Blasphemy Category

Blasphemy, Extremism, Pakistan, Peace, Published in The Daily Times, Religion

Salmaan Taseer – on the right side of history

January 4, 2018: Salmaan Taseer – on the right side of history (Daily Times)

Today marks the seventh anniversary of the senseless, cold-blooded murder of Salmaan Taseer. His martyrdom was a price paid for defending a poor Christian woman and speaking up against injustice and violence perpetrated through the misuse of blasphemy laws. Even though the murderer has been punished by the courts of this country, ‘justice’ in a broader sense remains as remote as it was on January 4, 2011.

Salmaan Taseer wanted the parliament to review these draconian laws. His quest for reform was misconstrued by the right wing fanatics, opportunists in the media and political opponents as ‘blasphemy’ itself. In all these years, not much headway has been made to reconsider the controversial and, if one may add, man-made laws that continue to haunt the body politic, and adversely affect the status of minorities in the country. Since his brutal murder, more people have been booked under the law, incidents of lynching have continued and hundreds languish in jails. The parliamentarians are scared, unmoved or worse remain indifferent.

Taseer’s killing should have moved the state towards action. After all he was a representative of the federation in his capacity as the governor of Pakistan’s largest province. But the state of Pakistan is addicted to misuse of religion for political gains. The Pakistan People’s Party government blocked YouTube after protests against a C-grade movie on the Internet. Nothing was learnt from the Taseer episode. A long legal battle led to restoration of YouTube but the damage was done. You could pick up any issue, incite public passions, mobilise a few hundred fanatics and then pressurise the state to surrender.

In 2014, GEO TV that had fallen out of the favour of the powers-that-be, was booked under the blasphemy law. This followed the attack on journalist Hamid Mir whose family accused the deep state of harming him. GEO/Jang Group aired these accusations. Once again, blasphemy came in handy as a means to teach a lesson to the errant channel and its management. That this occurred at the behest of security establishment, says it all.

After the taming of traditional media, especially the television industry, the digital spaces emerged as arenas of dissent. A crackdown on digital media has been ongoing since the start of 2017. In January 2017, five social media activists were abducted by state agencies on the pretext of having committed ‘blasphemy’. The chorus was joined in by some TV channels and an effective campaign against illegally detained bloggers was launched that convinced even reasonable people of their alleged blasphemous activities. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) under the overzealous (former) interior minister published advertisements that online blasphemy should be reported. This was an open invitation for a witch-hunt.

One victim of this odious state policy was Mashal Khan, a student at the Abdul Wali Khan University who was killed on campus by a mob that consisted of students, staff and outsiders on fake allegations of posting blasphemous content on his Facebook page. For weeks, everyone was busy proving that he was not a blasphemer, as if that would have justified the barbaric behaviour.

But this was a prelude to what was coming. After Nawaz Sharif’s engineered ouster through a questionable court verdict, his party’s government was brought to a standstill by clerics on the blasphemy issue. Ministers released video confessions that they were devout Muslims, and in the streets of Islamabad hundreds lionised Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Shaheed Taseer. Abusive language, including expletives, was employed by these clerics to defend the ‘honour’ of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The son-in-law of former PM Sharif, Imran Khan and many others openly supported this cause. Such is the reckless support to extremism to earn a few political brownies

This marginal Barelvi extremism has always been a reality. Mumtaz Qadri was a face of it but with the backing of the establishment to undercut Nawaz Sharif and pliant sections of the media, it is likely to turn into a menace. For more than 30 years, we have dealt with the Debonadi variant, generously funded by the Gulf countries, and now the Barelvi brigade might be used to control politics, as the Sharif dynasty refuses to disappear despite massive propaganda and court cases.

In 2017, the military refused to become part of the crackdown on the Barelvi fanatics. Instead, they were given a warm send-off, called ‘our own people’ and awarded return fares. All of this unfolded like ignoble chapters of a tragedy. It is clear that the blasphemy laws are not going anywhere and religious passions will remain a convenient tool to be used at any given moment for a particular political agenda.

Mumtaz Qadri was hanged. An immediate cause of justice was served but the mindset that aids and abets violence in the name of religion is ever-present and has the clear-cut backing of state institutions. Asia Bibi, the Christian woman defended by Shaheed Taseer, remains in prison. Another young scholar Junaid Hafeez continues to suffer solitary confinement and countless others are at risk.

