Shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre

Published: August 22, 2011
The writer is a lawyer and partner at Ijaz and Ijaz Co in Lahore

The writer is a lawyer and partner at Ijaz and Ijaz Co in Lahore [email protected]

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.

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Reader Comments (31)

  • Voiceless Observer
    Aug 22, 2011 - 12:54AM

    I agree with the wise words of Mr Saroop Ijaz.

    Thanks for the sharing.


  • Aug 22, 2011 - 1:19AM

    The only people who truly enjoy freedom of speech in Pakistan are those individuals and groups who want to limit everyone elses. Terrorist organizations are able to publicly fund raise and publish propaganda and hate filled publications and the Pakistani state fails in its international and domestic responsibility to curb their ability to operate unhindered. The state seems to have no problem respecting their freedom of speech.


  • Martin D Souza
    Aug 22, 2011 - 3:01AM

    Hunter Thompson wrote his pieces naked, after a breakfast of omelets, juice, martinis and six lines of coke. So what if Amir Liaquat cusses off-camera. We’re always on our best behavior in the presence of others.


  • Ali Desouza
    Aug 22, 2011 - 3:02AM

    Hunter Thompson wrote his pieces naked, after a breakfast of omelets, juice, martinis and six lines of coke. So what if Amir Liaquat cusses off-camera. We’re always on our best behavior in the presence of others.


  • Arifq
    Aug 22, 2011 - 5:45AM

    Another brilliant piece by Mr. Suroop Ijaz, if only there was a bigger audience! One of the essential tools for hegemon is to control the narrative, case of the Imam fleeing the country quoted by Ijaz is an classic example where a particular group successfuly dominates without incurring any accountability.


  • Mirza
    Aug 22, 2011 - 6:52AM

    Another gem of an op ed, Ijaz! Thanks for pointing its importance out. Even in the US inciting people to violence and branding people “liable for murder” is not covered under free speech. Everyone is free to express their hate and dislike for anything or any person. However, when it comes to stepping on the civil rights of the others, then it is not free speech.
    The speed with which our courts and SC decided Sarfaraz Shah’s case only proves that if the “free judiciary” wants it can provide swift justice to anybody. Shah’s case was not so clear cut. His character was not clean cut. However, he did not deserve to be left to die in his own blood. In case of Salman Taseer, there was no haziness, there are not video but eyewitnesses, Qadri has admitted his crime, yet the courts are sitting at their hands! The justice is not blind it is selective and political under these PCO judges.


  • Asad Liaqat
    Aug 22, 2011 - 9:03AM

    Dude. You called out Zaid Hamid for identifying RAW agents and then identified him as being on the ISI payroll himself. That is also defamation. That could also potentially lead to violence. Sub-evolved logic, anyone?

    Kudos on everything else in there though.


  • Amazed
    Aug 22, 2011 - 9:12AM

    Among the increasingly exposed ‘pseudo-liberals’, this is one of the sane voices. Nonetheless, he is barely heard. While the right-wing media, with the state patronage, has done everything (un)imaginable, the silence of their contemporaries sitting the opposite camp (the “liberals) are as much to blame. Their selective morality, choosing to talk about less potentially dangerous and more popular issues has made them an accomplice to the polarization in the society. Clearly, the battle is hardly lost, only a war is imminent to see this country into the hands of Qadris/Hamidz and others.


  • usmani
    Aug 22, 2011 - 9:28AM

    good yaar saroop. unlike the article against imran khan, this one is a much better attempt. i like your analysis of ZH and MB. better than IK for sure.


  • bulbul
    Aug 22, 2011 - 9:37AM

    A very good read on a very nice topic. As long as we are indirectly (now) or indirectly being ruled by these so called Mulla’s we cannot have freedom of speech. How can one say what he wants to hen these mulla’s don’t think twice before sparing someone’s life !


