Thu 20 May 2010
The news out of Pakistan teeters between bad and worse. First, there are the drones targeting Taliban leaders and often taking out civilians as long-range missile attacks tend to do. Then there is the lingering concern about the government’s stability, especially given the fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Throw in the claim that as many as a quarter of the population is below the poverty line and it is hard to see a silver lining in all the doom and gloom statistics. But this is the Internet Era, so virtual reality is not out of touch with reality in contemporary Pakistan. Now it seems that virtual reality has become more important than the price of bread, perhaps in part because of the price of bread. In recent days the government of Pakistan has started blocking both Facebook and Google.
The problem with Facebook is with a group that launched an “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” a group that most professional political cartoonists see as “shock for shock’s sake.” The inspiration for making today into a draw against Muhammad day was the furor raised again on the Internet over an off-screen depiction of Muhammad on the comedy cable cartoon show South Park. But the genealogy of the tit-for-tat artistic license stretches back to the Danish cartoon debacle, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and indeed back through the murky apologetic mud-slinging between Christians and Muslims for well over a millennium.
The problem is not really (except perhaps virtually) with Facebook or Youtube, which are basically open for almost anyone to say or show what they want, as long as it is not too hard on the porn side. Our mutual problem is over the shackles of historical symbolism that rut just enough intolerant people on any side to disrupt everyday life for the rest of us. Is it a lack of tolerance to threaten a cartoonist with death or set his house on fire? Absolutely. Is it a lack of tolerance to knowingly incite others to violence because you think virtue in on your side? Absolutely, yes again. Do extremist groups feed off this kind of fear-mongering? Of course, and it cuts both ways, because tolerance also requires balance. I would certainly not suggest we follow the Gospel “turn the other cheek” if someone throws acid in your face, but fighting fire with fire in the end burns everyone and just draws out the worse in us. Think a little here: the picture broadcast around the world, as shown above, is written in English (and correctly spelled). This is not for local consumption, but precisely for foreign news outlets. Such placards drive the news cycle because they tell the intolerant on our side what we are supposed to want to hear: veiled women telling us to go to hell. If “they” really believe that those who draw Muhammad will burn in hell, fine. After all, that is what Dante did to Muhammad in a classic text that almost every Western students reads in school. Let those who defame religion suffer in hell rather than bringing that hell to the here and now.
Fox News Tea Partiers will no doubt relish another chance to say how awful and intolerant those Muslims are, because covering extremists makes more money for Mr. Murdoch and his ilk. But the best response I have seen is from a Pakistani, as reported today in Business Week:
“The government’s reaction is just like a child sticking fingers in his ears without addressing the problem,” said Omar Kapadia, a 28-year-old researcher at an educational organization in Karachi who uses Facebook and YouTube regularly. “Though I don’t agree with the caricature competition, the best way would have been to set up one highlighting Prophet Muhammad’s achievements,” Kapadia said.
Rather than adding fuel to the fire, counter prejudice with a rational alternative, another point of view. Islam will survive amateur or professional attempts to discredit its prophet, just as Judaism and Christianity have survived even more jolting criticism. So on this “Everybody draw Muhammad” day I suggest that everyone who prefers peace and a path to mutual respect rather than constant bickering and warmongering draw back and ignore the whole thing. There are thousands of Facebook groups and thousands upon thousands more to come. The majority should be, and will be, ignored. Really.
Daniel Martin Varisco
This commentary has been posted to History News Network.
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