But Salmaan Taseer has left us with the idealism and courage of resisting this injustice. This is why many in Pakistan’s civil and political societies are challenging the forces of extremism. This is why we need to celebrate Taseer’s life; and bewail his death. He was on the right side of history.

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Blasphemy, Extremism, Islam, Journalism, Pakistan, Peace, Politics, Published in The Daily Times

Let’s accept what we have done to ourselves

April 15, 2017: Let’s accept what we have done to ourselves  (Daily Times)

The lynching of Mashal Khan by fellow students at an educational campus in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is a stark reminder of what we have done to ourselves. The barbaric violence by a mob and the inability of the police to prevent it has worried all thinking Pakistanis who have been hoping for a change in country’s direction after a brutal decade of terrorism and violence in the name of religion. One critical dimension of the recent incident relates to radicalisation of our campuses and the conflicting attitudes of Pakistan’s youth.

Last week, I wrote about the problematic school textbooks in Pakistan that influence young minds. They imbibe the half-truths and supremacist ideas and universities seem unable to do much on that front. I remember a distinguished academic narrating his experience of engaging students at a private university in Lahore. He was worried that the best and brightest minds had already been shaped and infused with at best debatable ideologies.

The Islamisation of Pakistan during the 1970s and 1980s and the espousal of jihad as state policy needed public support. Thus education and media turned into major vehicles to achieve that objective. Scared of the anti-regime political mobilisation, Gen Zia also banned student unions, which have remained banned to this day. The exception, of course, being student groups that do their organising in the name of religion. Stifled campus environment and lack of critical thinking, among other things, have been hallmarks of higher education. Sadly, the civilian governments have not attempted to change this and it was only the second military regime in last 30 years that gave some attention to the state of higher education.

It has been widely believed that radicalisation among youth is linked to poverty and deprivation. Those may be important factors but studies have shown that poverty or lack of economic opportunities for social mobility are just facilitators. There is something deeper at work. In the absence of a clear sense of direction, youth in universities have increasingly embraced an identity rooted in religion, and view global politics as a manifestation of an inter-civilisational conflict. This worldview is averse to accepting the accommodate the ‘other’ or finding a way to acknowledge differences for a peaceful co-existence.

A few years ago, Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, a reputed social scientist, conducted a survey at leading private and public sector universities of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. The students of these universities had access to greater resources and opportunities as compared to youth at public sector universities in other cities. The survey found that the majority opposed a secular state in Pakistan. Eighty-eight percent of students declared Islam to be their identity and for 57 percent, Islam held an important place in their personal lives. Sixty-two percent supported declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims, while 51 percent supported the prohibition of liquor. Thirty-three percent believed in gender segregation in the country. Surprisingly, the majority of students expressed aversion to taking part in political activity, with 67 percent ruling out joining any political party.

Admittedly, Dr Siddiqa’s research captured the views of 5 percent of Pakistan’s student body; as only half of the country’s children attend primary school, with a mere quarter of them completing secondary education. Only 5 percent are able to enroll at university. This reflects disengagement of youth from the political process. This will not change until the formation of student unions remains outlawed. In the absence of avenues for engagement with national politics, youth are influenced by the state driven discourses on domestic politics, regional security and Pakistan’s participation in global affairs. This has also increased prevalence of hyper-nationalism among the youth as the textbooks have already taught them that only a national security state can handle the conspiracies hatched by outsiders.

Perhaps things changed a little with the mobilisation by political parties, especially the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in recent years. But PTI’s message has been contradictory at best. On the one hand it had energised young men and women on the platform of hope for ‘change’; but on the other, it also cultivated some level of sympathy for Islamist militants by constantly drumming up the idea of them being ‘our misled brethren’ pitted against the evil West.

Earlier, a British Council survey of youth in 2009 revealed that only 33 percent of young men and women believed in democracy as a system of governance. Another 33 percent supported the imposition of Sharia law in Pakistan, while 7 percent preferred dictatorship. Yet the real insight from that survey was that for most youth, religious identity, regional/ethnic affiliations mattered more than a Pakistani identity.

Sadly, the Pakistani state has encouraged such confusion by not forging a territorial, localised identity. Most Pakistanis, including the youth, view their country as an antidote to the persecution of Muslims by Hindus in a united India and as the extra-territorial guardian of the Ummah. It is a separate matter that most of the Ummah does not accord that leadership role to Pakistan, despite its nuclear prowess.

