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Rethinking freedom of expression

Respect for our differences is vital for survival

  • Silent Thinker, Lahore
  • Pakistan
  • September 18, 2012
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A movie poster for Sylvester Stallone’s most recent Hollywood blockbuster, The Expendables 2, says a lot about how the United States views religion.

The poster depicts the film’s cast in the guise of Leonardo Davinci’s The Last Supper, with Stallone occupying the place of Jesus at the center, holding two pistols across his chest.

No controversy seems to have erupted over this imagery, particularly its use to advertise a blood-filled spectacle of a film. Indeed, I found several favorable reviews.

Perhaps Hollywood has no qualms about manipulating religious symbols, indirectly in Stallone’s case or directly in the case of other works such as The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code.

However in the case of the low-budget anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, things went beyond generating a conversation. A United States ambassador and three other Americans were killed in Libya. Many Muslims have died in worldwide protests; at least three were killed in Pakistan.

I was in a market in Lahore yesterday when a voice on a megaphone attracted everybody’s attention.

“America is damned. Our rulers think they are our friends. Observe five times prayer Muslim brothers, as it is the only salvation,” said a bearded old man as he slowly passed by the shops. There was no stopping him, as everybody agreed with him.

Blasphemous caricatures, Burn Qu'ran Day and now this controversial video have once again ignited a fire of hatred in fundamentalist Pakistani Muslims already wary of US-led drone attacks in the north. Troops of clerics, students and lawyers spent this weekend in street protests. The reaction is overwhelming especially after the storming of the US consulate in Karachi on Sunday.

Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf has now blocked YouTube in Pakistan after the video-sharing site refused to remove the anti-Islam film.

A violent response was quick to materialize. Unidentified gunmen opened fire at the gate of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Hyderabad, the house of a Protestant family was bombed in Quetta and two Christians were killed in Karachi over the weekend. Christian politicians as well as Church leaders have openly condemned the film and its makers but sadly they could not block the new wave of anti-Christian violence.

Westerners may not be too much concerned about religious ties that still have a strong hold in the east. Many discussion programs on news channels in Pakistan about the “blasphemous” film referred to the recent release of a young Pakistani girl who was arrested on suspicion of burning pages from the Holy Qu’ran. Their complaint about a double standard carries weight.

Personally I reject any human philosophy that entails global bloodshed. The scale of fresh protests is so huge that it demands a second thought on all such liberal notions, including the right of freedom of expression.

The US government should respect other religions, even if it does not endorse any religion officially, and should quell all efforts to promote religious extremism emerging in its own society.

It can never dictate religious sensitivities. American beliefs should not be a yardstick for the whole of humanity. We are all different and should try to survive together by acknowledging our differences.

Social media websites and internet giants like YouTube have to reconsider their policies about uploading such material. Any attempt to ridicule the religious principles, which Muslims hold dearer than their life, is an exaggeration of freedom of expression.

The conflict, created by a Coptic Christian, has already drawn a line between the Arab world and all other nations.

Christianity and Islam are two major world religions, and the impending clash between them will not be good for either. The backlash may not be limited to Pakistani Christians alone. I was startled to hear the comments of a major cleric about the death of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi .

“Nothing better could happen to them. This is also a warning to leaders of Islamic nations who support the US in defiance of the will of their people,” said Peer Muhammad Ibrahim Sialwi, chairman of the Interfaith Peace Committee in Punjab province, smiling ear to ear while responding to my query.

The journalists and other clerics around him agreed on demands for a universal blasphemy law and the trial of the anti-Islam film producer in Pakistani courts. Of course these are impractical demands and will never reach the ears of Uncle Sam. The closest such people can reach is affecting those shared religious beliefs with the majority of Americans.

The champions of human rights should also be alive to this blatant persecution of religious rights. If there were a Third World War in our lifetime, it would be purely on religious grounds and reminiscent of crusades. World leaders do not need Hollywood imagery to foresee the apocalypse in this age of nuclear weapons.

The world must survive and everybody has to play their part – even YouTube.

Silent Thinker is the pseudonym of a Catholic commentator based in Lahore
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