There is need to guard against the use and abuse of the Danish cartoon episode.
There is a curious slow motion about the protests against the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in India. They were published in Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005, and the first protest by some 3,500 Danish Muslims took place two weeks later. Arab governments began to take note of the event only in January, but violent protests have occurred only this month. The biggest protest in India to date, a march in Lucknow on Sunday by some 1 lakh Muslims, has taken place more than four months after their original publication.
The caricatures were needlessly provocative, revealing an arrogant disregard for the religious beliefs of Muslims. Yet, the protests themselves have become something more than just reaction to hurt sentiment. In Palestine they have become part of the competitive politics of the Hamas, Fatah and the Islamic Jihad, in semi-and full dictatorships like Pakistan, Syria and Egypt, they are a vehicle of protest against the ruling regimes. In India they have nuances of their own. What is common in many is a desire to stir up people for purposes that may have little to do with the faith itself.
Indeed, there are questions about the December 2005 tour by imams of the Islamic Society of Denmark to Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. They distributed a 43-page dossier comprising the cartoons, letters and related news clippings to their counterparts. But this dossier, which was also handed out at the Organisation of Islamic Conference meeting in Mecca in December, contained additional, and arguably more offensive, images and drawings that had not been part of the original 12 cartoons. An example was a picture taken from a French newspaper of a contestant, wearing a pig mask at a pig-squealing competition, on which an incendiary caption, ‘Here is the true image of Muhammad’, was superimposed in Danish.
Till the end of 2005, there was some scattered protest but after the Danish imam’s tour and the OIC meeting, Islamic countries began officially protesting the cartoons, some withdrawing their ambassadors from Copenhagen, others calling for a trade boycott. On January 24, the government of Saudi Arabia issued its first official protest. In the ensuing days condemnations came in from Syria, Bahrain and other Arab countries and a boycott of Danish goods was announced.
Tensions in Gaza and the West Bank were already high because of the Palestinian elections and the cartoon controversy was used to ratchet it up further. On January 29, the flag of Denmark was burnt in Nablus and Hebron and the following day armed gunmen from Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade stormed the EU office in Gaza. The next day, the Hamas leader demanded exemplary punishment for the cartoonists.
But the most serious incidents to date were the violent protests in Syria and Lebanon that led to the sacking and burning of the Danish and Norwegian embassies on February 6. Protests in Iran, too, began in February, shortly after the IAEA vote against Tehran on the issue of nuclear cheating. Pakistani protests, too, took off only last week, culminating on Sunday.
Across the world, the protest against the Danish cartoons has become less about the original act of alleged blasphemy and more about a clutch of local issues, layered over by the general distrust of the West and modernity in parts of the Islamic world. So far the protests and violence have taken the lives of some 40 people around the world. What we are witnessing in many cases is the caricature that the cartoonists sought to depict — intolerant and violent. The objects of protests are no longer either Danes, Denmark or even Scandinavians, and most of the dead are themselves Muslim. The time has come for a halt to both the protests and the violence. Their point has been made and the Danes and the others have undoubtedly learnt their lessons and are much the wiser.
Meanwhile, the protests in India have had a character of their own. Though a paper in Patna reprinted the cartoons and faced protests in early February, there was little activity till February 6 when there was a general strike in Srinagar. On the same day, the first significant, though small, demonstration was held in New Delhi by some students of Jamia Millia.
Then on February 17, a Friday when Muslims traditionally gather in mosques to offer the noon namaz, violent protests took place in Hyderabad, organised by the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, an organisation known for its communal politics. On the same day, in Meerut, Haji Yaqoob Qureshi, a Samajwadi Party leader and minister in the UP cabinet offered Rs 51 crore for the killing of the Danish cartoonist. Local reports in Hyderabad and Meerut suggest that the events there were staged by the politicians to consolidate their hold over their constituents. But the violent protest that rocked Lucknow on February 19 had a different character in that it featured attacks on a Café Coffee Day outlet, a Pizza Hut and a five-star hotel. This could have been dismissed as sheer vandalism, but for the fact that leaders like Kalbe Jawwad who spoke at the meeting called for a boycott of Coke, Pepsi, all multinationals and attacked the US and the entire Western world, instead of Denmark. Considering that the hotel and the coffee outlet are both Indian-owned and with no foreign links, this protest seems to be more against a certain lifestyle, rather than cartoons, or even the US.
India is a country with deep religious, ethnic and linguistic faultlines, which nearly 60 years ago led to the bloody Partition of the country along religious lines. As a result, almost continuously since Independence, India’s Muslim population has faced violence or the threat of it, the most recent being the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. Political parties and some Muslim leaders have used this sense of insecurity to shore up their political ends. Incidents, such as the cartoon protests, therefore, need to be dealt with sternly and there should be no quarter given to those who are inciting violence on the pretext of hurt religious sentiments.
Vigilance and toughness are also needed because alleged blasphemous acts are usually the trigger for communal violence in India. How would the State react to the charge of blasphemy or a death sentence against its alleged perpetrator by a politician or cleric if it were an Indian citizen? Or, a demand that special laws be instituted against blasphemy, as was demanded of the EU by the OIC?
Muslims form a significant segment of the Indian populace and the Indian concept of secularism is different from the French, which insists on being blind to all religion. Our system insists on equal respect to all faiths and enforces this by laws that provide for punishment for those who incite hatred against another religion. The Indian State’s special duty is to assure the security of its minorities and ensure that there are no undue restrictions in the exercise of their religion and cultural mores. But where does one draw the line?
Actually they are fairly clearly drawn by our historical experience. Our concept of equal respect for religions has roots in the teachings of Guru Nanak, the Bhakti and Sufi movements. It was steeled in the Independence struggle — the protests against the partition of Bengal, the Khilafat agitation and the politics of Mahatma Gandhi and Badshah Khan. But India’s Constitution, its laws and system of governance are products of European liberal and Marxist traditions which allow its citizens as much the right to be atheist, as to uphold a religion. It enjoins equality for all before the law, and the right to the freedom of speech. These, too, are core traditions of the Indian Republic. This is the message that must also go out, loud and clear, to all those who seek absolutist responses and solutions to the cartoon episode.(The Hindustan Times Feb 21, 2006)