The impact of the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video continues to reverberate across the Muslim world. Yesterday the Pakistan government’s declared a public holiday and a ‘Day of Love’ in honour of the Prophet Muhammed, which descended into violent chaos.
In various cities, demonstrators who apparently included numerous followers of extremist religious parties went on the rampage, burning cars, cinemas and other targets, and clashed with security forces who used tear gas and live ammunition.
By the end of the day 25 people were killed and over 200 more were injured. Despite the violence, these riots/demonstrations do not appear to have been particularly well-attended, in a country of 180 million people, but the government of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf cannot be entirely surprised that its opportunistic attempt to play the religious card did not work in its favour.
The Pakistani economy is in serious trouble. Its public finances are in disarray – a situation not helped by the fact that hardly anyone in the country pays taxes. The country is run by a corrupt elite whose contempt and disregard for its population was glaringly revealed two weeks ago, when 264 workers were burned to death in a Karachi textile factory.
Karachi police have brought murder charges against the factory owners and government officials who failed to ensure proper safety standards in the factory. Meanwhile the US continues to conduct the fish-in-a-barrel drone strikes that have turned the northern tribal areas into a shooting gallery, and which are hugely unpopular in Pakistan.
Unwilling or unable to do anything about any of this, the government has preferred to pander to religious populism and jump on the ‘Innocence’ bandwagon, summoning the US Charge d’Affaires to complain about the Youtube trailer for the video, which the American government has repeatedly condemned and in any case has nothing to do with.
A really bold assertion of national independence that, which is unlikely to cost anyone in Washington or Langley much sleep. Pakistan is not the only country where governments, demagogues and religious populists have attempted to turn the ‘Innocence’ issue to their own political advantage.
In Sudan last week, the government bussed protestors in for the demonstrations that resulted in the burning of the German embassy. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood called for a ‘million man march’ to protest the video, which it subsequently called off, perhaps sensing that it might not work out in its favour.
All this suggests that the ‘Innocence’ furore cannot be reduced to some kind of cultural/religious ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative between the tolerant/secular West and a monolithic Islamic world that supposedly venerates the sanctity of religion and the sacred over tolerance and free speech.
The speed with which the protests erupted in so many countries and so quickly acquired an anti-American, anti-Western hue, suggests that the video has become a catalyst and a flashpoint issue that cannot be separated from wider political and socioeconomic circumstances in the countries where they have taken place – and the disastrous history of Western ‘interventions’ in the MENA countries and Central Asia.
For all the global media attention they have received, and for all the violence that has accompanied them, it’s worth noting that the actual scale of protests have been relatively small in most of the countries where they have taken place – especially when the usual high-profile bigots such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali attempt to portray the protests as another manifestation of ‘Muslim rage’ and further proof of the incompatibility of Islam and modernity.
Fanaticism is certainly not lacking in this issue – either amongst the protesters or the scumbag bigots who made the video. But if ‘Innocence’ and the Charlie Henbo cartoons disgrace the concept of free speech, that doesn’t mean that we should accept the calls from Hezbollah and the Arab League for a global ban against blaspheming or insulting Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
There is no doubt that Islamophobic groups and individuals have used ‘religious’ attacks on Islam to evade legal and moral proscriptions against racialised hatespeech in order to attack Islam as a culture/religious faith.
It’s also clear that some free speech zealots have attempted to transform even the most puerile and vicious attacks into a test case of the West’s commitment to its liberal/tolerant values against Islamic cultural domination – with a vehemence that they would probably not have demonstrated were such attacks directed against Judaism or Christianity.
But the boundary between ‘insulting’ and ‘critiquing’ religion is thin and often subjectively interpreted by governments and religious bodies. Blasphemy laws are routinely used, in Pakistan for example, as an instrument for the imposition of reactionary patriarchal values and a justification for the persecution of minority faiths.
In Iraqi Kurdistan last year, thirteen women’s rights activists were accused by a prominent cleric of ‘blasphemy and demoralising Kurdish society’. In Tunisia, artists have come under sustained attack from Salafist groups and members of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, that include physical attacks, death threats and cancellations of exhibitions and performances.
Such behaviour is not limited to Muslim societies. In Russia, the recent jailing of Pussy Riot on charges of defaming religion was only the latest in a series of incidents, in which the authorities have punished or fined artists who have attacked the Orthodox Church or used religious iconography in provocative ways.
To institutionalize such behaviour on a global level would be a huge step backwards. If the principle of free speech cannot be allowed to be a license for bigotry and hatespeech, then vague and overarching blasphemy laws are no kind of solution.
On the contrary, such a retrograde step would be a victory for the kind of demogoguery that we have already seen too much of these last two weeks, and would ultimately become a license for any reactionary government and conservative ‘religious’ political party to dictate to their own societies and the wider world what can and cannot be said.
As trashy and poisonous as ‘Innocence’ may be, that is not a price worth paying.