Open Letter to Facebook- to take action on gender-based hate speech #FBRape #Vaw


rape11

May 21, 2013

An Open Letter to Facebook:

We, the undersigned, are writing to demand swift, comprehensive and effective action addressing the representation of rape and domestic violence on Facebook. Specifically, we call on you, Facebook, to take three actions:

  1. Recognize speech that trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women as hate speech and make a commitment that you will not tolerate this content.
  2. Effectively train moderators to recognize and remove gender-based hate speech.
  3. Effectively train moderators to understand how online harassment differently affects women and men, in part due to the real-world pandemic of violence against women.

To this end, we are calling on Facebook users to contact advertisers whose ads on Facebook appear next to content that targets women for violence, to ask these companies to withdraw from advertising on Facebook until you take the above actions to ban gender-based hate speech on your site. (We will be raising awareness and contacting advertisers on Twitter using the hashtag #FBrape.)

Specifically, we are referring to groups, pages and images that explicitly condone or encourage rape or domestic violence or suggest that they are something to laugh or boast about. Pages currently appearing on Facebook include Fly Kicking Sluts in the Uterus, Kicking your Girlfriend in the Fanny because she won’t make you a Sandwich, Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs, Raping your Girlfriend and many, many more.  Images appearing on Facebook include photographs of women beaten, bruised, tied up, drugged, and bleeding, with captions such as “This bitch didn’t know when to shut up” and “Next time don’t get pregnant.”

These pages and images are approved by your moderators, while you regularly remove content such as pictures of women breastfeeding, women post-mastectomy and artistic representations of women’s bodies.  In addition, women’s political speech, involving the use of their bodies in non-sexualized ways for protest, is regularly banned as pornographic, while pornographic content – prohibited by your own guidelines – remains.  It appears that Facebook considers violence against women to be less offensive than non-violent images of women’s bodies, and that the only acceptable representation of women’s nudity are those in which women appear as sex objects or the victims of abuse.  Your common practice of allowing this content by appending a [humor] disclaimer to said content literally treats violence targeting women as a joke.

The latest global estimate from the United Nations Say No to Violence Campaign is that the percentage of women and girls who have experienced violence in their lifetimes is now up to an unbearable 70%. In a world in which this many girls and women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime, allowing content about raping and beating women to be shared, boasted and joked about contributes to the normalisation of domestic and sexual violence, creates an atmosphere in which perpetrators are more likely to believe they will go unpunished, and communicates to victims that they will not be taken seriously if they report.

According to a UK Home Office Survey, one in five people think it is acceptable in some circumstances for a man to hit or slap his wife or girlfriend in response to her being dressed in sexy or revealing clothes in public. And 36% think a woman should be held fully or partly responsible if she is sexually assaulted or raped whilst drunk. Such attitudes are shaped in part by enormously influential social platforms like Facebook, and contribute to victim blaming and the normalisation of violence against women.

Although Facebook claims, in a narrowly-defined defense of free speech, not to be involved in challenging norms or censoring people’s speech, you have in place procedures, terms and community guidelines that you interpret and enforce.Facebook prohibits hate speech and your moderators deal with content that is violently racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic every day. Your refusal to similarly address gender-based hate speech marginalizes girls and women, sidelines our experiences and concerns, and contributes to violence against them.  Facebook is an enormous social network with more than a billion users around the world, making your site extremely influential in shaping social and cultural norms and behaviors.

Facebook’s response to the many thousands of complaints and calls to address these issues has been inadequate. You have failed to make a public statement addressing the issue, respond to concerned users, or implement policies that would improve the situation. You have also acted inconsistently with regards to your policy on banning images, in many cases refusing to remove offensive rape and domestic violence pictures when reported by members of the public, but deleting them as soon as journalists mention them in articles, which sends the strong message that you are more concerned with acting on a case-by-case basis to protect your reputation than effecting systemic change and taking a clear public stance against the dangerous tolerance of rape and domestic violence.

In a world in which hundreds of thousands of women are assaulted daily and where intimate partner violence  remains one of the leading causes of death for women around the world, it is not possible to sit on the fence.  We call on Facebook to make the only responsible decision and take swift, clear action on this issue, to bring your policy on rape and domestic violence into line with your own moderation goals and guidelines.

