“When someone says something derogatory against our religion Islam or against our Prophet,” said a mild mannered religious scholar on a Pakistani TV channel recently, “even an ant becomes a lion.” There was a brief delay here after the latest deliberate provocation—last Friday, expectant foreign correspondents gathered outside the usual mosques to watch only a few dozen protestors turned out to burn American flags—but eventually the ants did their duty.
As I write these lines, violent protests have broken out across Pakistan on the occasion of a newly-declared national holiday, the Day of Love for the Holy Prophet. The government has banned YouTube and there is heavy security around the U.S. consulate. Scattered groups of excited young men are riding on bus roof tops waving flags, promising to show the world what their love for the prophet is made of.
Across the Muslim world moderates as well as those who wear their religion on their sleeves tell us, agitatedly, that insults against their religion are a very emotional issue. The odd misery memoir writer will tell you, in response, that the one billion people who attest to such beliefs should be frog marched to the nearest mental asylum. They are themselves being a bit emotional.
Because what both sides fail to appreciate is that, though the issue is undoubtedly emotional, it is not ultimately religious. Wherever the protests have become largish, or turned violent, the reasons essentially are local. (The Taliban didn’t start attacking U.S. bases this week in Afghanistan after watching a You Tube clip.) The chaos unfolding around us is a case of protesters thinking locally, and acting globally.
Consider this: A local Shia organization held a big, noisy but peacefully rally against the ongoing Shia killings in Pakistan outside the Press Club in Karachi, one of the largest Muslim cities in the world. Not even journalists hanging out inside the press club came out to cover the rally. Two days later the same organization led a march on the US consulate in Karachi and their leaders were being interviewed live on every TV news channel. Two days later another Karachi group, which is a militantly secular coalition of lapsed gangsters and community activists demanding better sewerage and public parks had mounted buses and were rushing towards the American Consulate.
And the truth is there is no shortage of local reasons to organize a protest. The religious right is not the only malaise here, nor the young men on bus rooftops thrashing faceless effigies covered in US flags. The supposed liberals who will do anything to protect their privileges, who cover their greed behind God and good civic sense, are not blameless.
Pakistan's elite, both military and civilian, has created a society where it can enjoy first world perks at third world prices. Karachi’s liberal elite send their children to the city’s oldest private school, a school so distinguished that half the graduates end up in US Ivy League colleges. They consider it a basic civil right to send their children to a school that ensures their passage to an American institute that will guarantee a lifetime of prosperity. But this is a right that they don’t believe extends to the half of Karachi’s school age population that is left out of the schooling system entirely.
Well, who doesn’t want the best for their own child? But after all the elite has done to secure the best and seemingly safest passages for its own children, why is it so unprepared when the others come barging in burning US flags? After you have kept them out of schools, after you have taken away their parks, after you have let them burn in infernos because you couldn’t be bothered to enforce fire exits, you really think they shouldn’t even feel an insult, they shouldn’t even block a road or throw a few stones? People left alive on minimum subsistence, told day after day that God will compensate, that it is all Allah’s will, can not be expected to allow their religion to be snatched away from them.
There is something slightly perverse, of course, about people who claim to love their faith, then go looking for insulting material about it. Their arguments are both banally predictable and outrageously feverish. (“They are killing Muslims in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Palestine. Now they won’t even let our beloved prophet alone. He has been gone for fourteen hundred years. What kind of bestial people would allow this? What kind of brutal people would allow, not just allow but will have laws that guarantee that this kind of thing can be carried out freely?”).
And it should be clear that the blasphemy they seek out isn’t always, or even typically, in the heathen world beyond their own borders. The government may have banned You Tube, but when it comes back—and that is as certain as the fact that another insulting depiction, a cartoon, a picture, a provocation, will cause another round of mayhem—they will again locate, and response to, the many local reasons to be outraged. There are videos uploaded by Pakistani religious scholars that conclusively prove that Shias are worse than Jews, there are videos which proclaim that Ahmedis are really Jews. There are hundreds of videos demanding death to all Wahabis here and elsewhere. There is even one of a dog-loving Islamic scholar who encourages his congregation to howl like dogs to express their devotion to the Prophet—and obviously there are many others videos calling it blasphemous and demanding death for the dog-loving Mullah.
Salafists recently tend to get all the credit but you should see the cuddly Sunnis—Sufi-music loving, let’s-all-meditate in the name of Allah. They, too, roar like lions at the blasphemies they perceive around them, projecting their feeble street power to a global audience through a media which can’t have enough images of young men supposedly channeling my rage. And, of course, there are the many religious scholars who feel that it is there place to tell a billion people what their emotions ought to be.
And this process starts really early. An Islamic studies teacher in a tenth grade class in a school that is not next door to the US consulate, told his students recently that the third Caliph Hazrat Usman had all the copies of dodgy Qurans burnt, and established a single text which nobody can change. A student raised his hand and asked: surely all those copies that were burnt contained Allah’s name, so wasn’t burning those books blasphemy? “Who knows better?” thundered the teacher, “Hazrat Usman, the third Caliph, or a tenth grade student?”
Of course a king knows way more than a tenth grader. But if a tenth grader can’t ask his teacher about a king’s decision, he may never understand why sometimes it becomes necessary to burn things that were once considered holy. The tenth grader might become an ant that occasionally becomes a lion, roars, and then tramples over fellow ants.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.