One of the tragedies of our times is that it has become impossible to discuss any issue on its merits without being attacked by either one side or the other and being presented with false equivalences as if they were real arguments. For instance, why can’t I talk about the fact that many of our laws in Pakistan discriminate against religious minorities without someone bringing up drones or some unrelated matter on Western imperialism? Similarly, why can’t I note that there is rising Islamophobia in the West and that films like the reprehensible Innocence of Muslims are deliberate provocations in the guise of free speech without being told from someone on the other side that Pakistani lawyers garlanded a murderer called Mumtaz Qadri? What on earth is the connection?
As our world becomes increasingly interconnected through large-scale immigration and the Internet, perhaps, the most important need going forward will be harmony among disparate communities and a need to understand each other. This can only be done if there is greater introspection on all sides. What I see instead is far more calls for the other side to “Look in your mirror”, as Thomas Friedman advised Muslims recently, but very little inclination to do so oneself. And Western analysts alone are not guilty of this. The same thing happens with amazing consistency in Pakistan and other Muslim countries. As a result, audiences tune into what they want to hear respectively and this only leads to greater polarisation.
I admire liberals in general, whether they are in Pakistan speaking out against the many shortcomings of Pakistani society or in the West speaking out against discrimination towards immigrants or faulty foreign policy. Liberals in Pakistan are particularly courageous because the environment is often not conducive to speaking out on sensitive subjects and because it is easy to be dubbed a “traitor”. But what I do not understand is why some are so oblivious to the rising Islamophobia in the West or simply cannot stand any mention of it. Is it that they are just not aware of it or do they think it would undermine their argument if they were to acknowledge it?
A common theme in the aftermath of the anti-Islam film that sparked regrettable violence across the Muslim world was that this outrage was manipulated for the benefit of hard line groups that wish to promote their agendas in the guise of political Islam. I agree with this analysis. However, I must also question why it is not pointed out that those who are linked to such anti-Islam films and other provocations in the West are also manipulating public sentiments for their political agenda. That is, the agenda of the far Right, which will readily blame all rising unemployment on immigrants stealing their jobs or gladly paint Muslims as “violent savages that hate our values” so it becomes easier to bomb Iran, for example.
Equally importantly, it is not just foreign policy that is affected when Muslims are dehumanised. In 2007, I was in New York for the summer. I was residing in the Upper West Side, which is a nice area and I felt no discrimination by virtue of being Muslim or brown. One day, however, I walked into a salon that advertised “Eyebrow Threading”. When I told the woman inside that I had come in because of the sign outside, she told me to take a seat. From the way she held the thread, I could immediately tell she was Pakistani but before I could ask her where she was from, she asked me. Naturally I said, “Pakistan”. For the next five minutes she was frozen, statuesque, her thread stuck in her fingers, as if she had been transported to Madame Tussauds. I stared back at her wondering what her problem was. And then in a hushed voice she said to me,“Mein bhi Pakistan se hoon magar mein kehti tau nahin hoon kisi ko”.
“Kyun?” I asked her, completely perplexed, and she went into a detailed description of how her husband’s business had been burned right after 9/11, targeted because they were Muslims, how they had lost so much that now she worked on the Upper West Side commuting in from a not so nice part of Queens and that the only way she felt safe was by concealing her Pakistani Muslim identity.
Free speech is great but if it results in an environment that demonises a community and renders it unsafe for them or more conducive to hate crimes against religious minorities, it must be revisited. Incidentally, I would advocate the same standard for those preaching hatred against Jews, Christians, Hindus or any sect of Islam in sermons after Friday prayers, for example, that I would for those preaching hatred against Muslims or Islam in the West.
Much is made of the First Amendment to the US Constitution that guarantees free speech. Yet, narrow exceptions have been made to it. In the case of Virginia vs Black, for instance, cross-burning, when it is done to intimidate a group or person is not protected as free speech. Surely, there is a historical reason behind this, intricately connected to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan that had been instrumental in fomenting racial tension and hatred. But shouldn’t changing realities in the new world order also merit at least a debate on the pros and cons of unrestricted free speech?
In France, on the other hand, it must be pointed out that the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, that unapologetically published the cartoons of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) not once, but twice, fired the employee responsible for drawing a cartoon of Nicolas Sarkozy’s son depicting him as having converted to Judaism to get ahead in life. It is then not completely outrageous that Muslims feel double standards are at play, as free speech is never absolute. It is always subject to a value system.
I must add here that the modern Western world has at least legally offered greater protection to religious minorities than the rest of the world. However, we must be equally vigilant towards the hard liners vying for political Islam and instigating crude violence in Muslim countries as we should to the far Right pursuing its agenda in the West through sophisticated provocation.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2012.