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It's About More Than Cartoons

What’s Going On in Pakistan?

by ZAHID SHARIFF

Lahore, Pakistan.

Major cities in Pakistan have been in flames, several individuals have died, and damage to property is estimated to be in millions of dollars. These are among the worst riots in Pakistan’s history.

Unrest of any significant magnitude always appears inevitable once it has occurred. Succumbing to such a temptation is virtually unavoidable when a certain constellation of forces and alliances provide easy targets. The ruler of Pakistan is General Pervaiz Musharraf, who manages to coop most powers of government (but allows freedom of press); he supports President George Bush’s War on Terror with considerable enthusiasm, and that both keeps him in power and undermines his domestic support. The popularity of Islam-pasand (those of like Islam) groups has increased, and two provincial governments are headed by Islamic parties. American bombing of a village without consultation with Pakistan’s government killed several civilians, and strong demands by a variety of political parties did not produce any regret on the part of the United States or even a promise that such violation of sovereignty in the future will not occur.

The drama unfolding in Pakistan in the last week may be divided into four parts: the Danish cartoons and their analysis, response to them in Pakistan, explanations, and the future prospects.

Analysis of Danish Cartoons.

The demonstrators on February 14 took to the streets in all the major cities of Pakistan to protest the publications of cartoons that Muslims all over the world find deeply offensive. These cartoons appeared first in a newspaper in Denmark and then in several other European countries. The events that they unleashed in Europe and Pakistan flowed from inertia and arrogance, together they reduced the willingness of the major players, first, to anticipate, and, then, to adequately respond.

The European and American government leaders repeated their mantra ad nauseaum: regrets for Muslims’ hurt feelings and helplessness in view of their deep commitment to a free press. There were some interesting variations, however. Norwegian apologies were unqualified; the editor of Magazinet, the Norwegian newspaper that reprinted the cartoons, Vebjoem Selbekk, said, "I address myself personally to the Muslim community to say that I am sorry that your religious feelings have been hurt." Carsten Juste, the editor of Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, which originally printed them, on the other hand, stated, "In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with the Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize." While it is still too early to know the full range of pressures, motivations, and prejudices that resulted in the publication of those cartoons, some recently-revealed facts are helpful in contextualizing to a certain degree the decisions made in Jyllands-Posten. It is indeed sobering to learn that it rejected certain cartoons submitted by Christopher Zieler about Jesus because they were expected to offend Christian sensibilities, but other cartoons that were thought to be less offensive to Christians were published.

More recently, Fleming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post has tried to explain his decision to ask Danish artists to produce the cartoonists and to publish them. It requires closer attention.

His first reason for doing so was to overcome what he called European self-censorship; it was reflected, according to him, in unwillingness of artists to illustrate a children’s book about the Holy Prophet (PBUM), translate a book critical of Islam, withdrawal of a installation in London’s Tate Gallery that showed pieces of the Qur’an, the Bible, and Talmud torn to pieces. I find this quite amazing on at least two counts. First, one would have to be living on a different planet not to notice that Islam and Muslims are under heavy and frequent attack: in different representation forms (books; magazines; TV shows; including TV series–for example, 24–crafted to serve only that purpose), by famous authors (V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Robert Cooper, Niall Ferguson, Christopher Hitchens, David Perle and Richard Frum), practices (documented discrimination in employment and housing, which were brought to attention in France recently but those conditions prevail in several other European countries too), and strength of political formations (increasing popularity of right-wing parties in several European countries, including Denmark). Second, it is hard to understand why Mr. Rose felt that these cartoons were the appropriate means for overcoming the so-called self-censorship.

His second reason was that "we have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons." Since the cartoons treated other religions in the same way, "they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims." Strategies for inclusion, I am willing to grant, do vary, but defending one that, on the face of it, should have appeared more than a little bizarre, but continuing to do so after it has lead in many countries to massive demonstrations, riots, deaths, and huge damage to property, and also to the recalling of ambassadors from Denmark, well, that, suggests something far more serious than that. Aren’t there other ways of making 20 million Muslim immigrants in Europe comfortable, welcome, and included?