It is difficult to generalise on the basis of small surveys but Mashal Khan’s lynching and the disturbing scenes circulating on social media testify to a culture of intolerance, which has taken root in our social fabric. It is also a testament to the failure of the education system that is unable to distinguish between a secular humanist and an offensive ‘blasphemer’. The Islamists’ definition of ‘secular’ as la-deen (irreligious or non-believer) is widely accepted 70 years after the Islamic Republic was founded.

We have to simply acknowledge this before thinking of what needs to be done.

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Blasphemy, Extremism, human rights, Islam, Pakistan, Published in The Daily Times

Blasphemer hunting must stop

April 13, 2017: Blasphemer hunting must stop (Daily Times)

The violent passions incited in many sections of Pakistani society by accusations of blasphemy were on display once again – this time in Mardan. Reports indicate that a student mob from a local university campus was infuriated by a series of rumours about certain students posting ‘blasphemous’ material online. The bloodthirsty mob turned its fury towards a student, 23-year-old Mashal Khan. He was beaten, shot and tortured until he died, while another student remains critical. A video is now circulating on social media, showing Mashal’s lifeless body, stripped of all clothes, lying outside a hostel building on campus, as a mob of students continues to beat his body and throw things at it. The campus has now been emptied and sealed to contain the violence.

There are two particularly alarming aspects to this horrific episode. Firstly, there are some indications that the two students were targeted based on their dissenting views on religion and society. Secondly, amongst the rumours circulated was the idea that they were promoting the Ahmadi faith. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, blasphemy allegations go hand-in-hand with being identified as Ahmadi –with both resulting in terrifying violence.

Sadly those in power have contributed to this unfortunate situation. Since January, the state authorities have been drumming up the campaign against blasphemy on social media. From the Prime Minister to the Parliament and from judges to legislators, high-sounding rhetoric has been aired to prove that the state is somehow guarding the faith. On social media, Pakistanis have been accepting challenges to prove their faith to fellow Muslims. In a country where 95 percent or more are Muslims, the fear-mongering over blasphemy is nothing but a deliberate ploy to invoke religious passions to achieve political ends. The primary objective has been to suppress dissenting views on religion, military and state policy. Political parties have social media cells that malign party leaders, and the security establishment has been keen to employ digital media for public messaging. In this race for who wins at shrill hysteria and controls the internet, innocent young people like Mashal are being killed.

What can authorities do in such a situation? Although a solution seems difficult – given the might of those who do politics (and even business) on accusations of blasphemy – there are still some steps that can be taken to reduce such religious extremist violence.

The Prime Minister and his associates and other branches of the government must end this blasphemer hunting campaign and give Pakistan a break from the sordid trends of the past.

First, authorities must be as firm as necessary in investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators of such violence, in the aftermath of accusations of blasphemy. Second, something will have to be done about the purveyors of bigotry and merchants of violent hatred on social and electronic media. It will be especially necessary to apply the law to a handful of TV anchors who have recently participated in the most bloodcurdling campaigns against alleged blasphemers, without any evidence. Third, when the state takes action against anyone who stands accused of blasphemy, it must uphold due process, stick to the law, avoid incitement and bear in mind the maxim which is the basis of most modern democratic justice-systems: “Innocent until proven guilty”.

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Blasphemy, Extremism, Islam, Minorities, Pakistan, Peace, Published in The Daily Times

Dissent is not blasphemy

March 18, 2017: Dissent is not blasphemy ( Daily Times)

Last week, a bizarre public notice issued by the federal investigation agency (FIA) appealed to the general public to provide evidence about social media users who were committing blasphemy and were ‘enemies of Islam.’ In a country where the blasphemy laws have been widely abused to settle personal disputes, threaten the weaker sections of society, such a move is utterly dangerous. That this happens under an ostensibly democratic government is even more worrisome.

For the past few days, Islamabad High Court has been a venue for reigniting the blasphemy debate. Last week, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a judge of Islamabad High Court, while hearing a petition seeking the blockade of blasphemous content on the social media, observed that those involved in blasphemy are committing terrorism. He also warned that if action wasn’t taken to check such pages immediately, then “patience of the followers of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) may run out” and more Mumtaz Qadri’s will emerge.

