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September 21, 2012

The rage of the Ummah

Opinion

September 21, 2012

Islamabad diary
The Satanic Verses was no literary masterpiece. But thanks to the death sentence on Salman Rushdie passed by His Holiness Ayatollah Khomeini, and the anger of the Muslim world, it became an international bestseller, earning its author untold millions.
Among the demonstrations the book’s publication provoked was one in Islamabad soon after Benazir Bhutto became prime minister (Dec 1988). I used to write for Dawn then and our office was on a second storey in the Blue Area, Islamabad’s principal avenue (we do have a talent for striking names).Our tall windows gave us a ringside view of the tumult below.
A bevy of clerical celebrities led the chanting marchers: the late Maulana Kausar Niazi, the late Maulana Abdus Sattar Niazi, and the inevitable Maulana Fazlur Rehman. As the charged rioters tried to march on the American Centre which was just across the road, the police, failing to stop them, opened fire – deadly fire as it turned out. The marchers ran for their lives while the leaders disappeared as if by magic, Maulana Sattar Niazi, dignified as ever in his starched turban but a bit dishevelled, climbing up the stairs and, I joke not, taking refuge in our office.
Many were injured but that was of small account against the five who lay dead. A day or two later no one remembered their names. I don’t recall any leaders visiting their homes, much less offering their families any assistance. So many years later they remain unmourned and unsung...and forgotten.
If any of the celebrated divines had been hurt would there have been an end to the glorious hymns to their courage and sacrifice we would have heard? But fodder for cannon, fodder for such demonstrations...no space for them even in the footnotes.
All the books Salman Rushdie has written didn’t bring him a tenth of the notoriety or fame our rage against him did. He had to go into hiding, true, and live under police protection, but what of that? He went on to marry in 2004

the Indian-American actress and model, the sultry, very sultry, Ms Padma Lakshmi (they are since divorced). One look at her and apropos of Sir Salman Rushdie as he now is, and fat and paunchy into the bargain, one is tempted to say, lucky devil. And the nagging thought remains: did the brotherhood of Islam make its contribution to financing his enviable lifestyle?
As for death threats, with that kind of money and notoriety they become an academic proposition.
And now some crackpot in California has made some kind of a film, which it would be an insult to the genre to call a film, denigrating the Apostle of Islam, and if someone had not chosen to dub it in Arabic and show it on television – Egyptian Intifada, thou hast much to answer for – no one would ever have heard of it...and it would have sunk without a trace.
But trust our holy outrage, sparked across the world of Islam, to turn something deserving of oblivion into an international talking point. The idiot who made it – charged with fraud in the past, be it remembered – would have a hard time believing his luck. All the world’s advertising wouldn’t have brought him this attention.
Such outrage, does it strengthen us or make us look weak and vulnerable, too quick to take offence at things best ignored or treated with disdain? At issue is not the condoning or accepting of blasphemy – which fool would do this? – but the best way of dealing with it.
The publication of Satanic Verses, Danish cartoons in a newspaper scarcely known outside Denmark, the Quran-burning publicity stunts of the Pastor Terry Jones, and now this third-rate film – to call it third-rate is to flatter it – our outrage gives them an importance they do not deserve.
And as our outrage is so predictable, it may be encouraging others to follow the same path to circulation and notoriety. Now a French weekly has carried denigratory cartoons of the Holy Prophet. Where will this mischief stop? We know topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge sell. Are we telling the world’s crackpots that blasphemy also sells?
How do we police the world’s magazines? How do we patrol cyberspace? Most of the protesters across the country – I think, we can safely bet – wouldn’t be too familiar with YouTube and would have a hard time spotting California on the map. But those in the lead of these protest marches know. A heavy responsibility rests on their shoulders.
The ordinary Pakistani Muslim is utterly devoted to his faith and can brook no disrespect to it, real or imagined. If the media tell him, if his betters instruct him, if banners put up by trader organisations declare that Islam or the Holy Prophet have been mortally insulted he is not to be blamed if moved to anger.
But how this anger is channelised, how best expressed, or whether indeed disdain is the better part of anger, is for muftis of the faith and political leaders to determine. They can play to the gallery and whip up popular sentiments or act responsibly. All too often as we never tire of seeing, playing to the gallery is the more tempting, and easier, alternative.
But the cynicism prize, if any, must go to the federal government which with a view to stealing a march over the ongoing protests has declared Friday (today) a public holiday, designating it ‘Love for Prophet Day’, with a chutzpah that has to be admired. There are better ways of expressing love for the Holy Prophet, by instituting a regime, for instance, closer to his ideals. But let be...let us not talk of difficult things.
According to a newspaper report the holiday proposal came from Herr Rehman Malik, the interior minister, who is irrepressible in such matters and known for his sharp sense of humour. There will be marches across the country (trust our divines not to miss such an opportunity) with the government in the lead, claiming the right of moral leadership. This is comic theatre at its best.
But the matter is serious. It is not easy making the argument in Pakistan that discretion may be the better part of outrage or that protesting too much at affronts in distant climes could be a counter-productive exercise, fuelling the very fire we seek to put out. It is not easy because denunciation, knee-jerk and often violent, is never far away.
The argument I am making here I made in a condensed form in a Sana Bucha programme on Geo TV and received this Facebook message for my pains, from someone claiming to be an alumnus of the London School of Economics (which, forgive me, I found rather hard to believe): “You came on a show of Sana Bucha and said (and now I am translating from the Urdu) there are other problems...listen to this, whether life remains or not...whoever utters a word of disrespect towards the glory (shaan) of our dear Prophet, his only punishment is death. Beware, because no one can tolerate a blasphemer...Keep your irreligious ideas to yourself if you wish to live with safety in this country.” And some more on the same lines.
In an inflamed climate – and who will say ours is normal? – anything you don’t like or don’t understand can easily be branded as irreligion or blasphemy. And countervailing arguments are so hard to make. Did Salmaan Taseer applaud blasphemy? He only questioned the application of the Zia-engineered blasphemy law. And look at the end he met and the flower petals showered on his assassin.
The Islam which spread from Arabia to the far corners of the Maghreb and Central Asia and India, holding aloft the torch of learning and spreading wide its lustre, was a dynamic force, liberating and revolutionary, a far cry from the closed and restricted thing it has become in our hands.
Iqbal did not speak of the revival of empire. He spoke of the renaissance of Muslim thought. Had he been alive today he would have been denounced for heresy.
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