The third reason was that the cartoons were trying to demonstrate that it was "some individuals [who had] taken the religion of Islam hostage by committing terrorist acts." And it was they who were responsible for giving Islam a bad name. The fairly tale of Aladin which portrayed the orange falling into the turban in one cartoon "suggests that the bomb comes from the outside world and is not an inherent characteristic of the Holy Prophet [PBUH]". I have seen the cartoon in question, and to me this interpretation seems disingenuous and tortured. Surely, if the objective was to disassociate Muslims and their faith from terrorism there were clearer, less blasphemous ways of doing it.

Mr. Rose ended with the usual eulogies to the sanctity of freedom of the press and the elevation of all dangers to it as amounting to nothing less than totalitarianism, reinforced by references to the Soviet practices. Here he missed an opportunity to focus on perhaps the most significant issue that has emerged, which has now been adopted as a recommendation by the Organization of Islamic Conference to the United Nations: prohibition against all blasphemous expression. This proposal is actually not so novel. In Austria, which I understand has freedom of press, denying that Holocaust took place is a crime under its law, and an author was sentenced to a jail term for three years.

Response in Pakistan

Pakistan’s government protested the publication of the cartoons, as did all other Muslim countries’ leaders, but it appeared understanding of the Western governments’ position, or at least was not willing to challenge it. It was eventually the Danish government that took the initiative in recalling its ambassador from Islamabad that led to the virtually automatic decision on the part of Pakistan to do the same.

Public opinion inside Pakistan is complex and divided along a variety of ways. Pakistani intelligentsia consists largely of educators, journalists, and lawyers, and they influence it considerably. Ideologically they include the liberals as well as the left. They were not as passionately engaged in denouncing the publication of the cartoons, at least not in a prominent way. In Dawn, a highly respectable English newspaper, a columnist recommended that Pakistanis get over it; the column’s title was "Move On." Islam-pasand (those who like Islam) groups, on the other hand, took a different position. They demanded that Pakistan’s ambassadors from European countries be recalled where the cartoons had been printed, and trade with them halted. It was also demanded that the Europeans carve out the same exception for blasphemous expression as exists for other reasons. No political group in Pakistan could really oppose these demands. That revealed in a rather dramatic fashion the unique position of Islam in Pakistan’s politics, on the one hand, and the evaporation of "moderation" and "secularization" forces when certain crucial junctures are reached, on the other. These are the political fault lines that have the potential of tripping up political groups and governments; they cannot be ignored in any plans for democratizing the country.

The intelligentsia in Pakistan has come to play an unusual role. They are, as expected, largely secular, or at least not very religious; and, consequently, uncomfortable with any public manifestation of Islamic role. They have made known their opposition to sharia-based laws in certain areas, and are moving forward with their agenda. But for reasons not entirely clear, even the left-leaning among them have so far not mounted a strong or sustained critique of globalization (World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund). On top of that, some of its ardent supporters speak of jihadists in an undifferentiated manner. (Tariq Ali is a good example.) However, since not all Islam-pasand groups are terrorists, such characterization is clearly unwarranted. Their strong rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, their anti-terrorist stance, some discomfort with Islam, and no strong opposition to the globalization project, makes their position paradoxically not very different from that of American government. They are far more willing now to change the subject to condemning violence than the issue that led to the riots in the first place.

Explanations

The ostensible reasons for the demonstrators to get out of hand in Pakistani cities had to do with a breach of commitment, or so government officials state. The organizers of the march pledged that there will be no violence, and on that basis they were allowed to march on Lahore’s major street, The Mall. The organizers respond that the groups they were leading kept their pledge; it was some other groups that were responsible for the loss of life and damage to property. In any case, there is no denying the fact that buildings were torched, stores looted, and cars set on fire for at least three hours before police or the Rangers finally arrived where they were needed in Lahore. There were protests and extensive damage to property in virtually all the other major cities as well: Karachi, Peshawar, Islamabad, Quetta. Demonstrations also occurred in small cities and even towns as well.