 Sincerely,

Laura Bates, The Everyday Sexism Project

Soraya Chemaly, Writer and Activist

Jaclyn Friedman, Women, Action & the Media (WAM!)

Angel Band Project

Advocates for Youth

Anne Munch Consulting, Inc.

Arts Against Abuse

Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Rights Programme

Black Feminists

The Body is Not An Apology

Breakthrough

Caleb’s Hope

Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters & Transition Houses

Canadian Women’s Foundation

Care2.org

Catharsis Productions

Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation

Collective Action for Safe Spaces

Collective Administrators of Rapebook

Collective Shout

Cornershop Creative

CounterQuo

Dear Facebook

End Violence Against Women Coalition

Equality Now

The EQUALS Coalition

FAAN Mail

The Fawcett Society

Fem 2.0

Feminist Peace Network

The Feminist Wire

FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture

A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World

Girls’ Globe

Guerilla Feminism

Hardy Girls, Healthy Women

Hollaback!

Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault

International Council of Jewish Women

Jackson Katz, PhD., Co-Founder and Director, Mentors in Violence Prevention

Je Suis Féministe

Lauren Wolfe, Director of WMC’s Women Under Siege

The Line Campaign

Make Me a Sammich

Making Herstory

Media Equity Collaborative

MissRepresentation.org

Ms. Magazine

New Moon Girls

No Hate Speech Movement

No More Page 3

O Clítoris da Razão

Object

Our Bodies, Ourselves

Oregon Foundation for Reproductive Health

The Pixel Project

Powered By Girl

Rape Victim Advocates

RH Reality Check

Role/Reboot

Sanctuary for Families

SEASN (Solidarity, Equity & Activist Support Network)

Secular Woman

Sheryl Sandberg “Lean In” and Remove Misogyny from Facebook

The Sin City Siren

Social Media Week

SPARK Movement

Stop Street Harassment

Take Back the Tech!

Tech LadyMafia

Time To Tell

Unite Women NY

UniteWomen.org

The Uprising of Women in the Arab World

V-Day

The Voices and Faces Project

White Ribbon Campaign

Women In Media & News (WIMN)

Women Inspire Network

Women on the Edge Foundation

Women Online/The Mission List

The Women’s Media Center

Women’s Networking Hub

The Women’s Room

Women’s Views on News

World Wide Women

YWCA Canada

YWCA Moncton

YWCA Toronto

 

Press Release- Understanding Communal Mobilisation –Lessons from the Zakia Jafri Protest Petition


Press Release

May 7, 2013

The filing of the Zakia Jafri Protest Petition before the Magistrate on 15 April 2013 is a significant landmark in the sustained battle for the Rule of Law, Constitutional Governance and against communal forces and their vicious mobilisation within organs of the state and through unholy alliances with non-state actors. The petition, filed after a sustained battle to get a fair and transparent investigation against a chief minister, cabinet colleagues, senior administrators, policemen and front men and women of the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal will now make a strong case for charge sheeting of 59 accused.

Apart from the individual accused involved in this case, against whom a strong case for criminal culpability and administrative connivance and failure has been made out, the wider issues raised are critical to understand. Communal mobilisation precedes violence. It’s transformation into brute attacks against targeted sections of the population remain fundamental threats to the lasting security of all Indians, communal harmony and the secularisation of the Indian polity.

We believe therefore the wider issues raised through the Zakia Jafri Protest Petition are debated widely to ensure a greater understanding of such mobilisation and to build a resistance to the same in future. Only then can we collectively demand a transparent and accountable system of governance from our representatives and the parties that they represent. The entire text of the Protest Petition can be accessed at

http://www.cjponline.org/zakia/protpetition/Protest%20Petition%20PART%20I.pdf

http://www.cjponline.org/zakia/protpetition/Protest%20Petition%20PART%20II.pdf

Important Issues Raised in the Petition

  • Aggressive Mobilisation of Communal Forces and Response of State Agencies & Government Monitoring and Check on Hate Speech, Hate Writing, Pamphleteering
  • State and Government Response to a Tragedy like Godhra on 27 February 2002
  • Contemporaneous Records that Reveal Government Callousness or Indifference
  • Transparency in Summoning assistance from the Military /Paramilitary forces
  • Comparative Analysis of Districts & Commission records worst affected (15) and those that held their own (SPs/DMs refused to bow down to political masters)
  • Role of Whistleblowers in Pinning down Accountability
  • Role of Survivors/Activists/ Legal and Civil Rights Groups
  • Role of the Political Class
  • Role of Media

