Those of us having nervous imaginations have sometimes wondered what would it be like to have Islamabad surrounded by thousands of militant jihadists raising death chants. There remains no need to speculate any more, now we know. It is not pleasant and all of this for a pathetic video made by some lunatic in California. The video and the idiots that made it do not merit a moment of our consideration. The video is deeply hurtful, however, we are increasing its capacity to hurt us by letting it consume us, not to mention making the filmmaker rich in the process and giving an incentive to the next nut job to attempt something similar. Unfortunately, not only the thousands of usual suspect protesters and religious groups, but the media and all major political parties including those in government disagree. They not only felt that we should all be protesting but also gave a holiday, named “Yaum-Ishq-e-Rasool” (Day for the love of the Prophet (pbuh)) to facilitate the protest. First, about the name, does that mean that we are exempted from the devotion for the rest of the year; of course not, yet, that is the only implication that would make the counterpoint plausible. This is what happens when governments bureaucratise matters of spirituality and belief. Secondly, if the government feels that there is enough of a terrorist threat to shut down cellular phone service on a particular day, why would it also announce a holiday and encourage people to join public protests on the same day?
Most political parties and the government announced that they would join the protests because they are afraid. Pandering to religious extremism does not have a confidence inspiring historical record. There is also some confusion about what are they protesting against? Surely, some of them know that the United States government does not micromanage low budget videos uploaded on YouTube and is barred by the First Amendment to the Constitution to censor. Similarly, of course, the entire Pakistan is not pitting itself against a third-rate hate-monger; that would be giving him way too much importance. The television channels that covered the protests and the aftermath if they didn’t then at least came very close to inciting violence. The prevailing strategy is to go with the flow; no one wants the protestors diverted outside their office. The intention might be of self-preservation; however, it will not work.
I recently heard someone use the term “outrage industry”, while referring to some Muslim countries. The presence of such an industry in Pakistan is obvious. It thrives on meticulously looking for things to be offended by and when they find it, which they eventually do, they will disseminate it to the public at large and of course be offended. They will look up mediocre caricatures published in an insignificant newspaper in Denmark and give them global publicity. One analogy that comes to mind is that people in Pakistan who accuse someone of blasphemy will not repeat, but in most cases, embellish and completely fabricate blasphemous remarks and actions and hence are the real blasphemers. This mindset cannot be appeased by joining in the protests with them or declaring a holiday or banning YouTube. They are in the business of being “outraged”, they cannot afford not to be outraged, even if you take away every possible cause of outrage (a supremely impossible task), they will still manufacture an excuse to be outraged, and most likely it will be against you. Remaining on the commerce part of the industry, I am sure that someone is making money by manufacturing and selling those US and Israeli flags to be burnt on protests such as these.
The religious groups have run out of things to say except tired clichés and shrill slogans. They need an enemy to sustain their reservoir of hate and define them by negation. Their pointless nihilism is on display while burning cinema houses and chambers of commerce buildings. It will be a shame and it already is if the government and other political forces give them life support. Another depressing and malicious thing about this “outrage industry” is the skewed selectiveness of their causes. Rimsha or the killing of the Shia is not a favourable cause since it is not as easy to provoke and rile people up on them. It is far easier to play on one of the most sacred, emotional and religious attachment of the majority. At some level, are those organising, facilitating and leading these protests of vandalism and hate not guilty of the exact same charge that they level on the idiotic filmmaker?
Leading protests to the US embassy does not make sense. The United States government has already denounced the movie in strong terms. In any event, the US government is not responsible for every video made by its citizens. We, as Muslims, are rightly demanding the right not to have our religious sensibilities hurt and our traditions be respected. However, a corollary and a starting point of any such demand is that we respect the traditions of others, in this case, the First Amendment and the freedom of expression. Diplomatic immunity remains a common tradition of the entire civilised world. Additionally, the calm and justified argument for not stereotyping Muslims because of the actions of a few fanatics is severely compromised when we decide to stereotype an entire country on the flimsy basis of a dubious video made by one of its citizens.
The problem with attempting to placate this outrage industry is the problem with all censorship and appeasement; ultimately you lose. The outrage will only materialise once the outrageous act has taken place and hence cannot be accounted for in advance. This becomes particularly tedious when the canvass is as broad-ranging as a rag in Denmark to an obscure movie uploaded on YouTube. Even if all internet, mobile phones and television is banned, they will still find something to be angry and violent about; do not indulge them. It also undermines the project of hopefully the majority of Muslims who resist such hate speech without bogus hysteria and violence.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2012.