We are a nation of passion. And frequently it is misdirected
Facts first: some characterless imbecile in California – devoid of any sense of history, religion, or socio-political nuance – made a blasphemous movie, which makes no attempts of hiding the producer’s contempt for Islam or the Muslims. In the aftermath, the Muslim world has erupted into violent “protests”, claiming several lives in Khartoum, Tunis and Benghazi. Pakistanis too (not to be left behind), over the past week, have torn themselves to shreds through demonstrations that involved burning theaters, shops, office buildings and the loss of almost 20 innocent lives. But after bouncing off the walls for weeks, the Muslim world seems no closer to elevating the glory of Islam or remedying the blasphemy.
So let’s get this straight: Our religion has been ridiculed, our beloved Prophet (pbuh) has been slandered, our centers of education and commerce are shutdown, our cinemas are burning, our vehicles have been vandalized and our people are dead. Still, the culprits behind all this remain smiling, unaffected and unimpressed.
Does this sound like a reasonable conclusion to you?
While I have not seen the movie myself, but those who have describe it to be absolutely abominable. And such blasphemy is bound to offend the sensitivities of even the liberal or moderate Muslims. As result, it must be met with our collective rejection and protest. The only question is what is the most effective way of registering this protest so that our voice brings about the requisite change? In this regard, the Muslim world (and thus, Pakistan) has two possible roads to walk down: 1) to continue banning internet, burning our own houses, and killing our brethren; or 2) to counter this blasphemous offensive through collective state action at the forums of international diplomacy and justice.
The first of these options is not going to get us anywhere. Let’s explore the second one.
The forum first: since the movie was made by a private individual in the United States, the most appropriate forum is of course taking up the matter with the US government. Sadly, however, the entire Muslim world (even collectively) seems impotent before the US. And despite the countless protests and much shedding of blood, no tangible action has been taken by the US against the perpetrator, and neither have any steps been taken to curb future recurrence of such events.
The next most appropriate forum to raise this issue is the United Nations (where the US is a participant), which can (partially) influence the US domestic and international policy. At the UN, one possibility is to have a resolution passed condemning this episode, and prohibiting any future recurrence. But UN resolutions (like dozens passed in favor of Palestine) are frequently toothless.
This leaves us with the option of invoking one of the UN Conventions. And the most appropriate convention, in regards to religious freedoms and sentiments, is the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This treaty, adopted on December 16, 1966, has been signed and ratified by 74 countries, including Pakistan and the United States. Article 18 of this Covenant guarantees freedom of religion and practice. Article 20(3) goes a step further and prohibits any incitement to “religious hatred” that amounts to “discrimination, hostility or violence”. And the blasphemous movie (even if it is protected under the American interpretation of free speech) is certainly a violation of these Articles of the UN Covenant.
However, the problem is that this treating is not “self-executing” – as in, the only way for it to be enforceable within a country is for that particular country to make domestic laws that enforce its provisions. Sadly, despite ratification, the United States has not changed the domestic law to be in conformity with the Covenant rights, as a result of which, the same are not enforceable in the US (as held in the case of Hain v Gibson, 287 F.3d 1224 (10th Cir. 2002)). And in 2006, the Human Rights Committee expressed concern over US’s non-compliance, recommending immediate corrective action.
It is high time that the Muslim world takes up these deficiencies at the UN forum. We need to exert some pressure to have the US make laws in conformity with the Covenant. But who are we kidding? Nothing short of God Almighty coming down to Mount Toor can persuade the US to do something it doesn’t want to.
Alternatively, therefore, we could lobby for making the Covenant (at least to the extent of religious freedoms and respects) self-executory, and have it be expanded to specifically cater to prohibitions against blasphemy. This, with a collective effort of the Muslim world, is perhaps achievable. And in any case, such a venture will be infinitely more productive and better use of our ‘blood, sweat and tears’ than burning down our own house.
The truth is this: we live in a world where a film that insulted Christianity was banned by the European Court of Human Rights (in the 1994 case of Itto-Preminger-Institu v. Austria), whereas a similar film that offends 1.6 billion Muslims of this planet is “protected” under free speech. We live in a time when a European court “bans” publication and selling of Kate Middleton photographs, while affording no respect to anything pertaining to the Muslim world.
Burning our vehicles, ransacking our offices, spilling each other’s blood, shutting down our schools and announcing national holidays will not bring us at parity with the rest of the world. Our passion has to be supplemented by our political, diplomatic and strategic prowess.
Anyone can set themselves on fire and scream at the top of their lungs to get the world’s attention. What matters, instead, is getting the job done. And after two weeks of protesting, we are not an inch closer to our goal!
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: [email protected]