Build Up of Violence prior to 27.2.2002

The state intelligence records available to the state government and administration reveal that there was a systematic build up of aggressive communal mobilisation, hate speech etc even prior to February 27, 2003.These details are available in textual and tabular form in the Protest Petition. These provide significant pointers to the workings and operations of the State Intelligence Bureau (SIB) that is sending out warnings and the police administration, home ministry (headed by the chief minister) that is systematically ignoring them. This aspect needs to be understood by us to ensure that such warnings are heeded in future. Reference: Pages 193-202 of the Protest Petition & Paras 457 – 469 at Pages 204-209 of the Protest Petition.

Monitoring & Check on Hate Speech, Hate Writing and Pamphleteering

Responsible sections of the Gujarat administration, senior IPS officers who were on the field manning districts and controlling attempts to provoke violence there as also senior police officer like then ADGP (Intelligence) RB Sreekumar had strongly recommended action under Sections 153 a, 153 b of the PC against certain newspapers and publications that had consciously published provocative and incendiary material not based on facts. Action against pamphlets circulated by the VHP was also advised. However the government and its home department has, to date not taken any action that was recommended.

In fact the Amicus Curiae in the case Advocate Raju Ramachandran has himself recommended prosecution against the chief minister for violation of the law on hate speech. The Protest Petition deals at length on the deleterious impact of hate speech and hate writing and the inaction of the state government. The chief minister had in fact sent congratulatory letters to those Gujarati newspapers that had indulged in such incendiary writing and excluded from praise at least three publications (Prabhat and Gujarat Today) that had been responsible in reportage (Editor’s Guild Report).. Reference at Paras 126-153at Pages 72-85 of the Protest Petition & Para 234 at Page 116 of the Protest Petition

No Appeal for Calm, No Visit to Relief Camps, Discriminatory Behaviour

Quite apart from the infamous meeting on the night of February 27, 2002 about which facts have to be tested – through examination and cross-examination of witnesses during trial — the administration’s lackluster response to protection of lives and maintenance of peace following the Godhra tragedy is itself a testimony to a conspiracy in evidence.  There were no appeals for Restraint, Peace and Calm; No Preventive Arrests were made on February 27, 2002 despite the fact that violence had already broken out and the SIB was warning of widespread communal mobilisation; no issuing of Prohibitory Orders and declaration of Curfew except in Godhra town; worst, the government support to the bandh proved to be a cynical mechanism by which the streets were allowed to be taken over by rabid bands of the RSS-VHP and Bajrang Dal. The SIT has not thoroughly probed the deployment of army and paramilitary and not even examined independent witnesses like the Major in charge of Army Operations and KPS Gill sent in by the Centre.

Indicting Documentary Evidence Ignored

Evidence from Police Control Room (PCR) records submitted by then Commissioner of Police (2002), PC Pande to the SIT after 15.3.2011 reveal cynical and cold-blooded mobilization of RSS workers and VHP men at the Sola Civil hospital from 4 a.m. onwards on 28.2.2002 in aggressive anticipation for the arrival of the dead bodies. Repeated PCR messages, that the home department under Narendra Modi (A-1, who held the home portfolio) and PC Pande (A-21) were trying to conceal, show that both in Ahmedabad and in several locations all over Gujarat crowds were mobilized to aggressively parade bodies with bloodthirsty sloganeering, inciting mobs to attack innocent Muslims. The then joint police commissioner, Ahmedabad, Shivanand Jha, also an accused in the complaint (A-38), was jurisdictionally in charge of Sola Civil Hospital in Zone 1. As the messages extracted in the Protest Petition atPara 559 at Pages 244-247 of the Protest Petition show, repeated PCR messages desperately ask for bandobast; they speak of the staff and doctors of the hospital being under threat; of a 5,000-6,000 strong mob accompanying the bodies and finally one message also says that “riots have broken out.”

