From “Innocence” to Mohammed Joyce

by Omar Ali


Postscript: Today, 9th October, (afternoon in Pakistan) the Pakistani Taliban sent a gunman (or gunmen) to shoot a 14 year old girl who had become an icon of anti-Taliban resistance in her area after speaking up for female education. Yes, Codepink darlings on your way back from a faux protest march to Waziristan, education! NOT LGBT rights. NOT even complete gender equality. Just the right to go to school and aspire to a role in public life. She is now fighting for her life in a hospital. Another schoolgirl was also shot in the attack. There are reports that the driver of the school van was asked “who is Malala?”; he reportedly tried to stave them off by saying he couldn't identify girls for an outsider (Codepink may wish to protest this attempt to use patriarchal codes of female “honor” to save her life). Details are still murky. The story may change in some ways. But whatever the details, the Taliban's spokesman has called newspapers and proudly taken responsibility. She was shot for certain things she said and kept saying. That's it. She had done nothing else. She had not gone topless or thrown paint at a congressman or organized a little study circle of Tariq Ali's Trotskyite world resistance. She had, in short, committed no other crime even in the eyes of the Taliban. Inability to publicly say what you believe out of fear of this kind of violence is the ultimate restriction on free speech. I know it's too much to expect Codepink to have a clue, but others may wish to keep this in mind while reading this article. (Yes, I am picking on Codepink. In fact, I want to pick on most of the postcolonial-upperclass-university-retard crowd… I know they are mostly irrelevant, but I still want to pick on them, so there. I am probably putting my own happy relationship with the Pakistani super-elite at risk but sometimes you have to upset your friends.)

The furor over the internet clip “innocence of Muslims” has once again brought the issue of blasphemy and free speech into the headlines. The movie (its really only a trailer, there doesn’t seem to be any movie at all) generated the usual “outrage” and inevitably, Islamists in a few countries used it as a wedge issue to advance their own agenda. In Egypt and Libya, matters were relatively quickly brought under control. In Egypt, where the issue was initially highlighted, the newly elected Muslim brotherhood government seemed to realize that this affair could allow the crazier Salafists to grab the political initiative, and therefore they tamped it down; In Libya it led to the killing of a popular US ambassador but then seemed to generate some real pushback among saner segments of the population (of course, given the precarious nature of law and order in Libya and the presence of multiple armed salafist gangs, this respite may be only temporary). But it was in Pakistan that the most violent reaction eventually developed, thanks in part to the ruling elite’s cynical attempt to get ahead of the Islamists by taking ownership of the issue and declaring a national day of outrage. As predicted, this national day of outrage gave license to various Islamist gangs to indulge in rioting and burning in some of the cities. Twenty or so people were killed and property worth billions went up in flames. There are still demonstrations going on here and there, including in supposedly “moderate” Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, but on the whole, this particular iteration of the blasphemy and outrage “cycle” seems to be reaching its natural end.

As expected, this rioting and burning also provided an opportunity for some American academics to make an ass of themselves in the national media, most sensationally on Slate. Why free speech is worth protecting and why even Muslims who feel offended by the movie should let such “insults” pass was also presented on various forum, with Slate, ironically enough, providing one of the better appeals to good sense in a piece by William Saletan. Some Muslims, including some fairly chauvinistic Muslim activists in the West also stepped up with appeals to stop the self-destructive outrage and do something more positive. While a number of these articles generated during this time are worth reading, if you are only going to read one, I recommend one that few people may have seen: Professor Ali Minai wrote a article on his blog and on that is a real gem and must be read more widely. The whole thing (it’s a very short post) should be read in its entirety, but this quote gives a flavor of the argument:

We have no choice but to trust the wisdom of the crowds. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is the best example of this trust. To think that it relinquishes all control over speech is a misunderstanding. Rather, it trusts that a responsible, civilized people can determine the proper norms of speech for their time and place through social, i.e., bottom-up, action rather than through rigid legal control – that society itself can regulate what expression is or is not acceptable, and impose societal sanctions to enforce this flexible, unwritten code. Protection of all expression thus creates a flexible mechanism rather than a brittle one, and is a stabilizing influence rather than a destabilizing one. Wisdom, in this case, lies not in choosing what others can(not) say, but to let them choose and live with the social consequences of their choice.

Even if we leave aside the compelling philosophical arguments in favor of free speech, there are purely pragmatic reasons why the particular “problem” of anti-Islamic blasphemy is impossible to regulate to the satisfaction of the rioters.

