeasement won’t work. Let us convince the West to rethink Mill’s ‘harm principle’. But it is more crucial for the state to ensure that religious bigots keep their fists in check.
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