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.

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One Thousand Year Writers Block

William Burroughs famously remarked that Islam had hit a one thousand year writer’s block. Is this assessment justified? First things first: obviously we are not talking about all writing or all creative work. Thousands of talented writers have churned out countless works of literature, from the poems ofHafiz and Ghalib to the novels of Naguib Mahfooz and the fairy tales of innumerable anonymous (and amazing) talents . There is also no shortage of talent in other creative fields, e.g. I can just say “Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan” and be done with this discussion. But what about the sciences of religion and political thought, or the views of biology, history and human society to which these are connected? Is there a writer’s block in these dimensions?

0012 william burroughs

The correct answer would be “it depends” or “compared to what”? After all, it’s not so much that everyone else in Eurasia stopped thinking 500 years ago, but rather than an explosion of knowledge occurred in Europe that rapidly outstripped other centers of civilization in Eurasia. And after a period of relative decline, the rest of the world is catching up. Culture matters, but cultures also evolve. For better and for worse, cultures in Japan and Taiwan are now full participants in the global knowledge exchange, both as consumers and as producers. Iran has been trying to move beyond previous (and obviously flawed) models of personal autocracy and hereditary rule interspersed with violent and devastating civil wars, for over a hundred years, and the Islamic republic, for all its problems, is not a brain-dead culture.

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Blasphemy Law: the Shape of Things to Come

To the article below, one can now add this unhappy piece of news:

The decision of a lower court to award the death penalty to a poor Christian woman accused of blasphemy has ignited a wide debate over Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Pro aasia protest Liberals have asked that the Zia-era blasphemy law should be repealed or amended because it has become an instrument of oppression and injustice in the hands of mobs and gangsters (over 4000 prosecutions in 25 years with several gruesome extra-judicial executions). The religious right has mobilized its supporters to oppose any such amendment and regards these attempts as a conspiracy against Islam. Ruling party MNA Sherry Rahman has introduced a “private member bill” to amend the law and the governor of Punjab has intervened (somewhat clumsily) in the judicial process and indicated that a Presidential pardon is on the cards. The international media is arrayed against the law alongside Pakistan’s liberals and progressives, while the “deep state”, the Islamist front organizations and their mentors in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia are no doubt aligned on the other side. What will be the likely outcome of this struggle? It is always hazardous to make predictions, but let us make some anyway and try to state why these are the likely outcomes:

1. The law will not be repealed. Some minor amendments may be made (and even these will excite significant Islamist resistance) but their effectiveness will be limited. Blasphemy accusations will continue, as will the spineless convictions issuing from the lower courts. In fact, new blasphemy accusations will almost certainly be made with the express intention of testing any new amendment or procedural change (thus, ironically, any amendment is likely to lead to at least one more innocent Christian or Ahmedi victim as Islamists hunt around for a test case).

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