Some well-meaning people (and many other people who are just looking for a way to stop this particular irritation from interfering with their good life; a group in which we must include the various kings and prime-ministers of Muslim states) are arguing that we need laws to “regulate hate speech”. And not only in their own domains, but in the United States (which remains a world leader in free speech) and other Western countries. Since even the most retarded of them are vaguely aware that a predominantly non-Muslim country is not likely to pass a law to only protect Muslim sensibilities, this demand is usually phrased as an appeal to outlaw ALL blasphemous speech against ALL religion or all prophets in ALL countries. This, fortunately, won't fly and let us count the ways:

  1. What constitutes blasphemy? Is it whatever someone from the offended religion regards as blasphemy? Who speaks on behalf of each religion? What constitutes an accepted religion? Would insults directed at the flying spaghetti monster count? More seriously, does this mean no one can make fun of Scientology any more? What about Mormons and their magic underwear? What if only a few people are offended but they are very vocal? etc. etc.
  2. Who will enforce the law in Muslim countries? There are endless diatribes against the Jews, the Hindus, the Ahmedis, evangelical Christians, atheists, etc in every Muslim country. If any such law were enforced in Pakistan, we would see mass arrests of mullahs insulting the founder of the Ahmedi sect.. or do they now intend to stop blaspheming against Mirza Ghulam Ahmed?
  3. The internet is notoriously hard to police as currently constituted and the threshold for blasphemy is rather low among the Islamists (retelling any of a hundred stories from orthodox Islamic texts can count as blasphemy if not handled with maximum care…the publisher of “Rangeela Rasool” (libertine prophet) was killed in Lahore in the 1920s for a book in which he took great care to quote nothing but orthodox Muslim sources. Obviously in that case it was not the specific stories (mostly accounts of the prophet’s various marriages and slave girls etc) but the title and the (assumed, correctly assumed in this case) intent that constituted blasphemy in Muslim eyes. But while Muslims may feel they can always tell when blasphemy is being attempted, it is not hard to imagine internet warriors who manage to highlight the same stories, commit blasphemy, and yet break no law in the eyes of a non-muslim judge even if such a law were in place. What then?
  4. The very existence of such a law and subsequent court cases in non-Muslim countries would provide vast opportunities for discussing exactly the sort of things best left un-discussed. This is obviously not a problem in Muslim countries, where the threat of execution (by free lancers who have “deputized” themselves, if not by the guardians of the law) works fairly well to limit any and all remotely blasphemous speech (and where it is also easy to apply the law only to anti-Muslim blasphemy), but how would this work in a country like America? Even Britain, with its assertive and prominent Islamist minority, cannot stop internet discussion of embarrassing matters or even cartoons like the series “Jesus and Mo”. In America the situation would likely be much worse from an Islamist point of view. A future Nakoula, hauled up to face a tribunal set up under the 28th amendment (the “prevention of blasphemy” amendment that would surely be necessary to permit such prosecutions) would use the court to discuss in lurid detail every episode that he drew upon to make his 14 minute blasphemous movie. Today, most non-Muslims probably have no idea how the various crude insults in that (extremely) crude movie are based on polemics and stories from classical Islamic literature. But any trial would become the source of blasphemous arguments that would far exceed anything that the movie itself could present. For this reason alone, the urge to “ban blasphemy in the whole world” needs to be thought about very carefully.

I am sure we can come up with dozens of further (or more relevant) practical objections to any effort at limiting such speech in non-Muslim countries. Matters are, of course, different in Muslim countries, where the blasphemy and apostasy memes are still practically useful to Islamists (even as they are obviously philosophically wrong for the kind of reasons Ali Minai identifies). But outside of that world, its only a matter of time before new movies, interviews and cartoons hits the airwaves. Muslims will just have to lump it and learn to ignore it. And in time, most Muslims will probably do exactly that. In fact, American Muslims have already learned to do exactly that (witness the lack of hysteria in the US Muslim community). This trend is irreversible.

At some level, many Muslims are now beginning to figure it out. For example, this particular movie was followed by cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo and another set was supposedly published in some Spanish magazine, yet the outrage is fading rather than increasing. Its not over yet by any means. Elites in various Muslim countries are corrupt and incompetent (of course, not just in Muslim countries) and some of their opponents are Islamist gangsters who will undoubtedly milk this meme whenever they can. But there is nothing the US government can do to completely stop all such insults (much as some elements of the US government are tempted to do so to keep various “friendly” elites in power). The thing to keep in mind is that the US doesn’t even have to be apologetic to its various Arab and Pakistani clients about this. Wringing their hands and telling Zardari or Abdullah that “our hands are tied by the first amendment” only makes them raise their price and whine more. The more practical attitude is to tell them to use whatever bribes and beatings they usually use to stay on top and keep their Islamists under control. What choice do they have? Those elites need the US more than the US needs those elites. They will have to figure out a way to deal with this and the fact is, when push comes to shove, almost all of them will find a way.

And if they cannot? Then they are ripe for beheadings (or flight to Dubai) in any case and the US and its allies will have to look for other arrangements. The crucial fact is, they are not that fragile.

To sum up, while the episode has shown that blasphemy is still a live issue in the Muslim world, it has has also shown that the outrage can be contained where the elite is firmly in control; no one rioted in Saudi Arabia and even in Lahore, the police had things mostly under control. Where law and order has collapsed there are also bigger problems to worry about (as in Somalia; this was hardly the most important issue in Kismayo this month). Its only in the “cusp” countries where the corrupt elite is shaky and doesn’t have the various Islamist gangs under good control (meaning they riot even when they are not required to riot) that there is any serious risk of disorder. Even there, each episode has a definite half-life. After sacrificing a few cinemas and getting some people killed (not a very big deal for the elite in a country where 20 people can get shot every day in Karachi when there are NO riots) the elite usually re-establishes control. After a few more iterations it will not even be news any more.

