World Politics

The Organised Chaos

BY Sarmad Qadri

From Viewpoint Online

In fact, all speech that does not directly advocate violence ought to be legally permissible. This goes for blasphemy, racist speech, and Holocaust denial too

The Muslim world has erupted in chaos as a bigoted film, mockingly-named Innocence of Muslims, has won notoriety and ubiquity. It is of such shambolic quality and with such shady origins that in any other world it would have never protruded out of the woodworks. The video itself was posted on Youtube several months ago, but it was not until early September in the run-up to 9/11 that Al-Nas – an Islamic television channel in Egypt – brought it out of obscurity to millions of shocked viewers. Protests were quickly organized, embassies burnt, and theaters attacked. Provocateurs in America and Europe have been having a field day ever since, and though some have made useful observations, most have relied on lazy generalizations to lay the blame on the least common denominator – Islam. The best example of such wanton journalism is Newsweek’s cover story Muslim Rage by Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, a disgruntled Muslim-turned-atheist who seems to write about Islam on all the wrong occasions. It is a pity, because this episode has raised important questions about freedom of speech, about blasphemy, and about exactly why such caustic violence breaks out in some Muslim countries, but not others.

It is needless to say that the film outraged all Muslims, in least because it depicts the Prophet as puerile (any caricatures of Abrahamic messengers are considered blasphemous in Islam). But outrage in one’s heart does not translate into carnage on the street. It does not even translate into protests at all. If it did, then the violence would have been much more pronounced, and more internationalized than it has been. Most people are sitting in front of their television screens, outraged and offended, but quietly getting on with the business of their lives.

The fact of the matter is that in each of the countries where violence has broken out – Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Pakistan – disparate groups with vested interests in destabilization have fanned the flames and spread misinformation. Some Egyptian politicians told their constituents that the movie had aired on “American State TV”, and the Al-Nas pundit who broke the film to his viewers suggested that it was being shown in cinemas across the United States to mark the 9/11 anniversary. Now, if you are someone who has lived under one autocratic regime or another for the last 50 years, the idea that there is such a thing as American State TV does not sound so outlandish. In Libya, the attack on the US embassy that resulted in the death of the ambassador was a paramilitary assault by an Islamist militia using the film as a ruse. But there was no violence and few reported protests in Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia. Why?

One argument is that the Turkish, Indonesian and Malaysian body politic is more literate, and thus less vulnerable to propaganda. But that does not explain why Tunisia – where education was one of the beneficiaries of the dictatorship – has been subject to sporadic unrest. It also does not explain the violence in Libya, where the militia that attacked the embassy was driven out of Benghazi by angry protestors. Rather, what Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have in common is a new state structure that has lost the ability to control its people. The weak state has empowered fringe groups who can produce sedition without resistance. Some see this as a blessing in disguise, because for too long repressive regimes ruling with an iron fist have stifled the growth of nations. But a weak state is of no use to its people. The state must be the most powerful entity in the land; a state that is answerable to its people chooses to use this power to protect freedom and individual rights. The reason we elect officials and allow them to rule over us is so they can harness the collective power of society, and maintain law and order. Vigilantism and sedition are not just a challenge to the state, they are a threat to our freedom, and as such must be brought down, with force if necessary. Where there is weakness, there are groups waiting in line to exploit it.

What we are witnessing today has little to do with Islam. It is a case of governmental incompetence. If some European states were as weak as Egypt or Libya are today, and if the Church was as powerful a political institution as it used to be, riots could have just as easily broken out when Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released in 1979.

The case of Pakistan

PAKISTAN arrived late to the party, perhaps because the video was dubbed in Arabic and not Urdu, which caused a stir in Arabic-speaking nations first. But Pakistan saw more mayhem than any other country. The most violent of those days was a hastily put-together national holiday (Ishq-e-Rasool day) to give people a chance to protest peacefully – as if that was ever going to work. The holiday was a brainchild of the commander-in-mischief, the Prime Minister himself. Mr. Ashraf ended up becoming an unwilling accomplice to thugs and bandits who used the day as cover to set alight all the cars, tires, effigies, flags and movie theatres they could find. The cost to the national economy is estimated to be 76bn rupees, and that does not include damage to property, of which there was plenty.