The bench instructed the government to open an investigation into online ‘blasphemy’ and vowed to ban social media networks if they failed to censor content deemed objectionable by the majority of Pakistanis. Later on, FIA after investigating complaints of character assassination of a judge, reported to Interior minister that Facebook administration had refused to share information related to those orchestrating such a campaign. The minister directed formulation of a strategy and talks with management of popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp to introduce local versions of these websites in Pakistan, after implementation of due cross-checks to ensure fake, hate and blasphemous materials is not circulated on these websites.

As if the executive actions were not enough, the Parliament also passed a resolution calling for stringent implementation of laws to curb content deemed blasphemous on social media. The executive and the parliament, have now, aligned directly with the extremist mindset to muzzle moderate voices and dissent in the country.

Historically, Pakistan’s relationship with its dissenting citizens has been troubled, to say the least. The state has, time and again, taken legal action and intimidated those who criticize its policies. During past decade, the state went an extra mile to not only crush dissent, but also, set an example for others. This has happened, with the concurrent rise and expansion of digital and electronic media in the country. State and militant groups have systemically targeted those who speak against deepening religious extremism, the ambivalent relationship between state and clergy, the role of military in politics and its national security policies.

In January of this year, at least five bloggers were picked up from three cities of Punjab in a coordinated action. They were simply termed ‘disappeared’. They returned after three weeks of detention. Meanwhile, the public opinion was influenced through a coordinated campaign on television and social media labeling the missing bloggers as ‘blasphemers’, enemies of Islam and therefore Pakistan. And anyone speaking for their release was also a blasphemer, a traitor and needed to be fixed.

The truth is most of these bloggers had committed the cardinal sins of criticizing the military policies and misuse of organized religion that has been taking place with abandon for the past few decades. No was held accountable for the disappearances. Weeks after his release, one blogger Waqas Goraya made serious allegations in a BBC interview as to who may have picked him. And the state has not even bothered to deny that. The most worrying part was how the Red Mosque — a place where military officials were killed in 2007 — joined the chorus of punishing the blasphemers. For years we have heard how the civil-military establishment has changed its position on jihadism. If so, why is the Red Mosque still being patronized?

Digital media are here to stay. It’s difficult to ‘ban’ it like you can crack down on a newspaper or a television channel. Globally, digital media work as avenues for citizen journalists and highlight issues that mainstream media ignores. In any case, why can’t we allow multiple voices to flourish? If state is worried about the content it can deny, rebut or challenge it. The extremists in Pakistan seem to enjoy full freedom of expression in cyber space and through their sympathizers on television. Anyone challenging them is a threat.

It is ironic that despite rhetoric that Facebook has refused to act, in fact, Facebook has been blocking objectionable content on its pages. During first six months of 2016, in response to the request of Pakistan Telecom Authority, Facebook restricted access to at least 25 pages for allegedly violating Pakistani laws prohibiting blasphemy, desecration of national flag, and criticizing national independence. Meanwhile, Facebook reportedly is sending a delegation to Pakistan to discuss new measures.

Instead of stopping the abuse of blasphemy laws, the state is becoming a party to their misuse. Are these spurious blasphemy charges a means to induce a state of fear? Leading journalist, Hamid Mir has testified that after facing charges of blasphemy, he has not been commenting on human rights issues. In 2014, GEO TV was also booked under blasphemy law as after it accused the top intelligence agency of involvement in attack on Mir.

The state is not doing the public a favour. Beating the ‘blasphemy’ drum further radicalizes the public especially young men and women who have been kept unaware of our troubled history. On the one hand, the civil and military leaders endlessly issue statements to fight extremism and on the other they are contributing to the extremism quagmire.

For Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif time has come to address the issue of blasphemy head on. PM Sharif must not pander to right-wing clergy. He has already been declared as Modikayar and a ‘security risk’ and we all know why. Blasphemy charges invite mobs and zealots to take the law into their own hands.

Pakistan needs to become a territorial nation state, not a hostage ground for one sect or the other. Sadly, that’s what the term ‘Islamic’ denotes once imagined in the political sphere. No one cleric agrees with another on the definition of ‘Muslim’. Pakistani citizens should have the right to criticize or question the state. Dissent is not blasphemy.