Yet the entire Home department under the chief minister and senior bureaucrats and policemen who had been neutralised including Chakravarti (A-25) and PC Pande (A-29) in collaboration with the SIT have strived hard to conceal this evidence. While such aggressive funeral processions were allowed in Ahmedabad, an equally explosive situation prevailed simultaneously in Khedbrahma, Vadodara, Modasa, Dahod, Anand etc. The PCR records, also reveal that while the Ahmedabad police under PC Pande and the home department under Modi and then MOS, home Gordhan Zadaphiya (A-5) had enough forces to escort a VHP leader known for his inciteful slogans, Acharya Giriraj Kishore, from the airport to the Sola Civil hospital to accompany the processionists, shouting filthy hate speeches and murderous slogans. But they did not have enough forces to send to Naroda Patiya where 96 persons were massacred in broad daylight, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. over several hours (according to the charge-sheet though actual figures may be higher). Similarly the daylight massacre of 69 persons at Gulberg society the same day was permitted by a callous administration (PC Pande did not step out of his office barely 1-2 kms away from Naroda and Gulberg; besides he was in close touch with the chief minister’s office (CMO) between 12 noon and 3.40 p.m. that coincided with the height of the violence. Modi allowing and openly supporting the bandh and neutralising his administration, decided to give the RSS, VHP, BD mobs a free run of the Gujarat streets to massacre innocents.

Warnings Ignored (from SIB and PCR messages)

From as early as 12:30 pm on the 27th February: An SIB officer through fax no 525 communicated to the headquarters that there were reports that some dead bodies would be brought to Kalupur Hospital station in Ahmedabad city. “So communal violence will occur in the city of Ahmedabad; so take preventive action.” Another SIB message numbered as Out/184/02 again warned about communal incidents if bodies were brought to Ahmedabad. “Communal violence will occur in the city. So take preventive action.”  The same message said that karsevaks had given explosive interviews to a TV station at Godhra and had threatened to unleash violence against the Muslims.

At 1:51 hours and again at 1:59 hours (early morning ) on the February 28, 2002, there were panic messages by wireless police vans positioned at Sola Hospital demanding immediate protection from Special Reserve Police platoons and the presence of DCP Zone 1.Message at 2:44 hours on 28.2.2002: the motor cavalcade has reached Sola Civil Hospital. Page No. 5790 of Annexure IV, File XIV reveals that at 04:00 am a mob comprising of 3,000 swayamsevaks, that is the members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had already gathered at the Civil Sola Hospital. At 7.14 a.m. the PCR van again informs the Police Control Room that a large mob had assembled at the hospital. (Page 5796 of Annexure IV, File XIV of the documents). Again, another message three minutes later at 7:17 a.m. (Page 5797 of Annexure IV, File XIV of the documents) says that a mob of 500 people was holding up the traffic. Ten bodies were taken to Ramol, an area near Naroda and a massive funeral rally of over 5,000-6,000 mourners took the bodies to Hatkeshwar crematorium in the afternoon. At 11:55 am a PCR message is sent out saying that the Hindu mob had become violent and had set a vehicle on fire and was indulging in arson on the highway. Message at 11.55 a.m. on 28.2.2002 (Page No. 6162 Annexure IV File XV) saying that “Sayyed Saheb, the Protocol Officer had informed Sola-1 that riots have started at Sola civil hospital at the High Court where the dead bodies were brought.”Again, there is another message with no indication of time (Page No..6172 of 28.2.2002) that states that the officers and employees of the hospital had been surrounded by a 500 strong mob and they could not come out”. The message also made a demand for more security for the civil hospital at Sola. Annexure IV File XIV- Message No. 5907 and 5925 at 11:58 a.m. on 28.2.2002 shows that when 10 dead bodies were taken from Ramol Jantanagar to the Hatkeshwar cremation ground, a crowd of 5,000-6,000 persons accompanied this procession. On the morning of 28.2.2002, a SIB message (on page 258 of Annexure III File XIX, message No. Com/538/28/2/02) says that a funeral procession was allowed to take place at Khedbrahma, a town in Sabarkantha district. The message adds that soon after the funeral procession 2 Muslims on their way to Khedbrahma were stabbed and the situation had become very tense.