Several explanations are circulating that explain these events. Breach of commitment and lack of police preparation are the obvious ones. Beyond that, India and the United States are the usual suspects; the former for weakening Pakistan, the latter for creating an excuse for demanding that Pakistan give up the nuclear bomb. Some go so far as to suggest that the government itself is behind it; unrest being always a reliable excuse for arresting the political opponents (more than 300 of them have been arrested), strengthening the powers of government, and extending its term of office. Random violence by the young students to vent their frustration about unemployment, inflation, and authoritarian government may be yet another explanation. Some parties now clearly seek not only redress for the publication of cartoons but also the ouster of President Musharraf.

The extensive damage and unrest in Pakistan reveal a pattern of twisted and perverse history of authoritarianism, Islam, and the pursuit of American interests in Pakistan. During the long period during which the Cold War continued, and particularly after Soviet Union’s military presence in Afghanistan became known in 1979, United States’ government has supported Islamic groups, funded and trained groups that fought under the banner of jihad, enthusiastically supported military governments in Pakistan, and ignored such governments’ suppression of domestic democratic movements. That has been largely the norm. But, then, periodically, American policy has suddenly shifted to punishing Pakistan, but not India, for having developed a nuclear bomb, not having a democratic government, for supporting jihad, or generally taking Islam much too seriously. Perhaps the worst example of such a sudden shift in policy was the abrupt departure from Afghanistan by the United States as soon as the Soviets had been ousted.

After Pakistani government had supported American jihad to oust the Soviets, it was left to deal with three million Afghani refugees on its own–more than two million of which are still here–and deal with several Afghani tribes fighting each other over which one will rule over Afghanistan.

Soon after that, Pakistan was subjected to layer upon layer of sanctions for developing the atomic bomb. For many years, the American government also disallowed the delivery of the F-16 planes that Pakistan had already paid for, but neither was Pakistan allowed to get back the price paid for those very expensive planes. In the meantime, Pakistan was also being charged for parking the planes that it could not have!

Future Prospects

The perception, shared by both the elites and people is that American government is an unreliable ally, as likely to turn on Pakistan as it is to support it. The torching of two MacDonald and one Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in Lahore may reflect some of that feeling.

Foreign investment is likely to be discouraged, but there wasn’t much of it coming in, in any case. Government’s powers will likely be strengthened, but they are already quite considerable. But there clearly were some frustration in all this violence, and if it is not addressed partly through foreign policy initiatives and partly domestic relief, either further repression or unrest will follow.

Islam-pasand parties, presently organized as Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Rasool Mahaz (Front for the Protection of the Sanctity of Prophethood) have a long, virtually unending schedule of actions planned. Cartoons have provided an issue, as mentioned already, that no one can really oppose, and that puts the government and the intelligentsia in the unenviable position of having to condemn the violence without addressing the issue of cartoons itself.

Former President Bill Clinton visited here recently, and charmed his hosts by declaring that the publication of the cartoons was a "mistake." He emphasized the responsibility with which press freedom needs to be exercised. President George Bush is expected here soon. He is likely to come and leave publicly praising the virtues of freedom; in private, he is expected to lean on his hosts to do more to fight terrorism, something that President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan also did when he was here a few days ago. President Musharraf, in the interest of serving such freedom will probably give it up as far as the sovereignty of Pakistan is concerned; he may also be under pressure to reduce the freedom and tribal autonomy of the areas where al-Qaeda operatives are suspected of infiltrating into Pakistani territory. Freedom as it manifests itself in public and operational contexts produces some paradoxical results.

Sometime in the future, perhaps after Bush or after terrorism, American policy-makers may well want to impose sanctions on Pakistan again because it is unable to handle internal strife in tribal areas and has weak democratic institutions. If that happens, a well-established norm will be reinforced. Scholars will again start probing Pakistani culture and Islam for clues for understanding it!

ZAHID SHARIFF teaches at the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington. He can be reached at: shariffz@evergreen.edu