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Blasphemy, Extremism, Islam, Pakistan, Published in Islamic Commentary, Religion, terrorism

Raza Rumi Speaks Out on Countering Violent Extremism

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMi Commentary on FEBRUARY 18, 2016:

In November I had a chance to sit down with policy analyst, journalist, and scholar Raza Rumi at the ISLAMiCommentary office of the Duke Islamic Studies Center and speak to him about countering violent extremism in the Middle East and in Pakistan, and the plight of journalists in his native Pakistan.

Rumi was at Duke to lead a conversation on “Countering Violent Extremism: The Case of Pakistan.” He had been invited by the Duke Pakistani Students’ Association and his visit was co-sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy, the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, and the Duke Alexander Hamilton Society.

Rumi has been living in the U.S. since shortly after a March 2014 assassination attempt on his life that left his driver dead and guard seriously injured. While escaping with minor injuries, he said that after his car was ambushed he felt “insecure” and “traumatized,” and had to leave Pakistan after a few weeks. State agencies and local police, he said, couldn’t promise it wouldn’t happen again. (Police later reportedly implicated members of the Taliban-affiliate Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in the attack)

Rumi had been a broadcast TV commentator in Pakistan since 2010, but rose to prominence in when he began hosting current affairs shows, including at Pakistan’s Capital TV then Express News. He was on his way home from the station when his car was attacked. (Amnesty International has documented numerous cases of journalists being killed in Pakistan as a direct result of their work.)

He said he was targeted for being an “apostate” or “blasphemer.”

“I am used to saying what I believe in which is rational to me and where I don’t know how to mince words especially against extremist ideologies,” he said.

In Pakistan’s battle against terrorists, including the Pakistani Taleban, Rumi said the state has taken “a very militaristic approach.”

But he cautioned that that was only one part of the battle: “The other part is to give all citizens equal rights in conflict zones and undertake development and create a more inclusive society for them which restores their faith in the Pakistani state and which allows them the chance of carrying out a normal life.”

Rumi also described how outside influence has aided in the proliferation of extremist seminaries and violent militias in Pakistan, including support and training of mujahedeen to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in the ‘80s, or Saudi Arabia’s ongoing investments in Islamic seminaries (madrasas).

On state building — whether in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan — he said that history has shown that outsiders cannot really accomplish this.

“It is the organic groups and the political groups within those countries who have to build and rebuild their state and rebuild institutions of governance with least possible interference from the outside world,” he said.

The ideological battle against violent extremism in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, he said, must also be waged by the moderate Muslim clerics and intelligentsia, who “have to come up and say this is wrong, this is a misapplication, a misunderstanding, and total abuse of Islamic history.”

As to the question of whether the U.S. policy of engaging with moderate Muslims or moderate Muslim clerics was a useful exercise in combatting violent extremism, Rumi said there is “instrinsic worth in it” but that the US “can’t really do much.”

“As events in Iraq, and Afghanistan and elsewhere have proved. It is those societies, the Muslims themselves that have to do something about it,” he said, noting that the vast majority of Muslims in the world do not support extremist groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taleban. “The ordinary Muslims are like ordinary people anywhere, they want security, they want jobs, a better education for their kids, they want food, they want prospects.”

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Bangladesh, Blasphemy, Extremism, Pakistan, Published in CIMA, SouthAsia, terrorism

In Bangladesh “the term ‘blogger’ has become a curse”

Around the world online freedoms are being threatened both by states and violent criminal organizations that are seeking to repress free speech. One glaring example is that of the endangered bloggers in Bangladesh who have been threatened, harassed, and killed. In 2015 alone, Islamic extremists have killed four bloggers and a publisher for their secular views. To date, the government has not found a way to counter these violent attacks against independent journalists.

Bangladesh blogger

The murders have been gruesome. The most recent occurred on October 31, 2015, when Faisal Arefin Dipan, a publisher and a blogger, was hacked to death in his office in Dhaka. Ahmedur Rashid Tutul was attacked and wounded in that attack too. Just a couple months earlier in August, blogger Niloy Neel was murdered in his Dhaka apartment. In May, Ananta Bijoy Das, a blogger critical of religion was hacked to death. In March secular blogger Washiqur Rahman was also killed at knifepoint. These incidents followed the brutal murder of Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American blogger and writer who was attacked and killed near the campus of Dhaka University Campus in February 2015, which drew international rebuke.