Firebrigade Neutralised

Throughout February 28, 2002 while fires were set all over Ahmedabad city, PCR records show that repeated calls from different areas to the Fire Brigade drew went answered. PCR records show that repeated distress calls to the Fire Brigade from different parts of Ahmedabad went unanswered. Reference – Para 827 at Pages 369-372 of the Protest Petition. This is further evidence of the deliberate neutralisation of the administration.

Comparative Violence

The Protest Petition also makes a systematic study of those districts where violence did not break out largely because of the men and women at the helm who refused to abet the wider conspiracy. For an effective understanding of whether the widespread and brutal and systemic violence in 14 of Gujarat’s 29 districts and commissionerates was on account of a pre-planned and systematic neutralistion of the preventive and protective Constitutional mechanisms, the SIT ought to have undertaken just such an exercise. Instead it willfully concealed from the Supreme Court of India the wealth of documentary evidence collected through the SIB (January 2010) and the PCR records of Ahmedabad city (post March 15 2011). Similar PCR data of other parts of Gujarat was deliberately not collected by the SIT.

The role of whistleblower policemen and administrators through the investigations and the past eleven and a half years has been significant. The affidavits and phone call CDs submitted by then SP Bhavnagar and DCP Crime Rahul Sharma have been critical. Today he is being consistently targeted with one chrage sheet and six notices being served on him. Former DGP RB Sreekumar who’s first four affidavits before the Nanavati- Shah Commission provided a thorough documentation of the functionings of the government at the time was also similarly victimised. Lastly Sanjiv Bhatt has also been targeted. Interestingly the evidence of all three whistleblowers has been given little credence by the SIT except when they in small measure support one or the other of SIT’s claims.

The Citizens for Justice and Peace has assisted complainant Zakia Ahsan Jafri in this legal battle. Both Mrs Jafri and her family and the CJP, especially its secretary and band of lawyers continue to carry on this legal battle at great personal risk. On May 1, 2013 the Magistrate that had heard the SIT arguments for six days since April 24, 2013, was transferred. By May 15, 2013, when the next Magistrate takes over, the day to day hearings in this matter are likely to resume.

We hope that this case that has a great significance for the control and containment of state sponsored communal violence is allowed to continue without interruption and delay.

Ram Rahman                                                   Teesta Setalvad

 

Freedom to criticize religion is a touchstone of free expression’ #censorship #FOE


 

by Farooq Sulehria

Anyone incensed by symbolic violence, such as the video in the US or cartoons in France, should retaliate with symbolic violence in the same way or with peaceful protest. Not through physical violence

Muslims should ‘simply ignore the crazy provocations,’ Gilbert Achcar says. He thinks that those who engaged in violent protests against the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video did exactly what the video’s production team were hoping for as a result of their provocation.

Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Among his books are The Clash of Barbarisms, which came out in a second expanded edition in 2006; a book of dialogues with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (2nd edition in 2008); and most recently The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010). His next book analyzing the Arab upheaval will come out in the spring of 2013.

While Achcar strongly condemns Islamophobic hate material, he rejects any curtailment of free speech in the name of preventing blasphemy. ‘Freedom to criticize religion is a major touchstone of the right to free expression,’ he says in an interview with Farooq Sulehria for Pakistan’s Viewpoint Online.

Q: A decade after your book The Clash of Barbarisms, written in the aftermath of 9/11, it seems that the situation has only worsened. A caricature in an obscure newspaper, an immature video: anything can ignite a ‘clash of barbarisms’ disguised as a ‘clash of civilisations’. How would you analyse the ongoing wave of protests against the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video in parts of the Muslim world?

Gilbert Achcar (GA): The clash of barbarisms that I analysed should not be seen through the lens of such incidents, but rather through much more serious issues such as Guantanamo, the invasion of Iraq, the torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the increasing resort of the USA to extra-judicial killings, etc. Such events do indeed represent setbacks in the civilizing process.

The reactive barbarism found in the Muslim world is mostly incarnated by al-Qaida and other ultra-fundamentalist currents such as the Taliban (whatever goes under this umbrella) and exhibited in much more serious events than the recent demonstrations, such as the dreadful and endless sectarian killings in Iraq, for instance.

These antagonistic barbarisms feed off each other. Of course, the main culprits remain the most powerful: the world powers, the Western powers as well as Russia, which have created this dynamic of adverse barbarisms in the first place.