In fact, I would go much further. I think historian Tom Holland is correct in stating (in an excellent short piece in the literary review) that

Yet the nervousness, perhaps, has been overdone. The unfortunate confluence of circumstances that saw Rushdie condemned to death for reasons of internal Iranian politics has long since altered. It is perfectly possible to publish a book that questions the fundamentals of Islam and live to tell the tale. No fatwa, for instance, has pursued Alom Shaha, who in The Young Atheist's Handbook fearlessly described his journey from the faith of his Bangladeshi parents to disbelief. Perhaps, then, if not a Muslim Ulysses, there is at the very least a Muslim Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man out there being written. For an author to question a religion need not be to dismiss it. On the contrary – it may be to weave it more tightly into the fabric of a literary culture than it would ever otherwise have been.

The “Orientalist police” may be all over him for saying things like “Muslim Ulysses” (using Western writers as the standard by which “the other” is to be judged” and so on) but his point is sound. JamesjoyceThe Muslim world is part of the larger world and it really IS one world. Cultural distinctiveness and peculiarities are real, but so are the common tendencies of modern life and one of those common tendencies is the exploration of historical and religious myths in literature, film, drama and poetry in ways that go far beyond anything seen in the pre-modern past in scale and variety. This trend exists among Muslims just as it does among everyone else; there is no way “Satanic Verses” is going to be the last attempt at dealing with early Islam in modern literature. Much more is coming.

And it will not all be “high literature”. A number of satirical writers have already taken to the intertubes with some great short pieces. For example, see the work of the prolific Hakim Hazik who writes almost weekly in (the titles alone are pure gold, go to the link to read his work).

Others are going further. Satirist Ahmed Asif’s hilarious (and hopefully inaccurate) view of the future of Lahore in lets fly Sunni. includes this description of the hero’s encounter with blasphemy law as it may exist in a future Pakistan that is determined to keep the beast of modern life at bay:

…As soon as I uttered the name, Muhammad, Wali kissed the tips of his fingers, and started mumbling a prayer, his eyes shut, his face serene and then slowly assuming increasing tension. Soon foam appeared on his lips. The traffic light turned green, but, oblivious to his surrounding, he kept his eyes shut, his lips moving. Cars honked in the back. The next thing you know that he yanked the door open, jerked himself off the seat and stepped outside, leaving the door ajar. Ignoring the now incessant honking, he knelt on the ground and went into sajda. I looked back anxiously, my heart pounding. The cars immediately behind us started to go in reverse and then the traffic started to move again, passing by our parked vehicle. By the time Wali came back and sank into his seat the light had turned red again.

“What was all that about?” I said, meekly.

Without saying a word, he opened his glove box and took out a knife–clasped. The blade snapped open as he pressed the end of it. He turned around and grabbed me by the collar, his eyes two balls of fire. He put the cold edge of steel on my throat. It felt sharp against my skin.

“Wali, are you OK. What happened to you? Take it easy buddy. I just got here,” I said. The whole thing was just too quick for me to even start experiencing the shock.

“You have uttered the name of You Know Who without the salutations; and, and–this is a crime punishable by death.” He pressed the blade further down my skin.

“Wali, come back to your senses. What’s wrong? Man, let’s move–The light is green. Let’s go. Please–Let’s have a talk on a cup of tea in the Fortress Stadium–I can explain.” Sweat appeared on my forehead.

“I’ve beheaded four nincompoops like you right here where you sit on your dumb ass, and you will be the fifth,” he said. The traffic light had turned red again.

“Aren’t you done then–I mean four is a pretty decent number–Come on now. Let’s cool it buddy,” I said.

“Mufti Sahib says, if I can get seven in total, my place is assured in the highest heaven,” he said, deliriously. “It’s been getting more and more difficult to encounter enemies of Islam like you.”

“Wali–Please, have mercy. I’ll do anything you say. Remember that old hag…”

“Shut up!” He grabbed the nape of my neck in his free hand, pressing the dagger into my skin. “What old hag?”

“That old hag which used to throw trash on You know Who,” I said. I felt the cold edge of steel cutting my skin.

The pressure suddenly got lifted. He looked into my eyes. The fury in his eyes melted like ice.

“So you know the story?”

“Yes I do–I know a lot of stories.”

“You damn well know that the story has cost me the seventh heaven?”

“Fifth,” I corrected him.

“You gotta get to fifth first before getting to the seventh?” he said, folding his knife and putting it back into the glove box.

“On what level you get the virgins?” I said.

There can be no doubt about the fact that Muslims in the US will soon be reading (and writing) an ever-growing list of novels, plays and even movies about Islam and the individual’s encounter with it (they have already started, but much more will come). And from this ferment, much that is useful will eventually emerge. The times they are a-changing…