The tumult in Bangladesh has been brewing for a long time. In March 2013, a group of clerics announced a list of 84 “enemies of Islam” that was circulated by the Bangladeshi media. In August 2015, an unknown group identifying itself as Ittahadul Mujahidin, released a hit list with names of 20 bloggers, artists, teachers, and government ministers accused of insulting Islam. Thus, the situation in Bangladesh appears to be getting worse, not better.

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Blasphemy, Extremism, Islam, Published in CIMA, Religion, terrorism

Negotiating Freedom of Expression

The unresolved debate on freedom of expression was reignited when Islamic militants killed 14 staffers of French magazine Charlie Hebdo last January, ostensibly for the cartoons that offended Muslim sentiments. Earlier this year, two secular bloggers were hacked to death in Bangladesh. In other countries such as Russia and Iran, writers and journalists languish in prisons on similar charges. The intersection of faith, politics, and history has influenced the global debates on the “limits” to freedom. In June, the Center for International Media Assistance, in collaboration with Media Diversity Institute, held a panel discussion on the limitations on the state of media in multicultural societies. An all-women panel, a rarity in itself, included Razia Iqbal (BBC), Courtney C. Radsch (CPJ), Milica Pesic (MDI), and a well-known academic Verica Rupar.

Negotiating freedom of expression and respect for diversity is a delicate balancing act. The current crisis – of “Western” values versus Islamic teachings – is far beyond the problem of media ethics. Razia Iqbal at CIMA raised crucial questions about the social responsibility of journalists. For instance, is freedom of expression sacred, or is it a subjective construct located in the context of every country? The responses were spirited. Some felt that freedom of expression was linked to other rights such as privacy; and therefore it ought to be viewed in a subjective context. Panelists agreed that freedom of expression was a universal right, but that under certain circumstances, limitations were understandable. Journalists have to act in public interest, as they give voice to and act as public watchdogs on behalf of society. Therefore, media persons have to exercise discretion in deciding what to print or broadcast. That is at the core of the idea of “social responsibility.”

Should journalists practice self-censorship and stay away from certain issues in multicultural societies? One panelist noted that journalism does not exist outside the boundaries of a given society; thus, it should reflect the inherent multiculturalism of a particular context. But this leads to self-censorship. The case of Egypt, among others, is instructive, as unprecedented self-censorship is taking place there due to the pressures exerted by the state and lack of legal protection available to journalists. Multiculturalism entails respect for free speech and the availability of public space to enable diverse groups to air their views. Violence changes this dynamic—perhaps for good. This is why Charlie Hebdo’s editor has announced that the magazine will no longer publish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad.

Whether Islam allows physical representation of sacred figures is another contested idea. Since the protests against cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in 2005, there has been little debate within the Muslim community on the subject. There is no explicit Quranic verse or even a legal doctrine that prohibits drawing Islamic figures. Lampooning or satirizing, however, is another matter.  Transposing contemporary prejudices bordering on Islamophobia upon journalism is surely offensive. It reproduces the partial, half-baked views on Islam and Muslims. Still, can violence be a response—or worse—justify it? No.

The idea of circumscribing expression while respecting a political or cultural context is inherently problematic. In authoritarian societies such as in the Gulf, the state defines the “public interest” in ways that further its own agenda. In China or Iran you cannot deviate from the party line. Should journalists adhere to such limits and make independent reporting subservient to such imperatives? Clearly, freedom of expression is non-negotiable.

Violence in response to journalistic endeavors has taken place not because writers and publishers have crossed certain “limits.” It takes place for political reasons, which are matters to be dealt with by states and not the journalists. The lack of integration of some Muslims in Europe is something that the governments there have to address. Similarly, the battles within Islamic thought need to be dealt with by the intellectual elites of the Islamic world.

The argument that Charlie Hebdo or some other Western publication crossed certain limits is hollow. Saudi blogger Raif Bidawi was lashed and has been imprisoned for questioning the role of religion in statehood. He has neither attacked any revered figure of Islam nor propagated atheism or apostasy in an Islamic Republic. Yet, the theocratic state of Saudi Arabia is inflicting violence on him.

Religion, “security,” “national interest,” and other known alibis to curb media freedoms are going to persist if we continue to view repression as justifiable, and violence as a “reaction.” The freedom to report and speak up is vital for the health of societies. Otherwise the list of limits could be unending.

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