Countering blasphemy
Khalid Iqbal


There is persistent outflow of anti-Islam literature in various forms: movies, caricatures, printed matter and word of mouth. The pattern is of a well orchestrated, multi-pronged campaign to keep the Muslims off balance. Reactions by the governments of the countries from where such materials are originating have generally been varying: refusing to take responsibility, indifference, complacency, denial and outright defence of these, presumably non-state, media actors.

This is the fourth major event over the last few years, which has caught global attention. Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s caricatures and Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders’ documentary became public in a quick succession. Then it was Pastor Terry Jones with his disgraceful plan to burn the Holy Quran. Now is the film named The Innocence of Muslims. And without caring for the ongoing global protest, the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, has published sacrilegious cartoons of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). To rub salt into the wounds, the French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has commented: “We are in a country where freedom of expression is guaranteed, including freedom to caricature.”
The Arab American scholar, D. Jack Shaheen, studied more than 1,000 movies, from the oldest Hollywood productions to the blockbusters, up to 2001. Then he wrote the book titled Real Bad Arabs, How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Shaheen concluded that over 300 movies, vilified Arabs and Muslims in one way or the other, comparing it to World War II Nazi propaganda against the Jewish people.
The US Department of Defence (DoD) provides high-tech military equipment, locations, troops and consultants for select Hollywood producers. Reportedly, many of the most violent movies that glorify war crimes and mass slaughter of dehumanised Arabs or Muslims have been produced with its support.
All political goodwill that America had earned in the Middle East by supporting the ‘Arab Spring’ has been washed away through this single act. Unfortunately there appears to be, at least tacit, collusion by America at state level, be it burning of the Holy Quran or incidents of production and circulation of hate literature, especially against Islam. Mere disowning of such acts without any intervention to correct the situation, and persistent inability to prevent recurrences, further corroborate this perception. Hiding behind the smokescreen of lofty ideals like ‘freedom of expression’ is just to cover up the underlying bias against Islam.
The right to freedom of expression is recognised as a human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948. Article 19 of the UDHR reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This right is also recognised in international human rights law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), subject to the provisos stipulated in its Articles 19(3) and 20. Article 19 of the ICCPR states:
1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this Article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may, therefore, be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary -
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.
Furthermore, Article 20 of the ICCPR states:
1. Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.
2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.
Recording his impressions on the issue, the UN Secretary General has aptly stated that “freedom of speech is a right that should not be abused.” Hopefully, the 67th session of the UN General Assembly would take notice of the emergence of this dangerous trend. Ban Ki-moon would do a great service to global peace by presenting a framework for interfaith harmony; whereby making the member states responsible for preventing the production and outflow of blasphemous material against all religions. The starting point should be the formulation of common criteria, followed by a binding international treaty. Keeping in view the speed and reach of social media, circulation of hate material also needs to be included as agenda item in the forthcoming meeting of International Telecommunication Unit, which is a UN organisation having 193 countries as its members.

The OIC too bears a heavy responsibility in this regard; it must come out of its slumber and assume a role beyond a mere debating society. It should constructively engage the UN to work out an acceptable and workable protocol for interfaith harmony. Muslims share much common ground with other ‘Ibrahimic’ religions. Building on this, people belonging to other faiths could also be taken onboard.
The OIC also needs to engage the states and entities that monopolise the means of production and circulation of such material. In this regard, these entities could be convinced to have their internal code of conduct and preventive mechanisms. The Internet Governance Forum - an entity comprising governments, private firms, academics and civil society - need to be engaged to include such issues in their deliberations. The Seventh Annual IGF Meeting will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan from November 6-9, 2012; the theme for the meeting is Internet Governance for Sustainable Human, Economic and Social Development. The OIC should participate in this meeting and explore the ways and means to move forward.
At national level also, there is a need to rationalise the ways we protest. There is no need for anarchic rampages. The government is stretched. Beset with so many law and order problems, the law enforcing agencies are now required to protect the protestors as well as save the public and private property. Intrusion into the diplomatic enclave cannot be justified under any pretext. The government has done a commendable job by joining the public in their protest. It needs to do equally well by discharging its state-level responsibilities to counter the menace of blasphemy.
The Islamic Ideology Council (IIC) needs to come forward and lead an academic discourse. Parliament should build on the IIC recommendations and legislate a ‘national response’ to such events, including diplomatic measures and economic sanctions, against the entities involved in such actions. Protocols and agreements need to be signed with telecommunication and social media entities to ensue immediate blocking of blasphemous material. It is a matter of shame that Indian reaction time to block such materials can be measured in hours; whereas we take days.

As a whole, Muslims need to revisit their strategy of countering blasphemy. Disrupting the activity and damaging private and public property is certainly not an effective way. There is a need to pursue the legal course and take the matter to the UN.
The Western countries need to realise that their large Muslim populations also feel emotionally hurt and bruised. These blasphemous acts do not glorify ‘freedom of expression’. They tantamount to letting loose the politics of hate. Anyone who thinks that such action could in any way dent the faith of Muslims needs to have his head examined. Global level protest by Muslims cutting across ethno-sectarian divide should be an eye-opener.