  • Gul Bukhari
    Aug 22, 2011 - 10:00AM

    One word: Wow. Excellent piece of work.


  • Satish
    Aug 22, 2011 - 10:52AM

    Great Article Saroop … I wonder why cant this be published in a urdu journal??


  • sars
    Aug 22, 2011 - 11:12AM

    Excellent piece, i agree with you a hundreed percent.The reverance this country has for narrow minded, verbose bigots is one of the basic reasons for our current state of affairs
    .How amir liaqat with his dubious character and understanding (of anything) is a more popular figure than say Dr Khalid Zaheer is and always will be a mystery to me


  • Rafi
    Aug 22, 2011 - 11:17AM

    Please make up your mind Saroop!

    In a previous article you have disrespected Imran Khan’s valiant efforts to raise the moral standards of our dysfunctional society:

    “Taking strong positions on easy moral questions should not be sufficient. They are better suited to a disgruntled and frustrated citizen. Leaders are supposed to give visions and methodologies to implement them — the mere desire to eradicate corruption without any concrete proposals is either disingenuous or extremely naive.”

    And now you say he who keeps quiet is a coward:

    “Every time we decide to exercise prudence and hold our peace, we are cowardly relinquishing the only semblance of freedom that we have left.”

    I hope a well educated Pakistani like yourself is going to walk the talk by joining one of the many movements against the current deeply immoral coterie of “leaders” thrust upon us peaceful freedom-loving law-abiding citizens.


  • rehmat
    Aug 22, 2011 - 11:22AM

    Very well said. You have articulated my toughts on Liaqat, Bokhari and Zaid Hamid better than I possibly could have.


  • T R Khan
    Aug 22, 2011 - 12:22PM

    The likes of Aamir Liaquat and Zaid Hamid were foretold nearly fourteen hundred years ago.


  • Nasrat Baloch
    Aug 22, 2011 - 12:34PM

    It is now obvious that this country is reigned by certain mafias be it religious or other terrorists. As no law of land exists, mafias are breeding and growing rapidly.Situation is getting out of control and heading to a total anarchy and chaos. I fear that”har shakh par behta hai ullo anjaam e gulstan ka kia hoga”. I appreciate the author for the bold article.


  • MS - Mariya
    Aug 22, 2011 - 12:57PM

    Good article but the silent majority are to be blamed more than vocal minority.


  • Aristo
    Aug 22, 2011 - 3:08PM

    People still tuning into Amir Liaquat’s show and ARY adamantly still airing the program portrays the rotten nature of our people and the low life mindset they possess.


  • S Minhaj Zafer
    Aug 22, 2011 - 4:05PM

    @MS – Mariya:
    There is no Vocal Majority, just few voices is confined Boxes.


  • Iram
    Aug 22, 2011 - 5:45PM

    A very candid and bold analysis! really thought provoking and realistic. i hope our vocal majority; the so called religious scholars and mufties including all the writers and media persons, can educate themselves in the real sense of the word. the intellect level of our so called educated people is almost nil.


  • Abbas from the US
    Aug 22, 2011 - 6:09PM

    Good speak up Mr Ijaz,

    Having only heard about Ziad Hamid in reference and never felt the need to view a video about his views nor having read him in person. I can only say that consipiracy theorists abound in Pakistan, however the level of impact in the overall debate can be gauged only from the fast diminishing liberals receding from the frontline.
    The truth is over the decades of Pakistan’s existence liberal Pakistanis believing in the cause of freedom of speech, have been persecuted on an official level by the establishment and have fled the country. From those on the left that fled in the sixties and seventies and found assylum in Britain, to those that were persecuted during long periods of Army rule who found a place to escape to as in Eourope and Canada have been victims of suppression of the freedom of speech in Pakistan.
    Finally when one could get a sense of the freedom of speech in Pakistan, it has retreated to English language press and television. While on the other hand, what is clearly visible is that freedom of expression in the larger society is availble only to those speaking on behalf of extremists in the name of religion. Ever forcing a dwindling number of those that may think differently to find assylum anywhere like the imam mentioned in this case.


