Harsh Kapoor's SACW mailing this morning (subscribe
to the list if you really
wish to know what's happening in the region) included the following editorial from today's Daily Times - a popular Pakistani newspaper. [My comments follow.]
CARTOONS, THREATS AND JOURNALISM
Daily Aajkal, which is a sister publication of Daily Times in Urdu, is under attack from the clerical partisans of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad for its anti-extremism editorial policy in general and a cartoon in particular. The Lal Masjid mullahs say the cartoon is "insulting" and they say their "patience with the paper is running out" because of its "editorial policy".
The cartoon published in Aajkal showed the leader of the partisans, Umme Hassaan, in a burka teaching her burka-clad students the radical political philosophy of the group. But since this could hardly be construed as insulting in any way- after all, the various statements of the group's philosophy are already public knowledge - the group has clutched at the argument that the cartoon "insulted those who taught the Quran", implying some sort of "Islamic" justification for their threats.
This is completely untrue and totally divorced from the purport of the cartoon. The cartoon was made and published within the tradition and practice of satire in the Pakistani press. It was aimed at political partisans, like all political cartoons against other partisans in the political parties and groups.
The umbrage has been taken owing to the heat produced by the political fallout of the operation against Lal Masjid. This is understandable and Aajkal is not too happy about offending any side involved in the controversy. But the cartoon itself was not intended to attack anyone; it was published in the spirit in which all political cartoons in Pakistan are accepted as the lighter side of our political life. There was nothing more and nothing less in the conceiving of the said cartoon. It was not directed at the faith that Aajkal itself upholds within the permitted variety of belief among Muslims. (Italics mine! Just curious as to where one gets these 'permits' ... Zakintosh
A cartoon is the yardstick by which you measure the level of tolerance in any given society. When states are troubled, the first institution that is attacked is the institution of public criticism through satire. This is simply because satire is always considered less harmful and subversive than a detailed indictment of any person or institution. It is light-hearted and asks the victim to smile rather than take offence.
In Pakistan, as everywhere else in the world, all public events, all happenings that touch the consciousness of the people, become the subject of a cartoon. The caricature tries to capture what the people at large think of a certain issue. This is the way it has developed in Pakistan in the last 60 years.
The fact is Lal Masjid involved itself in public affairs when it took in hand the task of "social cleansing" some years ago. The subliminal intent was to attract public attention and plead for approval because it was, according to its lights, doing moral correction where the state had failed. This was the beginning of the public image of the madrassa at Lal Masjid. Its leaders sought public limelight and asked to be judged at the court of public opinion, partly by vigilante action. The result was a mixed verdict. That was natural because any invitation to arbitration by public opinion will yield positive and negative opinion. This process also activated the journalistic device of the cartoon.
If you pick up the newspapers of the past few years, you will come across a lot of cartoons made on the events related to the activity of the Lal Masjid clerics and their pupils. The crux of these drawings was the same: to highlight an incongruity through humour and satire. Pakistan has now a well established tradition of cartoons. The politicians don't mind being portrayed in a funny manner, and even when they do, they keep quiet rather than hurl threats. Therefore the clerics in the public eye should also know that this is the process they have to go through. Neither the politician nor the cleric has suffered any lowering of his respect and honour because of the cartoons.
With the spread of the private TV channels, the business of cartoons has been revitalised. It has become dramatised with live characters mimicking well-known personalities including the ulema who, incidentally, also teach the Quran. The cartoon itself has become a "cartoon strip" and has supplemented and strengthened the tradition of cartooning in Pakistani journalism.
The tragedy of Lal Masjid in 2007 happened right in front of the seeing eye of the cartoon. Where Lal Masjid received a lot sympathetic support, and the government had to face criticism, there were occasions when the opposite happened too.
There are always two sides to an issue, even a religious issue, and there will be partisans of this or that point of view. That is the essence of a free society and democracy. Even the issue of suicide-bombing has two opposed ways of looking at it. The division is there even among the ulema. Over fifty ulema in 2005 issued a collective fatwa saying suicide-bombing was against Islam. It was their right to say so, but it was wrong on the part of some other ulema to threaten them to cow them into silence. They would have been within their rights had they issued a counter-fatwa saying suicide-bombing was right.
Threatening a newspaper into silence indicates the level of intolerance that will do no one any good in the long run. The mission of moral correction taken up by the Lal Masjid partisans will be successful only if it is accepted by the people without coming under duress. Indeed, any order imposed through intimidation and threat of violence is not durable and will be rejected by the people in the long run. Therefore Lal Masjid should become the symbol of struggle against the use of violence; and it should not give the impression that it can use violence to achieve its ends.
Many of you may recall the heavily choreographed and manipulated protests, nation-wide, when the provocatively irresposible Danish cartoons first surfaced. That the major portions of rallies were, initially, quite obviously 'staged' until they pulled others into their fold as the frenzy caught on, is a widely accepted fact.
Still unsure of this line of reasoning? Think, for a moment:
(a) Where would thousands of unconnected people suddenly appear from out of all nooks and crannies of our small towns, waving identical Danish flags? Maybe I am wrong and most Pakistani homes usually keep all the world's national flags as part of our standard household inventory, ready to be whipped out (and burnt! Who pays for that
and the required 're-stocking', I often wonder...) at the drop of an ink-spot. We have, over the years, seen Indian, US, Israeli, British, Bangladeshi, Russian, UN, and other flags suddenly unfurl in hundreds. Hmmmm. (Of course, there are also reliable reports of a leading foreign journalist, at least on one occasion, passing out flags for burning, in order to get a good video clip for her channel!)
(b) When the Government, the 'agencies', and
the Islamist parties - at the behest of their common paymasters - thought that it was an inopportune time for a 'repeat performance', the Geert Wilders movie, Fitna
, came and went almost unnoticed. Maybe we ran out of combustibles, but no flags, tyres, or effigies blotted our streets.
Given that some irresponsible sections of our popular press, in an effort to play to the gallery and increase sales, supported the unruly and misdirected hooha in the cartoon cases, isn't what's happening to Aajkal
(the paper with, incidentally, the best layout in our vernacular press world) just a case of chickens coming home to roost, albeit in the wrong coop?
Regardless of how
we got to this spot in our sad history, if this direction is not actively
reversed NOW (and I have little hope that it will be) we will keep heading further and further into an abyss from which there is no return.
The recent disgusting and offensive hero-ization of the Lal Masjid miscreants, including the burqa clad woman (and man) who bear much of the responsibility, is the worst ammunition that has recently been appropriated for a political battle in which all sides will lose, if Pakistan loses The electronic media's support of this idiocy, through completely distorted 'revisits' to the Lal Masjid incident, is a classic case of 'apnay paeroñ par külhaa∂ee...'