On Pakistan’s reaction to the Danish cartoons

February 15th, 2006
Lahore, Pakistan 

At the moment I am writing, torches blaze on Mall Road. Cars are burning, bullets ring in the air, shattered glass and blood smear the asphalt. Flames rise up from restaurants and shops I’ve frequented – the streets I drove past just yesterday on my way to Liberty Market are thronged with rioters, thick with smoke and glinting blades, manic eyes and voices. I don’t understand. Who are these people?

It feels surreal. Watching it on the news is like watching a movie, some old French Revolution-style uprising on the History Channel. The last I felt this way was October 1999, when the army took over the government in the first coup d’etat I’ve witnessed. Revolts happen all over the world, people burn flags and effigies every day in Palestine and Kashmir and other oppressed places – but you don’t expect things like that to happen 15 km away from where you live. Traders’ strikes and civilian protests are normal – I’ve been part of one of those protests myself, against the war on Iraq two years ago – but violence, such unspeakable violence as the kind we’ve seen in Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad since the 14th of February – where is it coming from?

Don’t believe it if they say it’s all about the cartoons. Those cartoons (though I haven’t seen them myself, and I don’t want to) were painful for every Muslim in the world; from the rice farmer in Bangladesh to the business executive in Turkey, the madrassah teacher in Afghanistan to the Pakistani college student. Its one thing for a scholar or academic to criticize a religion or a leader, in a book for instance – that kind of criticism is expected, and accepted, and if we do not agree with what the writer is saying, we simply choose not to read those books. That is freedom of speech – an informed freedom, an educated, unprejudiced, un-disparaging freedom.

But it’s quite another matter when someone as ignorant as a comic-strip artist comes up with an absurd little cartoon that does not criticize but ridicules, not for any intellectual or scholarly purpose but for malicious amusement. Our reaction to the Danish newspaper’s cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad may be a bit difficult to understand for someone who isn’t a Muslim, but imagine it this way (I won’t give the example of Jesus or other Biblical prophets because we’ve all seen pictoral representations of them in Churches and paintings, and even comical ones in popculture. It’s also not considered a profanity by most Christians and Jews). Think, instead, of your mother or your father (or how you used to think of them when you were younger): they mean the world to you, you love them like crazy, you want to grow up to be just like them; they are, in your eyes, most beautiful, most flawless, and simply the most perfect people you have ever known to exist. Or just think of anyone very dear to you, someone you are utterly devoted to, someone you love and respect and admire and value above all else in your life.

Now if a complete stranger comes up, in a shopping mall or at school or in the office, in the middle of a whole crowd of people, and starts loudly slandering your mother or your father or your wife or husband, saying offensive things about them while they are not even present to defend themselves, wouldn’t you very well like to go and knock out that person’s brains that very moment? If someone who doesn’t even know your mother goes and publishes an insulting cartoon of her in the newspaper, for all to see and laugh and joke about, wouldn’t the tears naturally come to your eyes and wouldn’t you want to go out and prove to the whole world that it’s not true?

Now imagine that feeling and multiply it by infinity, and perhaps you’ll understand a little of what Muslims worldwide felt when they saw those cartoons – those cartoons of a Prophet so beloved, so beautiful in their eyes that even the most perfect likeness of him would seem sacrilegious.

In fact, put even that aside – the Holy Prophet suffered worse abuse and invective during his lifetime, but never once did he did so much as raise his voice against the offenders, never once did he ask his followers to rise up to avenge his honor, to vandalize towns and terrorize innocent people. We have all the right to be angry at the cartoons, we have all the right to demonstrate and voice our pain and distress in front of the world – but the violence? The violence can never be justified.

In Pakistan, the cartoons were but a pretext – pretext for madness, for chaos. Part of it may be due to the extreme sugar shortage currently facing the country; part of it incitement by the political opposition; part of it (thoroughly unIslamic) extremism, part of it social and economic frustration. But for the most part, it is insanity – meaninglessness.

I don’t know who these people are, these people ravaging my city, their own city, tightening the death-noose around their own necks – knowingly or unknowingly, I don’t know. But they are not us – not the mobsters, not the vandals, not the corrupt police and government officials, not the bureaucrats and politicians who let our cities burn, let the guns proliferate and our isolation grow for their own base motives. They are not Pakistanis, they are not Muslims, and they are not what our Prophet  or our founder wanted them to be.

I fear for my country, my poor battered, browbeaten country – the misconstrued, ill-used, perennial scapegoat that everybody kicks around and nobody likes, but at heart is just a simple, honest, luckless young nation trying to make it in the world but inadvertently falling deeper into the abyss with every step. When I think about what people will say when they see the news, on their own TV sets, I want to cry. I want to cry and say, “But it’s not true! We are not like that!”

And yet, would it make any difference?


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