Sunday, January 18, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Jan 19, 2015

Deepening divide The feared spread of conflict because of Charlie Hebdo’s insistence on continuing to publish caricatures considered blasphemous by most Muslims is unfolding. In Niger on the second day of riots, stone-throwing demonstrators clashed with police in the capital Niamey and other towns, yielding by the time the smoke cleared to at least eight churches being burnt and the Christian community, particularly French nationals, fearing for their safety and lives. This followed the deaths of five people the day before. If the situation in Niger and other Muslim countries in northwestern black Africa is increasingly incendiary, the same apprehension of a gathering storm in many other countries of the Muslim world is gathering pace. In Pakistan, although the religious parties were initially and expectedly in the forefront of protests against the caricatures, there is no gainsaying the fact that sympathies for those killed in Paris by the terrorists notwithstanding, there is deep disgust amongst all Muslims at the unnecessary provocation in the name of freedom of the press, with blind and uncritical support by western governments. In this emerging scenario, the attacks in Paris could embolden other terrorists to mount more such attacks. One incentive for doing so is being provided by the knee jerk reactions most western governments are guilty of. They uphold in mechanical fashion freedom of expression unalloyed by any sense of responsibility. Even if it is conceded for the sake of argument that when the Danish paper first published such caricatures in 2005-6, the reaction in the Muslim world and further abroad could not be accurately predicted, in 2015 such excuses no longer hold water. All journalists in the west by now know the likely consequences of going down this precarious path. If a publication continues despite this to put out such material, what are we to make of its motivation? The west has arrived at its present secular, democratic system through a long struggle and much bloodshed. Having achieved it, does it wish to impose the same kind of bloodshed on the Muslim world and beyond? Is freedom of expression such an absolute principle that a sense of responsibility has no place in it? Knowing full well the consequences of pursuing such a course, arguably the insistence on an abstract principle devoid of the context of today’s world borders on hate speech. That is something the west is very careful about, in a selective manner though. Anti-Semitism is rightly punishable in Europe with jail in some cases, particularly given the history of Hitler’s Germany. Denying the holocaust however, instead of being refuted by facts and arguments (of which there are plenty) is also punishable because it is interpreted as anti-Semitic, a stretch of a principle if ever there was one. If hate speech on this issue is so sensitive that the law forbids it, why does the same sensitivity (if not law) not apply in the case of matter that inflames Muslim sentiment? While we decry the extremist mindset of the terrorists and condemn their bloody deeds, does not deliberate provocation in the name of freedom of expression too not answer to the charge of ‘extremist thinking’? Today’s interconnected world requires such sensitivity not only to peoples far away, but also those who now are part of European societies from other cultures and sets of beliefs. A world at peace cannot be constructed on the basis of an extremist-terrorist and extremist-liberal binary. The task of combating terrorism worldwide (and it has certainly spread because of, amongst other factors, western actions and policies) requires an inclusive, respectful approach to differences, not incendiary provocation. The latter can only lead to the deepening of the divide that is opening up between different cultures and religions. That outcome only serves the purposes of the fanatical jihadis who wish to see their provocations duplicated (in print if not in action) by their perceived western enemies so that the whole world is plunged into a new firestorm of hatred ad bloodshed. Despite the commitment of western democratic societies to freedom of expression, their governments need to take pause and consider where their present course could lead if irresponsible and repetitive provocations are allowed to prevail.

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