Q: In Pakistan, at least, the mainstream discourse is to point out Western, especially US, hypocrisy when it comes to freedom of expression. ‘Holocaust denial is a crime,’ is a common refrain. Your comment?

GA: First of all, let us set the record straight. Denying Holocaust is a punishable offence only in some Western countries, not in all of them. It is not liable for punishment in the USA itself. Holocaust deniers freely publish their insanities in the US. This fact is disregarded by all those who use the ban on Holocaust denial as an argument against the USA.

As a matter of fact, there are laws against hate speech in all Western countries, except the US where the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits any restriction to free speech. In upholding this principle, the US Supreme Court went so far, in 1977, as defending the right of the American Nazi Party to march through the village of Skokie a substantial proportion ofwhose inhabitants were Jewish concentration camp survivors. True, there have been violations of this right, particularly for Muslims in the US in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent surge of Islamophobia. But it remains always possible to fight back legally, and civil rights movements are active on such issues.

In Europe, when you feel you have been a victim of hate speech, you can resort to legal action. The question of Western double standard is usually raised with regard to Jews there, as it is much more difficult in Europe to articulate an anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic speech than an Islamophobic one. But this state of affairs owes to two factors.

The first is Europe’s sense of guilt with regard to the Jewish genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany during the Second World War with much European complicity.

The second is that there are powerful Jewish institutions that react vigilantly against any gesture they deem anti-Semitic, often abusively by equating the critique of Israel with anti-Semitism. They are powerful, but note how they react. Not by holding violent demonstrations that would actually increase anti-Semitism, but by engaging in legal proceedings, publishing articles, and so on. Sometimes they even resort to what may be called intellectual terrorism in trying to intimidate critics of the Israeli state or Zionism with accusations of anti-Semitism.

This said, those who say that freedom of expression in the West is biased against Islam because it is less tolerant of anti-Jewish expression forget that the religion of the overwhelming majority in the West is not Judaism, but Christianity. When it comes to Christianity, Westerners are free to mock the Pope, Jesus Christ, or even God without fear of reprisals. Some of the major artistic and literary works in the West are satirical of Christianity or religion in general in ways that you can’t imagine nowadays when it comes to Islam in the Muslim world.

True, there are some Christian fundamentalist groups that can resort to violence every now and then against anti-religious works. But they are completely marginal. Their violence is punished by law and it never reaches the level of what has been done these last days in the name of religion, which is matched only by the violence of Jewish fundamentalist colonial settlers in Palestine. Moreover, one should not forget that freedom of expression in Europe – in the UK in particular – has been of much greater benefit to Islamic fundamentalists of all brands who sought a refuge there fleeing oppression in Muslim countries than it has to people committing provocations such as those we are discussing.

Anyone incensed by symbolic violence, such as the video in the US or cartoons in France, should retaliate with symbolic violence in the same way or with peaceful protest. Not through physical violence. Resorting to physical violence against a symbolic act is a sign of intellectual weakness. You remember how the Taliban destroyed the gigantic Buddhas in Bamyan. These Buddhas were a World Heritage Site. Did Buddhists react violently? In Egypt and Nigeria, Christians and churches have been repeatedly and bloodily attacked in recent months. Did you see violent demonstrations of Christians worldwide retaliating against Muslim countries? People appreciate the difference between the lunatic fringe that carries out attacks on Christians and the general Muslim population. Muslims should also realise that the violent Islamophobic lunatic fringe in Western countries is marginal, actually much more marginal than the violent Islamic fundamentalist lunatic fringe in Muslim countries.

Crazy provocations like the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ film or the burning of Korans by the crackpot Terry Jones are best ignored. They are so stupid that they don’t deserve any reaction at all. The greatest service one can render to these provocateurs is to respond wildly to their provocations. Agitators are successful when they are able to arouse the feelings of the targeted group. This is why some people rightly argue that the ban on Holocaust denial in France, for instance, is counter-productive. Due to that ban, French Holocaust deniers have become very famous in France, whereas hardly anybody knows the name of US Holocaust deniers in the USA. Had nobody reacted to Terry Jones’s damn-fool provocations, they would have remained unknown, as have thousands of such anti-Islamic utterances. Had nobody paid attention to him, he would not have carried on his dreadful farce. These lunatics have an Islamophobic agenda. Muslim political forces that react in the violent way that we have seen actually reinforce the very Islamophobia against which they protest.

