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Prophet Muhammad

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Cartoons of Muhammad Again

Would it be all right if I called Geert Wilders a piece of human waste? No? Damn. Well, then, can I call him a deeply cynical politician who is willing to get people killed to advance his political career? Okay, thanks.

Geert Wilders is a deeply cynical Dutch politician who is willing to get people killed to advance his political career. Sometimes they are Muslims, sometimes they are people of Christian heritage – that doesn’t really matter, so long as he reaps the publicity. And now he has come up with a clever new way to outrage foolish young Muslims and get them to murder people for him.

Wilders realised that a little-known Dutch law obliges the television networks to show ANYTHING that a politician wishes to include in a party political broadcast. No censorship is allowed on grounds of truth, of taste, or even of safety. So the far-right politician, whose whole political career has been based on attacking Islam, decided to air some truly nasty cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.

One shows a man labelled “Muhammad” with snakes in his beard. Another shows a rather loony-looking young man who is clearly labelled “The Prophet Muhammad”. A third shows somebody who is probably meant to be Muhammad on a unicycle, juggling five chopped-off heads with letters attached that spell ISLAM. Not funny, not clever, not really even topical. Just nasty.

Most Muslims are uncomfortable with images of Muhammad, and many believe that they are blasphemous. That doesn’t mean that democratic, pluralist societies like those of the West should ban such images. Freedom of speech means that any group, including any religious group, should accept that it may be criticised, even mocked in public. You cannot demand special treatment just because your feelings will be hurt.

But you can and should expect not to be singled out for hatred simply because of your particular religious beliefs. You have the right to be protected from rhetoric that deliberately confounds innocent believers with terrorists (as Wilders regularly does). And you certainly have right to be protected from incitements to violence.

There is a world of difference between Geert Wilders and the dozen people who were murdered by Islamist extremists at the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” last January. They were equal-opportunity cartoonists who targeted everybody with equal irreverence and a fine absence of discrimination; Wilders is a monomaniac who wants to ban the Koran in the Netherlands because it is “like (Adolf Hitler’s) Mein Kampf”.

But he is a devious monomaniac, because the people he is really trying to incite to violence are Muslims. If he can trick ignorant Muslims into killing people by portraying the Prophet Muhammad in ugly and insulting cartoons, he wins.

The cartoons Wilders has insisted be broadcast on Dutch television were originally shown at an event in Texas last month which awarded a $10,000 prize for the best (i.e. worst) cartoon about Muhammad. The organisers were trying to provoke a reaction, so they invited Wilders to give the event a higher profile. It worked wonderfully: two simplistic young fanatics tried to attack the conference, and were shot dead in the car park.

So Wilders brought copies of the cartoons home with him, and announced that he would broadcast them on Dutch television as a defence of free speech. The broadcast was supposed to go out in the Netherlands on Saturday, but somebody at the NPO1 television network managed to mislay the tape Wilders had given them.

He was furiously indignant about that, of course, and insisted that his right as a party leader to put anything he wants on the party political broadcasts must be respected. He says he has now been promised that it will go out on Wednesday evening. If the promise is kept, the rioting and killing will probably have started by the time you read this.

Wilders knows perfectly well that this will happen, and is content that it should. He and his anti-Muslim allies on the far right of Dutch politics are what Marxists used to call the “objective allies” of the bearded Muslim extremists screaming for blood in the streets and the more calculating Muslim leaders who urge those fanatics to go out and commit violence in the name of “defending” Islam.

Both parties, however much they hate each other, have a common interest in keeping the outrage level among their followers high, and they tacitly cooperate to keep the pot boiling. The poor old media know they are being manipulated and exploited by people with truly reprehensible agendas, but they cannot simply refuse to report the news, even if it is manufactured news (as is so often the case).

And so, in a world where most people of any religion or none simply want to get on with their neighbours and lead a quiet life, we are fed a constant diet of lies that shows us a world full of blood-thirsty, hate-filled extremists.

Oh, and by the way: Geert Wilders is a piece of human waste.

