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Dangerous provocations

LARGE-SCALE protests have begun in Afghanistan. They commenced in Mazar-i-Sharif, and spread to Kandahar the following day with other cities following suit. Mobs of Afghans protested the burning of the Quran by Terry Jones, a pastor of a small church in Florida.

Jones, a former hotel manager, claims that the Quran incited violence, and said that he would go ahead with his own protest on April 22 in front of a Michigan mosque. He said, “Our aim is to make an awareness of the radical element of Islam.” These protests are harmful when innocent people — like the UN workers in Mazar-i-Sharif who were engaged in relief efforts — are killed. The protests in Kandahar and later in Jalalabad also resulted in the loss of lives. These events have coincided with protests taking place in the Middle East, where citizens are demanding greater rights, freedom and democracy. At the same time, a UN no-fly zone is in place over Libya, where Muammar Qadhafi`s sovereignty has been abbreviated.

However, the same moral yardstick is not applied when it comes to protecting populations in Bahrain, Yemen or in the Shia region of Saudi Arabia. A selective use of the moral compass? Are these events related or are they separate occurrences with close sequencing? What would be the likely impact of these events? Is Islam being targeted? These are important questions but can only be dealt with in a preliminary manner in this column.

Some first observations can be made to disentangle the issues that pertain to endangering security and threatening the lives of citizens of many countries and soldiers and citizens in Afghanistan. Spring heralds a new birth. But in Afghanistan and Fata it is the harbinger of an offensive with fatalities. Indeed, spring this year is likely to be more violent than in the past. One major reason is the injection of venom introduced by Terry Jones. More deaths are likely to occur. The pastor has gifted an opportunity to the Taliban and Al Qaeda to mobilise themselves around a issue which can result in no good.

The pastor could have presented a more evenhanded view had he condemned violent radicalism as a corruption in any religion. After all, how can he explain the violence of the Christian Ku Klux Klan against the American coloured or the violence perpetrated by another Christian group, The Army of God, an anti-abortion movement, or of the Hutaree, a Christian militia group based in Michigan and indicted for terrorism in 2010?

In Judaism too, one comes across similarly radical groups espousing violence for the achievement of their objectives. The most notorious amongst them is the Jewish Defence League formed in New York in 1968 and classified as a terrorist group by the FBI in 2001. In 1994, a Jewish gunman killed Palestinians who were praying in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Do these examples indicate that Christianity and Judaism are violent and radical religions? Obviously not.

It is apparent that every religion aims to bring peace and happiness through its teachings; violence is abjured by all. Bernard Lewis believes that, “Islam, as a religion is not particularly conducive to terrorism or even tolerant of terrorism”. While Karen Armstrong is probably right in saying that, “Fundamentalism is often a form of nationalism in religious disguise”. Could it be that the Florida pastor has been manipulated to create circumstances as an agent provocateur so that a clash between Islam and Christianity is brought about to prevent US policy from becoming more evenhanded in its approach in the Middle East?

Yet another provocation against Muslims is building up in the US Congress when the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King, resumes hearings on “the extent of the radicalisation” of American Muslims.

It is not understood why the US and the West tolerate those who create hatred against Islam as does the pastor or the congressman or the publisher of the Danish cartoons? The normal response is that freedom of speech is protected. Yet, contrary to this formulation, the denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offence in many western countries.

Secondly, the US constitution guarantees a free trial under the provisions of the US constitution. But the US has abrogated fundamental rights in those cases where the president so chooses. This allows trial by military tribunals. The US Congress, by a resolution adopted on Sept 18, 2001, authorised the president to use any/all means against such organisations/individuals who he thinks have been responsible for 9/11. There is no mention here of the prevalence of constitutional guarantees for those who are proceeded against under such laws.

According to observers, thousands of laws have been enacted in the US under this resolution that has changed the nature of the US constitution bringing the US closer to totalitarianism. The question is that if the US president is authorised to protect the interests of the US and the lives of its citizens, why can`t the inflammatory actions of a pastor in Florida be proscribed under the same law? Isn`t the pastor endangering the lives of US soldiers and citizens in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

International events are at a crossroads. There is an opportunity where peace with the Muslim world is possible by transforming US policy. Perhaps it is this that the congressman and the pastor don`t want. It could also affect President Obama`s re-election chances.

The tables can be turned by agreeing to a new rule of international law that provides for respecting the beliefs of others. There cannot be effective human rights if the religious beliefs of others are ridiculed.

The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.

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