When three hooded gunmen recently attacked and killed the editorial staff of a vicious satirical journal in Paris which ridiculed Judaism, Catholicism and Islam — the West was fuming. Good God. This is a blatant attack on the Freedom of the Press. To the Brits, French and the Germans, it was worse than a Middle East wake. David Cameron was enraged. Angela Merkel was enraged. Francois Hollande was enraged. I think somebody even quoted Voltaire… I don’t know what Thorning Schmidt’s reaction was; after all, it was in Denmark where the mischievous pictorial attacks originated, inducing Islamic countries to ban imports from the Scandinavian country. Barack Obama condemned the violence. He offered FBI help to ferret out the rest of the terrorists. But deep down, I honestly don’t think he would ever endorse ridiculing and mocking any prophet, and especially one who is held in deep awe and reverence by such a large body of worshippers, some of whom turn to violence as the only means of settling a dispute. In fact, when it was brought to his notice that Terry Jones, a pastor in Gainesville, Florida was planning to burn 2,988 kerosene-soaked copies of the Holy Quran, he made jolly sure the pastor would be hauled up on a felony charge.
Not many French people supported the scurrilous attacks on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which didn’t have a particularly large circulation. On more than one occasion, government ministers in France had warned the editor and the staff of the offensive journal to soften their tone after the appearance of some reprehensible, highly disgusting cartoons that were produced about Jesus Christ. The Catholics in France were enraged; and after receiving threats, the weekly was provided police protection. Now don’t get me wrong. I have a great regard for cartoonists. They have a gift for executing a drawing in an exaggerated style for humorous or satirical effect and can convey a universe of thought in a single picture. For years, I have marvelled at the wit of Larry, Low, Clark, Scarfe, Mahoud, Langdon and Bell. In fact, among my books are many collections of the best of Punch, The New Yorker and Private Eye where the world’s finest cartoons have been parked. Across the eastern border, Abu and R K Laxman kept me amused for as long as I can remember. Both artists paid special attention to popular tropes without too much fuss or fanfare. But… in all the years that I have looked at caricatures I have never, not even once, come across a drawing that deliberately insulted or ridiculed a prophet. Of course, there are lots of funny stories and anecdotes about people of various nationalities and religions. And even titular heads of various faiths and sects have had their share of rebuke. But so far as the willful attacks on prophets are concerned, Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo are two notorious examples.
In today’s world, members of the Muslim faith react more sharply to actual or perceived provocations than members of other faiths. And the censure is often violent, swift and decisive. Murder is murder, and the offenders should be dealt with according to the law of the land. But can anybody deny that the staff of the magazine didn’t have it coming? That they weren’t asking for it? In Pakistan, where freedom of the press is a highly relative term, 56 journalists have perished in the line of duty. But I don’t remember anybody at the BBC or CNN or Deutsche Welle saying, “There has been another blatant attack on the freedom of the press.” In the land of the pure, it happens all the time.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 11th, 2015.