Shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre

Salmaan Taseer’s funeral prayer leader running is worrying, means Mumtaz Qadri and ilk are winning without a fight.

Saroop Ijaz August 21, 2011

The classic example of the limitation on freedom of speech is the statement of the United States Chief Justice, Mr Oliver Wendell Holmes who wrote,” The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic”. An often obscured fact is the context of the statement, which was that he was sentencing a group of socialists who distributed flyers opposing the draft during the First World War. The judgment was subsequently overruled, but the succinctly yet ambitiously phrased statement of Mr Holmes remained a seminal example of the restriction on the otherwise theoretically unbridled right of free expression. While Mr Holmes was deliberately being disingenuous in the particular instance; even then the limitation has merit.

One of the biggest stories in Pakistan these days is of Aamir Liaquat Hussain making a complete idiot of himself on video. With suicide bombings in Jamrud and other parts of the country and the mayhem in Karachi, the salience attached to the video is telling. Comical and revealing as it is, the video pales into insignificance in comparison to another news story, admittedly not receiving comparable coverage i.e. the imam who conducted Salmaan Taseer’s funeral prayer has reportedly fled the country citing threats to his person and family as the main reason. Whereas the statements made by Aamir Liaquat are pathetically laughable, yet I am not sure I want this man to go down like this, not for silly frolics and mundane profanity. This man openly condoned and incited the murder of fellow Pakistanis, and regularly insinuates that people not agreeing with him on matters of metaphysics are destined for hell. Bigotry and hate-mongering is what he should have been humiliated for. He should have the freedom to curse, sing obscure movie songs and crack vulgar jokes, but not of spewing sectarian venom, and certainly not of having people killed.

Probably the single major crisis which plagues us today is the confusion regarding freedom of speech, extending from blasphemy law to criticism of politicians. The aftermath of Salmaan Taseer’s martyrdom brought the conflict into the spotlight and revealed a very disturbing picture. Even the enlightened, moderate liberals implied that Salmaan Taseer should have been more careful, since there was always a possibility of offending people. It reminds one of a statement made by the brilliant Rosa Luxemburg, who once said, “that the freedom of speech is meaningless, unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently”. To ensure that people are not offended should not be the primary endeavour of a civilised society, whereas to ensure people are not killed is the first and foremost responsibility of a state. The fact that the imam who led Salmaan Taseer’s funeral prayer is running for his life is the news story that we should be really be worried about, and by all means get riled up about. This is especially disturbing when the murderous clerics who were directly complicit in the murder still continue to provoke people to kill on the tenuous promise of a better afterlife. With hardly any talk of blasphemy law and Aasia Bibi, Mumtaz Qadri is winning, and the disgraceful bit is that it is without even putting up a fight. Incitement to violence is not freedom of speech, whereas making stupid and even offensive statements at some level is the very essence of it.

Recently, I watched a video of Zaid Hamid and Mehr Bukhari attempting an expose on identifying RAW agents in Pakistan. I am all for the freedom of Zaid Hamid and Mehr Bukhari of making foolish spectacles of themselves, and must admit that at times I find Zaid Hamid fairly good comedy. However, labelling someone a RAW agent in Pakistan is not only defamatory (hence not protected by freedom of speech) but also potentially extremely dangerous to the life and liberty of the person accused. Zaid Hamid is a conspiracy-mongering huckster and Mehr Bukhari is an anchor of average intellect who attempts to make up for substance by hysteria. Still, I firmly believe these two have a right to be heard and be paid for the nonsense, as long as they do not incite violence. I have chosen to talk about only these two, the same can be said of many others since they are really plagiarised versions of each other. Ms Bukhari in my opinion directly incited people to murder while conducting one of Salmaan Taseer’s last interviews and did not even have the common decency to apologise. That is what she should be taken to task for. Idiocy should not be censored, actually I would want Zaid Hamid to continue talking about how dengue fever might have been engineered by the Hindu-Zionist lobby, and using sub-evolved logic (if he chooses to bother with the matter at all) to explain himself. It will only expose him as the charlatan that he is and then people will eventually stop taking him seriously and the channels and probably the ISI stop paying him. If not, he can continue, thrive and prosper and I can carry on bickering about him and the likes. What should not be allowed is clear and direct provocation to wanton criminality by levelling evidently false accusations.

The confusion regarding the freedom of speech remains at the centre of the non-regulation of the media. It is a case of horribly skewed priorities. Those making wild and licentious accusations can be held accountable not by the fragile coalition government but only by the media themselves. Aamir Liaquat Hussain and the sort should be asked to explain themselves not for petty indecencies but for sickening invocation to violence. The imam leading Taseer’s funeral has as much right to freedom of choice and expression as anyone else. Every time we decide to exercise prudence and hold our peace, we are cowardly relinquishing the only semblance of freedom that we have left. Mehr Bukhari, Zaid Hamid and many others are falsely and piercingly shouting fire in a very crowded theatre.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd,  2011.