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Watching With Glee

Lahore, Pakistan.

In Lahore, the only notable sign of the demonstrations around Pakistan was the closing of shops earlier than usual for Friday prayers. I wondered vaguely about this need for caution. Something must have happened, either Shia-Sunni clashes, or anger linked to The Cartoons, or both.

The truth was revealed later that evening, on a choice of news channels. Sectarian clashes in the Frontier Province; cartoon protests in Islamabad, Karachi, even Lahore. All across the globe, issues merging like the Indus and Kabul Rivers.

Here we witness this modest tsunami with shock. But American and British newscasters (perhaps mirroring audiences in their countries) report the news with a mix of horror and glee, barely concealing this undercurrent: ‘Could “Muzlims” and “Islamists” make greater fools of themselves? Don’t go anywhere! There’s more to come ‘ And the protesters duly oblige. Burning flags, throwing rocks, scaling embassy walls. They may think they’re refusing to become muzzled Muzlims but their fury is but the snarling of a caged beast. Underneath: dead words, tighter chains.

Freedom can be selected like a television channel. Push the right button and be saved; push the wrong one and be condemned. But the picture unravelling on television screens is screened. Many sediments are collecting in the churning, simmering waters of these two main tributeries: the double standards of the part of the world called ‘West’; the complete inability of the part increasingly being pigeonholed ‘Islamic’ to articulate itself.

The war in Iraq is approaching its fourth year. The US and UK invaded a sovereign state on grounds that were blatant lies. President Bush and PM Blair should be impeached. Instead, they put another murderer on trial, occasionally release tapes of Osama bin Laden, bomb villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan — an ‘alliance state’ –, bully Iran, and warn against terrorist attacks. In these times of heightened paranoia and mutual distrust, hysterical protests against cartoons couldn’t please Bush and Blair more. The war is going splendidly: just watch TV.

Dead Iraqis are not the war. Dead Afghans are not the war. International news channels conceal the war crimes commited by the US and UK. Ancient civilizations are being torn to shreds, for ever. Their people will be deprived of a name, dignity, and voice for several generations, if not for ever. The Western media reports none of this, but it is so, so surprised that others don’t want free speech.

How can such double standards not cause resentment, including amongst those protesting violently but impotently against the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad? The Danish newspaper that started this voyeurist’s wet dream, Jyllands-Posten, had previously refused to print caricatures of Jesus Christ. The former editor’s reason: they were offensive.

There are many, many other examples of ‘the West’ inviting free speech selectively, choosing exactly who to offend and who to protect. In November last year, French bishops protested an advertisement showing twelve women dressed in clothes designed by Marithé + Francois Girbaud (plus a thirteenth figure with a bare back), positioned like the Apostles in Da Vinci’s Last Supper. A French court banned the ad. In 2002, protests in Massachusetts, USA, against the play Jesus Has Two Mommies (in which Jesus has two lesbian mothers, Mary and Josephina) led to the cancelling of two shows. The same year, protests in both the US and UK against a BBC documentary The Virgin Mary (in which the virginity of Mary is ‘insulted’), helped prevent its screening in the US. In 1986, the Catholic Church tried to ban Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. It failed, but cinemas that screened it in France came under bomb attacks. It has still not been screened in some American states. Two years earlier, there were similar protests around the world, from Australia to the United States, against the French film, Je Vous Salue Marie (Hail Mary). The list goes on. It is illegal in Germany to sell Mein Kampf, as it is illegal to deny the Holocaust happened.

When censorship is imposed by Christians to protect the feelings of Christians and Jews, sometimes it’s fought, sometimes it isn’t. If you are for the right to free speech ­ both in word and image ­ apply your principle to all. The cartoons that mock Mohammad, and not very inventively, and the subsequent outrage they’ve generated, have brought out the worst in both the ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ worlds. While the former denies it also practices censorship, the latter openly flaunts it.

Which leads to the second main tributary: the problem of clearly articulating grievances. Muslims cannot forbid non-Muslims from depicting the Prophet. They can protest, but they cannot forbid, just as the French advertisment can be protested, but it should not have been banned. European newspapers are free to print and reprint these cartoons. But in so doing, it becomes obvious that they are not innocently exercising their right to free speech but kicking a group that is already down. Very down. As down as it gets. That is why they are doing it: to gloat.

The offended can snarl from behind the bars, but if this is ‘protest’ it must avoid turning into propaganda against itself. The protesters need to be clear what they are protesting. Here lies the next problem.

If the protest is for equal sensitivity to believers of all faiths, many of the same protesters would remain silent about the unjust treatment of religious minorities in their own countries. Some are already happily the aggressors.

If the protest is against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, then it’s taken the Muslim world a very long time to publicly unite in such numbers against the wars, but better late than never. Drop the slogans against the drawings, and insist the wars end now. Mohammad was alive fifteen hundred years ago; Iraqis and Afghans are dying today.

If the protest is for an end to the US sponsorship of military rule in the Third World and a call for democracy and free elections, then don’t silence citizens in the Muslim world who want to elect a secular government that ensures secular education, better health care, an end to laws and customs that abuse and degrade women, and intellectual freedom to all its citizens.

As none of this is made clear, the ‘protests’ are simply a way of taking the bait. They give the US and UK governments exactly the advantage they seek, helping divide the world into ‘West’ and ‘Islamic,’ keeping the War on Terror burning. If the Muslim world were better educated and better fed, the cameras would expose the hypocrisies of the war-makers instead: international courts would condemn them, and the rest of us could live without the interference of self-appointed Powers and their two-faced freedom.

UZMA ASLAM KHAN is the author of The Story of Noble Rot (PenguinIndia 2001) and Trespassing (Flamingo/ HarperCollins UK 2003; Metropolitan/Henry Holt USA 2004). She lives in Lahore, Pakistan.

 

 

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