Unlike Libya and Tunisia, Pakistan is not a new country; it has a corrupt but established political order, a fiercely independent media, and institutions, some of which actually work. The Pakistani media which – since being liberalized more than 10 years ago – has exhibited shocking immaturity during times of crises, handled this situation quite well. Religious leaders urged calm, the US embassy paid for ads showing President Obama and Secretary Clinton condemn the film, and various newscasters wiselycriticized the government for constituting such a holiday in the first place. Parts of the government chipped in too: The Governor of Sindh brought together Islamic leaders to preach nonviolence to protestors, while the Ministry of Interior decided that Pakistan would be safer if it were stuck in 1900, and so suspended mobile phone services and blocked Youtube. Yet still, violence was unleashed from Peshawar to Karachi. Why?

The underlying reasons are the same – a weak state that is unable to preserve law and order pitted against increasingly confident miscreants– but the scope and scale of the problem is amply magnified. In this instance, the civil society, the mainstream Islamic leaders, the media and the government tried to keep a lid on the cooker, but radical outfits stole the show. This was a direct challenge to the writ of the government, and to the existing political order, and both reacted with characteristic trepidation and did what they do best – keep mum about injustices at home, and cry foul at the indiscretions of bigots halfway around the world.

The bottom line is this: the Pakistani state is devoid of moral authority. It is seen by the people as too feudal, too corrupt, and too distracted to govern in the best interests of the nation at large. The state is appeasing to mob mentality, because it is too weak to fight it. The federal minister of Railways, Ghulam Bilour, placed a $100,000 bounty on the head of the filmmaker. That a minister of state is openly inciting murder and has not been fired yet (let alone sent to jail) speaks volumes about the toxicity of the situation. Level heads are afraid of being labeled blasphemers if they stand up to him. It can only be hoped that the next time a mob bullies the police into registering a blasphemy charge, or the next bus of Shias that is attacked, that Pakistan is jolted out of its fatal coma. Federal governance in Pakistan is not sustainable unless the state begins to stamp its authority. But only a government with moral authority can do so effectively.

Extremism is not prevalent in any of the aforementioned states, but a loud and militant minority that is inimical to the state is holding entire nations hostage. Freedom is on its knees staring down the muzzle of the gun, and the state must do its utmost to rescue it. Miss Hirsi-Ali would do well not to blame Islam for the indiscretions of Muslims. Indeed, a religion does not choose its followers.

Addendum–About Freedom

The episode has raised questions about freedom of expression, with various leaders in the Muslim world calling for a sort of international blasphemy law to protect the world’s religions from being desecrated.

Imran Khan wants such a law to be instituted in Europe, where many nations have criminalized Holocaust denial to counter anti-Semitism. Equating blasphemy of a faith to the persecution of a race is grossly inappropriate of Mr. Khan, but in principle he is right – the French cartoonists who published caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in the name of free speech would be censored and likely jailed if their work was deemed anti-Semitic. Mr. Khan’s argument that everyone draws a line somewhere is valid (in Europe, but not in America).

It ought to be explored then what this Utopian blasphemy law will entail. What exactly is deemed sacrilegious? Is it blasphemous to kill cows? Meat-eaters are bound to be unnerved by the proposition, but cattle are sacred animals in Hinduism and Buddhism. What about obscure religions like Scientology, which are hard to keep a straight face about, but which nonetheless deserve protection under the law? And who is left to decide exactly what constitutes blasphemy and what does not? The fact of the matter is that such a law is not sustainable; the line is too arbitrary for it to ever work. Those calling for the law are pandering to populist sentiment, which is why it is important to have it rigorously explored and shunted out. 

In fact, all speech that does not directly advocate violence ought to be legally permissible. This goes for blasphemy, racist speech, and Holocaust denial too. It is up to the conscience of societies to ensure that the legal rights to free speech are not misused by morally corrupt provocateurs. Racist speech, for example, is legally permissible in many countries, but morality of the society-at-large keeps it at bay. America is about the only country that comes close to this ideal in free speech, and I hope that in time other countries will take a leaf out of its legal book.

Sarmad Qadri is a student of Computer Science and Physics at the University of Waterloo. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.