  • My Name is Khan
    Aug 22, 2011 - 6:55PM

    @ MS Mariya – I see your point but I think the vocal majority in Pakistan IS very religious and very intolerant of others.


  • Asad
    Aug 22, 2011 - 7:03PM

    Wow-very pro salman taseer article. well the killing of salman taseer was wrong. But unfortunately the taseers have always served the interests of the US rather than that of Pakistan. His daughter Shehrbano is on an international campaign to shred apart the image of Pakistan. On international forums in Europe and US, She trys to portray that every Madrassah and every Mullah is evil. She seems to be a sworn enemy of the Saudis even though ironically her father’s murderer was a hard core Barelvi, and barelvism has always been at loggerheads with the saudis…probably Shehrbano needs to do some research…or perhaps her motive is simple….all sects, as far as they are Islamic need to be wiped out and secularism needs to be promoted.
    Suppose if an American senator (and his daughter) campaigned for Socialism and tried to implement the model of Russia in the US, that senator would first be stripped of his rank and then probably shot by some American nutter for promoting socialism in the US (Champion of Capitalism).

    The same happened in Pakistan (an Islamic Country) when a govt official (meant to serve the people) was aggressively promoting secularism- an ideology completely at odds with Islam.

    Btw Pakistan was made in the first place as an Islamic country…otherwise what was the need of separating from India and our indian brothers…we speak the same language, have a simiar culture, have similar features, etc


  • Schazad
    Aug 22, 2011 - 7:06PM

    I fully endorse writer of this article. Our society is caught in a whirlpool of deep rooted bigotry and absurdity which will sink pure land one day.Recommend

  • Roflcopter
    Aug 22, 2011 - 7:11PM

    I believe atheists need to stop moaning


  • gp65
    Aug 23, 2011 - 1:03PM

    @Asad Liaqat:
    Calling someone as linked to RAW or ISI is in itself not defamatory. It is defamatory however when it is unsupported by facts or circumstantial evidence.
    51 leading Pakistani journalists have opposed the characterization of SAFMA as a Raw sponsored organization since SAFMA really represents media from all SAARC countries. On the other hand, can you quote one unbiased credible person that has disagreed with characterizing Zaid Hamid as a moithpiece of ISI?


  • Cynical
    Aug 23, 2011 - 3:38PM


    “I believe atheists need to stop moaning.”

    Can you please explain, just why?
    Would you prefer them blowing themselves up in markts,mosques and god knows where not?


  • Abbas from the US
    Aug 23, 2011 - 5:58PM



    I believe atheists need to stop moaning.”
    Can you please explain, just why?
    Would you prefer them blowing themselves up in markts,mosques and god knows where not?

    Atheists are rationalists and committed believers in free speech. Free speech is certainly not condoned by the supernatural or those that represent this inexplicable phenomenon.

    And there are currently no atheist theorists who advocate violence of any kind against others, or themselves. This blowing up of self while taking a few along who may be in disagreement, is a trait that only can be best reserved for believers of the various kinds, specially the mix of the supernatural with race, which provides an awfully potent mix.


  • Mumtaz
    Aug 29, 2011 - 4:52PM

    Very good article.


  • Sep 11, 2011 - 7:50PM

    A tip o’ the hat for you Sir! This article needs to be translated into Urdu, Sindhi, Pushto, Balochi, Seraiki, Hindko and all the other languages that even a single soul in Pakistan speaks. Mr. Ijaz has written a brilliant piece and has to be commended for the clarity of thought and the brevity with which he has explained what all of us feel but are unable to express. We all ‘net-libs’ should at least do our bit by asking everyone we know to read, understand and digest this gem. I am firing it off to everyone I know. The Express Tribune too needs to be commended for publishing this.


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