The publication of sacrilegious cartoons in France and the release of a blasphemous video on YouTube by a US-based man are more recent events that are indicative of an intensifying anti-Islam trend in Western societies. However, these are not isolated events and the hate-storm has been gathering steam for some time now.
In 2006, Geert Wilders’ extremist-right wing Freedom Party in the Netherlands initiated the campaign against Islam, which they called a violent political ideology and a threat to Dutch culture and Western values. Wilders produced a film Fitna, which interlays images of terrorist attacks with quotes from the Holy Quran. He also called for a ban on the wearing of the headscarf and on the construction of mosques. Based on an anti-Islam manifesto, the Freedom Party won 24 seats — about one-sixth — in the 150-seat Dutch Parliament in 2010.
Wilders’ ideas struck a chord in mainstream politics across Europe. France and Belgium banned veils that covered the face and Switzerland barred the construction of new minarets following a referendum. Anders Breivik, a Norwegian Christian extremist, who killed nearly 80 people outside Oslo to express his anti-Islamist sentiments, had cited Wilders’ anti-Islamic views in his online manifesto.
Wilders’ trail leads to a number of well-funded anti-Islam extremist networks in the US. One of them is the Middle East Forum — a pro-Israeli think tank based in Philadelphia — and which has a stated goal of protecting the “freedom of public speech of anti-Islamist authors, promoting American interests in the Middle East and protecting the constitutional order from Middle Eastern threats”. The Middle East Foundation, along with the Los Angeles-based Horowitz Freedom Center funded Wilders’ legal fight in the Netherlands and in the UK and sponsored his visit to the US. “Stop Islamisation of America”, an affiliate of the “Stop Islamisation of Europe”, is another hate group that lobbied against the building of an Islamic centre in New York.
The latest affront now comes in the form of an advertisement on the New York subway, put out by a hate group called the American Freedom Defence Initiative. The advertisement reads: “In any war between the civilised man and the savage, support the civilised man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad”. The advertisement was initially rejected by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority on the grounds that it failed to meet its standards, which prohibit demeaning language against any group. However, those standards were ruled unconstitutional by a US court!
To the credit of Western governments, there have been attempts to stem the tide. In the current case of the blasphemous video, President Barack Obama has publicly condemned the sacrilegious video in the strongest terms. In the case of Wilders, the Dutch government charged him with making hateful comments in the Dutch media about Muslims and for his film Fitna. However, the court found he had stayed within the limits of free speech and acquitted him. When Wilders sought to visit the UK, where he planned to screen his film, the British government banned his entry. However, Wilders won an appeal in the British courts and the ban was overturned. Clearly, Western governments will have to take a hard look at their laws if they want peace with the Muslim world.
The sacrilegious cartoons and films and hate comments by public figures in the West have touched a raw nerve in Muslim societies. For nearly three-quarters of a century, Western corporations have exploited natural resources in developing countries, including Muslim states, and ensured protection of their privileged status by propping up and supporting repressive client regimes. The last couple of decades has, however, seen a rising awareness among Muslim people; leading to a challenge to their own regimes and to Western corporate domination. Assertiveness, led by Islamists, is replacing the docility of the Westernised ruling elite in these countries. In this perspective, anti-Islamism can be seen as a Western corporate counter-attack to the rise of Islamist nationalism in Muslim countries.
The response of the Muslim world to the provocations has been violent protests. While the protests are justifiably understandable, the violence is not and is regrettable. However, the onus of provocation lies solely and entirely on Western extremists. The battle lines that are being drawn across the globe are dangerous, including for Western countries. The provocations from Western fundamentalist extremists only serve to provide political space to religious extremists in Muslim countries and to strengthen them at the cost of liberal, progressive forces. As of today, there is not a single public figure in any Muslim country who can stand up and say a single word that is even indirectly favourable to the West, in general, and the US, in particular.
The viciousness of the violence in Pakistan is noteworthy. For years now, people have been bearing innumerable hardships. Lack of jobs, poverty, rising prices, power breakdowns, poor public transportation and a general breakdown of personal security has turned life into a daily grind. The forthcoming election provides an opportunity for the political parties to draw attention to these problems. A political platform defined by bread and butter issues does not provide a locus standi for religious parties. However, religious provocation from the West is enabling religious parties in Muslim countries to capture centre stage. Western extremists are actually serving to promote extremism in Muslim countries.
Western opinion has tended to take cover behind the principle of freedom of speech. However, the mantra of freedom of speech is a sop that the Muslim world is not going to accept. After all, the West does not apply the same precept with respect to anti-Semitism. Laws exist in almost every Western country that would send offenders to prison. Even historians practising objective academic work have not been spared. There is now an urgent need to enact effective laws in Western countries to penalise anti-Islamism on the lines of laws against anti-Semitism. Failing which, the continuation of the civil conflict over the subject will undermine civil society in Muslim countries and cost Western countries as well.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2012.
More in OpinionFacebook, WikiLeaks and our quest for curiosity