Let’s bury the stereo-types for once!

It’s a vicious cycle. Stereo-types give birth to prejudices and prejudices to propaganda, which further feeds into the process of endorsing stereo-types, or strengthening prejudices. What is it that makes us humans resort to generalisations with an added flaw of seeing things in black and white, deliberately burying our internal abilities to view things in a non partisan manner and debilitating our analytical capacities? An amateurish and provocative film in the USA has inspired across the globe so many multiple narratives – voices of sanity and reason as well as voices of extremes and hatred. While voices of reason will eventually find their way through this rage that the film has exposed, it are the extreme voices of generalised notions that are a much bigger problem and are more likely to invoke more rage and hatred on all sides. Where does the truth lie between the two narratives of ‘Why did America/Americans produce such a provocative film, insulting Prophet Mohammed?’ and ‘Why have Muslims gone on rampage again?’
Where does the truth lie between two more narratives of ‘This film is insulting and provocative’ and ‘This film is about freedom of expression’.

Let’s get facts straight first, without insisting for the sake of argument that wisdom lies only in rejecting all extreme narratives and taking the middle path. The film was veryprovocative, aimed to offend, perpetuate trouble and hatred and howsoever poor its quality or howsoever evil the intentions behind it, it has succeeded in its goal. One of the actresses in the film has claimed that they were told that the film was about life in Egypt and that the original dialogues have been changed and doctored. This is yet another sign of the nefarious designs of the film maker. For some, this film is all about America’s rather liberal laws of freedom of speech. But distinction needs to be drawn between hate speech and free speech. In our part of the world, such provocations deliberately aimed at hurting religious sentiments of any community, made by likes of Togadia, Thackeray or Azhar Masood, would naturally be condemned by all saner voices as provocative; and even as the governments may take little action owing to their own inefficiency and lack of courage, these provocative voices go down in history as hate speeches, not as free speech.

Some Americans like US presidential polls Republican candidate Mitt Romney seem to agree that the film is completely protected by the First Amendment of the American constitution. However, Kent Greenfield, American law professor and author of ‘The Myth of Choice’, writing in Huffington Post, argues that not all speech merits constitutional protection, and the history of the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence is a travelogue of the border between protected and unprotected speech. Quoting a 70 year old American Supreme Court ruling, he further writes, “If a speaker voices an epithet likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace, then it can be constitutionally punished.” Kent Greenfield aptly concludes: “When we protect vile and ignorant speech like this film, it is not a cost-free social choice. Speech has effects, sometimes dire. The system works best when the freedom to speak is exercised with a sense of personal responsibility toward those who will be affected by it.

When a speaker ignores those effects, it is cowardly to hide behind the First Amendment, even though it is within his rights to do so.” Provocation cannot possibly be justified in the name of misplaced liberalism or free speech.
Now, it is about time to also put to rest some stereo-types that are renting the air. America, as a nation, or Americans as a community did not make the film, though one cannot rule out some tacit support of some more powerful forces within or outside that country. The film was made by a failed film-maker, who was obviously looking for more than just cheap publicity. So, why blame an entire nation, an entire community or the entire western world for doing what they are not guilty of. Equally, if some Muslims outraged by the film stormed the U.S Missions in the Arab world, causing the death of some officials, (the act even in the name of provocation cannot be justified), it does not amount to all Muslims of the world having been let loose on a mission of virulent vindictiveness. Wisdom imbues in the words of Hurriyat leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has called for peaceful protests against the film and also condemned campaigns against America as a nation at the same time, opposed Mufti Bashir-u-Din’s call for ban on American tourists to Kashmir and stated, “We are deeply hurt by the film. But we can’t blame an entire country for this. But we also expect the US to act against people who are deliberately hurting the sentiments of Muslims across the world.”
Both the Americans and the Muslims cannot be condemned for either the film or the aftermath. One finds various ways in which different Muslims have reacted to a film that seems to have apparently hurt or shocked not just Muslims but also those who respect the faith of others. Some have taken recourse to violence or issued death threats to the film maker, some have taken far more extreme positions by even describing the absence of protest in Muslim regions as a sign of blasphemy, as is the case in Karachi where a shop-keeper who refused to observe the protest shut down is likely to be booked under Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy law.

There is yet another chunk of overt ‘liberals’ (as they call themselves) among Muslims and non-Muslims who feel that the film maker’s folly can be justified under freedom of speech and that rabid fundamentalists among Muslims need to be taught to take criticism by lampooning their Prophet or depicting him in poor light. As if liberalism lies in publicly abusing another’s faith. Between these two illogical extremes, there is a far greater majority that is pained and hurt by what it construes as insult to their revered Prophet and taken recourse to peaceful protests, demanding that America take actions against the delinquent acts of its citizens. Why is it that nobody notices how some Muslims across the globe are making painstaking efforts to turn this rage into something positive.

It may amount to double standards to put the onus on the Muslims for all the violence and advise debates on interpretation of Islam and reforms within the community. Muslims may not be the only ones in need of enlightenment, they are not the only ones whose community members are out on rampage in protest or indulge in injustices. There are rabid fundamentalists, even terrorists, from all kinds of religious or ethnic groups. So why single out Muslims? Besides, reformation discourse cannot be foisted by others, it needs to come from within. It might also be futile asking questions and trying to analyse why the Muslim world gets so easily outraged for the answers may not lie in isolated acts like the circulation of this mischievous film. Because the question can also backfire: Why are some westerners hell bent on provoking and hurting sentiments of Muslims? In a vitiated atmosphere, such debates will be coloured by prejudices which can never form a healthy analysis. So, need of the time is to learn to draw the line and understand the distinction between provocation and free speech as also between the right to protest and violent vengeance.