The protests over the offensive anti-Islam video continued with renewed intensity and anger on Friday (Sep 21) – a day of prayer across the Muslim world and Pakistan was the most violent with as many as 19 deaths and over 200 people being injured in the police firing that ensued. The total death toll that began with the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya on September 11 has now touched 49 – with some of the more seriously injured still in hospital.
Karachi, Peshawar and Islamabad/Rawalpindi reported the highest level of violence on Friday that had been declared a government holiday – and a ‘Day of Love for the Prophet.’ In other parts of the Muslim world including Bangladesh, similar demonstrations were held with the angry crowds touching figures of 10,000 in some cases.
The civilian government in Pakistan took a decision that it felt would placate the anger of its people over the offensive video (now compounded by the rash of satirical cartoons that are appearing in European magazines ) but clearly this decision has back-fired.
The Pakistani government sought to justify the decision on the grounds that had it not declared a holiday – the local police would have found it very difficult to deal with the anger of the crowds that was expected, since the streets would have been busy with the normal human density associated with a major South Asian urban city.
However on the holiday, the Pakistani government and the political leadership sought to play safe and pandered to local sentiment instead of leading or guiding the anger on the street. The net result has been a trail of death and wanton destruction with the more opportunistic groups and individuals torching public property and government vehicles.
While the level of anti-US sentiment is very high in Pakistan ( a Pew survey conducted this year concluded that 3 out of 4 Pakistanis saw the US as an ‘enemy’ ) and the fall-out of the bin Laden Abbotabad operation has only served to strain the US-Pak military relationship, the more thoughtful spectrum in Pakistan is aware that stoking anti-US and anti-western and anti-‘other’ passion is not the way ahead for the troubled country.
There is a recognition within Pakistan that the current interpretation of the tenets and practice of Islam is proving to be very corrosive and the question that plagued the nascent Pakistani state in August 1947 – who or what is a good Muslim – remains unanswered.
If the kind of violence and deaths that were seen on Friday are one kind of manifestation of ‘defending’ the faith, then some equally relevant introspection took place last week in Islamabad (Sep 19 ) among Islamic theologians and scholars which provides slender hope for the way ahead, in these troubled times. This was illustrated at a seminar in Islamabad on “The Emerging Challenges and the Responsibilities of Islamic Scholars” convened by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies .
It was instructive to note the Chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology in Pakistan, Senator Muhammad Khan Shirani asserting that it was “imperative for Muslims to stop finding faults in others for failures and should focus on soul-searching to redress the emerging issues.” He further added that “commonalities among the majority of humanity must be highlighted instead of focusing on differences only” and exhorted the assembly of religious scholars to promote peace and tolerance in a fractured society.
Pakistan’s deeper malaise is a carefully nurtured ‘anti-other’ socio-religious eco-system and the deliberate stoking by the political establishment of intolerance against the backdrop of an increasingly distorted version of Islam. The ex-communication of the Ahmediya sect going back to the early decades of the consolidation of a Pakistani identity is well-known. The progressive manipulation of this anti-minority sentiment was skillfully used by both Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his protégé and hangman - General Zia ul Haq.
Gradually the anti-minority target group was expanded to include not just the Hindu, Christian, Ahmediya but also the larger Shia minority. In recent years, the killing of Shia citizens in Pakistan has been steadily increasing - and in many cases the state is culpable.
In the most recent instance that will send alarm bells ringing among the community, is the killing of Bohras in Karachi (Sep 18) wherein seven people were killed in twin blasts. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that a three-month old baby and a 12 year old girl were among the fatalities. Have the Bohras become the latest ‘other’ in the poisoned ethos that now ‘defends’ Islam in Pakistan ?
The current cycle of violent protests and the rationalization of death and destruction will have dire consequences among those states and societies that refuse to take an objective view of what is now happening in the aftermath of the release of the offensive anti-Islam video. The anti-Islam spectrum across the world will have no hesitation in baiting the Muslim world and will invoke domestic law to defend their ‘ right’ to freedom of speech and expression.
Quoting from the findings of the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington DC, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman drew attention to the hate-filled videos against Sufis, Shias, Jews and Christians that regularly appear on and in Arab / Muslim media outlets. The survey is depressing.
There are some brave voices in Pakistan that are trying in vain to remind their own people of the normative essence of Islam and recalling the tolerance that the Prophet himself displayed in the face of grave provocation and deliberate insult to him , during his lifetime.
A brief quote from the last sermon of the Prophet ( I am grateful to Sultan Shain for drawing my attention to this ) sheds light on the way ahead :
“All of mankind is from Adam and Eve (Hawwa), an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; a white has no superiority over a black nor does a black have any superiority over a white, EXCEPT BY PIETY AND GOOD DEEDS. Do not therefore do injustice to yourselves. Remember one day you will meet Allah and answer for your deeds. So beware: do not stray from the path of righteousness after I am gone.”
Looking back on how he was 'loved' on Friday, perhaps the Prophet would have been saddened but not angry.