Salman Rushdie’s kind of work falls into a different category, of course. It cannot be dismissed as rubbish. He is a major contemporary writer. However, his Satanic Verses are very innocuous indeed compared to satires of Christianity, or even Judaism for that matter, which are freely available in the West.

Q: Since the Salman Rushdie affair there have been the Danish cartoons, Geert Wilders’ film, and now the film produced in the US. Every time we see wild massive reactions. How do you explain that?

GA: The fact is, very obviously, that certain political forces exploit such events to agitate for their cause, as Khomeini did in the case of the Rushdie affair. He never read Salman Rushdie’s book, in the same way as most demonstrators against the anti-Islam film have not seen it. It is always the same story: some political forces exploit such occasions by stirring up the raw feelings of politically illiterate people in order to push their own political agenda. Fundamentalist forces have always seized upon such provocations. This is how they build their influence.

Q: In Pakistan, a common idea peddled by the government, Islamists and mainstream media is to demand worldwide UN legislation banning blasphemy? What do you think of this demand?

GA: I am hundred percent against it. The notion of blasphemy is a medieval notion. Those who make such a demand want to bring us back to the Middle Ages. If you want to prohibit criticism of religion, you will have to prohibit it for all religions. To implement a ban on blasphemy one will have to proscribe a huge number of works of literature, art and philosophy accumulated over many centuries in all languages, including Arabic of course. Such works are presently banned in the Arab world, but this is a testimony to the lack of freedom of expression.

The freedom to criticize religion is a major touchstone of the right to free expression. As long as a society does not tolerate this freedom, it has not achieved freedom of expression. It is a duty of all people committed to democratic freedoms to raise their voices against barbaric reactions to lunatic provocations. Capitulation to religious demagogy will entail a huge cost at all levels. Once set in motion this process of curtailment of free speech will have no limit. Who will decide what is blasphemous and what is not?

Q: The demonstrators in Pakistan targeted symbols of wealth (banks, cars, ATM machines) or Western culture (cinemas, theatres). Some people view these violent actions in the Muslim world as part of a wider political conflict between the West and the Muslim world. What is your opinion?

GA: I disagree. Violence can be understandable under certain circumstances when people are demonstrating against social and economic assaults on their livelihood or in protest against actual slaughter, massacres, invasions, or occupations perpetrated by Western powers, or the Zionist occupation in Palestine. And yet, the fact is that many real massacres committed by Western powers or Zionists did not lead to any comparable reactions. The truth is that the violence on display is above all a political exploitation by fundamentalists of a provocation for utterly reactionary purposes.

Q: The left in most of the Muslim countries is a small force and is often caught in a strange situation during such crises. While the left, in Pakistan for instance, condemns racist provocations, it advocates curtailment of free speech with regard to religion. What do you think of this attitude?

GA: We are reaping today the result of the left’s failure over many decades to raise the basic secular demand of separation of religion from state. Secularism – including freedom of belief, religion, and irreligion – is an elementary condition of democracy. It should be, therefore, an elementary part of any democratic project, let alone a left project. But most of the left in my part of the world, the Arab region, has capitulated on this issue.

For instance, in Egypt, large sections of the left, including the radical left, have all but dropped the term secularism from their vocabulary. Ironically, when the ‘Islamist’ Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Egypt, he stated publicly that he stood for secularism, to the chagrin of the Muslim Brotherhood.

If the left wants to challenge the hegemony of Islamic forces and develop a counter-hegemonic movement in the political, social and cultural spheres, it must fight resolutely for secularism as well as against gender oppression – another fight from which many on the left also shy away in fear of ‘hurting the feelings’ of the believers. This is a self-defeating strategy.

Farooq Sulehria is currently pursuing his media studies. Previously, he has worked with Stockholm-based Weekly Internationalen. In Pakistan, he has worked with The Nation, The Frontier Post, The News, and the Pakistan. He has MA in Mass Communication from the University of Punjab, Lahore. He also contributes for Znet and various left publications internationally.

 

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