NOTE: if the “piece of human waste” line is too strong for your paper’s policy, simply omit the first paragraph and the last sentence.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Most…violence”)

Pakistan: A Deathly Silence

4 March 2011

 Pakistan: A Deathly Silence

By Gwynne Dyer

 At least with a dictatorship, you know where you are – and if you know where you are, you may be able to find your way out. In Pakistan, it is not so simple.

 While brave Arab protesters are overthrowing deeply entrenched autocratic regimes, often without even resorting to violence, Pakistan, a democratic country, is sinking into a sea of violence, intolerance and extremism. The world’s second-biggest Muslim country (185 million people) has effectively been silenced by ruthless Islamist fanatics who murder anyone who dares to defy them.

What the fanatics want, of course, is power, but the issue on which they have chosen to fight is Pakistan’s laws against blasphemy. They not only hunt down and kill people who fall afoul of these laws, should the courts see fit to free them. They have also begun killing anybody who publicly advocates changing the laws.

 Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab, Pakistan’s richest and most populous province, was murdered by his own bodyguard in January because he criticised the blasphemy laws and wanted to change them. He said that he would go on fighting them even if he was the last man standing – and in a very short time he was no longer standing. But one man still was: Shahbaz Bhatti.

 Bhatti was shot down last Wednesday. The four men who ambushed his car and filled him with bullets left a note saying: “In your fight against Allah, you have become so bold that you act in favour of and support those who insult the Prophet….And now, with the grace of Allah, the warriors of Islam will pick you out one by one and send you to Hell.”

 Shahbaz Bhatti was not a rich and powerful man like Salman Taseer, nor even a major power in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that they both belonged to. He was the only Christian member of the cabinet, mainly as a token representative of the country’s 3 million Christians, but he had hardly any influence outside that community. Nevertheless, he refused to stop criticising the blasphemy laws even after Taseer’s murder, so they killed him too.

 That leaves only Sherry Rehman, the last woman standing. A flamboyant member of parliament whose mere appearance enrages the beards, she has been a bold and relentless critic of the blasphemy laws – and since Taseer’s murder she has lived in hiding, moving every few days. But she will not shut up until they shut her up.

 And that’s it. The rest of the country’s political and cultural elite have gone silent, or pander openly to the fanatics and the bigots. The PPP was committed to changing the blasphemy laws only six months ago, but after Taseer was killed President Asif Ali Zardari assured a gathering of Islamic dignitaries that he had no intention of reviewing the blasphemy laws. Although they are very bad laws.

 In 1984 General Zia ul-Haq, the dictator who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988, made it a criminal offence for members of the Ahmadi sect, now some 5 million strong, to claim that they were Muslims. In 1986 he instituted the death penalty for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. No subsequent government has dared to repeal these laws, which are widely used to victimise the Ahmadi and Christian religious minorities.

 Ahmadis and Christians account for at most 5 percent of Pakistan’s population, but almost half of the thousand people charged under this law since 1986 belonged to those communities. Most accusations were false, arising from disputes over land, but once made they could be a death sentence.

 Higher courts generally dismissed blasphemy charges, recognising that they were a tactic commonly used against Christians and Ahmadis in local disputes over land, but 32 people who were freed by the courts were subsequently killed by Islamist vigilantes – as were two of the judges who freed them.

The current crisis arose when a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death last November, allegedly for blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan’s liberals mobilised against the blasphemy law – and discovered that they were an endangered species.

 The murders of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were bad, but even worse was the way that the political class and the bulk of the mass media responded. A majority of the population fully supports the blasphemy law, making it very costly for politicians to act against it even if the fanatics don’t kill them. Political cowardice reigns supreme, and so Pakistan falls slowly under the thrall of the extremists.

 Being a democracy is no help, it turns out, because democracy requires people to have the courage of their convictions. Very few educated Pakistanis believe that people should be executed because of a blasphemy charge arising out of some trivial village dispute, but they no longer dare to say so. Including the president.

 “We will not be intimidated nor will we retreat,” said Zardari on 3 March, but he has already promised the beards that the blasphemy law will not be touched. Nor is it very likely that the murderers of Taseer or Bhatti will be tracked down and punished. You could get killed trying to do that.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“That leaves…up”; and “Higher…them”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.