The great rift

February 25, 2024

The Gaza obliteration tests West’s moral standards

The great rift


ver the past few months, freedom of expression has been under attack even in the bastions upholding the freedoms of speech, thought and expression. Some famous and prestigious universities have had their foundations shaken with the removal of some of the most important personages and those in control of the institutions over a mere murmur about what is happening in the Middle East.

One is not talking here about the media, which choose sides or take positions on every event and happening, large or small. The battle is no longer being fought on the periphery, but at the centre. The core of academics has fractured with the uncritical support of what is happening in Palestine.

The great rift

These institutions don’t tire of pontificating on the virtues of a dispassionate approach – for the academic discourse requires stepping back and being comprehensive. It is not about ready support for a cause or a purpose but taking a long, philosophical perspective that resists rushing into action or taking sides on the spur. It appears that these institutions are reneging on their foundational principles.

At Harvard, one of the most prestigious universities, the president had to leave for offering some space to the other side. As it happens, this was not the stated charge against her, or not the only one – it was patched with charges of plagiarism. Suddenly, the university authorities woke up to the fact that the person heading the institution was a plagiarist. It is sad that there was not enough confidence to be found to charge the person for what it was. Other factors like one’s personal conduct in the past had to be included in the charge sheet. The intention, it seems, was thus camouflaged and doubt created about the person’s character. We see this happening all the time in Pakistan. A person is charged with a specific act or statement and is then smeared with other dirt. Like in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, they want to kill the poet for whatever reason, even bad verse.

It is as if policies and actions of the Israeli government cannot be questioned. The basis of freedom is that the other person should also be heard.

Many of the films, television serials and shows on air these days face the same dilemma as the pressure mounts to show and display only one side of the story. It is as if, like a divine sanction, the policies and actions of the Israeli government cannot be questioned.

The basis of all freedom is that the other person should also be heard. This negates the very premise on which academic and political freedoms have been made to rest in liberal democracies.

Even in the most renowned institutions, which have long championed the cause of academic freedom, the very freedoms are under assault. These universities and institutions did not tire of upholding the superiority of their societies and order by allowing space for the opposing point of view. Now in the crunch moment, it has all folded back to the essentials: what I say is right and all else is wrong.

Whenever an exhibition, a play or a film was not singing from the same hymn sheet, it was not only boycotted and critically badmouthed, the sites were also vandalized. How dare anybody utter such a word or display such a thing. Many years ago, an exhibition was physically vandalised in Brussels by the Israeli ambassador himself, who hacked everything to pieces. Except for a mere mention, no action was taken over this act. At best, there was a mumbled regret. Nothing more.

Had the opposite happened, all hell would have broken lose. The vandals would be labeled as brutes, uncivilized and uncultured - even terrorists. But the Israeli ambassador went scot free. The assault on freedom was gulped down in silence and made to pass.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

The great rift