The South Asia Channel

The cost of speaking out

The cost of speaking out

My article criticizing certain rituals in the Shi’a Muslimtradition in Pakistan’s Express Tribune on December 8 spurred a firestorm ofcontroversy, as a number of commentators deemed it inappropriate or worse. Myargument was that religious adherents need to repudiate rituals that infringeon collective rights, and which can escalate sectarian conflict; these includethe rituals during the commemoration of Muharram, that can involve men and evenchildren flagellating  themselves withknives on chains, and processions of bleeding men as a display of adoration forthe martyred Imam Husain (this is byno means reflective of all Shi’a practice, but is widely practiced amongSouth Asian Shi’a).

The controversy grew more intense on Twitter, and evennotable commentators such as NasimZehra asked for an immediate apology from the Tribune on grounds that thearticle was "outrageously offensive."To her credit, Ms. Zehra later noted thatafter the apology the matter should be closed. However, hate mail from all over followed,including several messages to the president of the University of Vermont (whereI teach) asking for my dismissal, a surprising torrent against free speech evenfrom highly educated writers. The university noted that the article was wellwithin the confines of free speech and was in fact condemning violence. Insteadof admonishing me, the university offered me police protection.

Under pressure from sponsors and amid fears that other mediahouses would use this episode to spur a consumer boycott, Tribune decided tofirst edit and then completely remove the article, and noted that I was"banned" from writing in their pages again. My intention was never to rebukeShi’ism itself, but rather such rituals whose practice further leads toacrimony between Shi’a and Sunnis. Furthermore, a ritual with so much bloodbeing spilled in a procession can be a public health issue, and has been repeatedlyquestioned and curtailed in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.

Ireposted the article on my site with a clear apology for specificstatements which were, in retrospect, inflammatory for Pakistan’s religioussensibilities. The newspaper’s "ban" on my writing was later edited out of the apology statement posted onthe Internet, but this episode left me deeply troubled about the state ofjournalistic independence in Pakistan. The country has a vibrant civil societyand promising career track for journalists and independent writers, but therehas been a rapidrise in abductions and murders of journalists whose views were consideredantithetical to certain religious perspectives.

This episode highlighted for me a larger issue of mediafreedom in a country which often prides itself in having private TV channelswith fiery talk shows blasting politicians. Yet religious debate, often socontentious and even violent in Pakistan, remains off limits. Pakistan as asociety needs to understand that the right to offend in journalism is afundamental right. I don’t mind getting hate mail despite the norms of freespeech, but what surprised me was that educated people questioned my right tocriticize a cultural practice by referring to it as "hate speech." I wasrepeatedly asked what my point was if criticism could further cause conflict. Stillanother asked, "could you criticize Jewish rituals the same way in America?" Thiskind of reaction could have taken place in many Muslim societies — and Sunnisare equally culpable on such matters as Shi’a.

Pakistan’s infamous blasphemylaws are a result of exactly this kind of oversensitivity and pattern ofraising ire following any hint of criticism about religious rituals or edicts.The valorization of extreme religious edicts by the State has unfortunatelybeen successful in co-opting the sensibilities of even many educated citizens. Thisin turn has strengthened the religious establishment’s efforts toinstitutionalize a radical inertia within the political system.  Perhaps unwittingly, liberal commentators whowould rather avoid tougher issues of dissent scorned my article, and by doingso strengthened the same kinds of arguments that fanatics use to marginalizeminorities or their opponents.

Ironically, in my article, I clearly stated that lawsagainst hate speech must be enforced. Speech that directly urges violence towardsany particular person or group of people must be avoided at all costs. Yet tounderstand sectarian conflict, which is often compared to "cancer," we have tolook at both proximate and systemic causes. Just as one treats cancer withchemotherapy, groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi(LeJ) need to be hunted down for terrorist crimes. But we also need to searchfor systemic causes of sectarian strife, which in Pakistan can be traced totheology in both Shi’a and Sunni doctrines as well as political interventionand alleged statesupport for sectarian groups like LeJ or Sipah-e-Sihaba Pakistan (SSP).

In a pluralistic society, the limits of what is allowed insuch cases can be debated and questioned, and laws can be passed and changedthrough democratic processes. For example, there are laws in some Europeancountries against questioning the historical validity of the Holocaust, but inthe United States, such historical questioning is protected by the firstamendment to the U.S. constitution (despite the repeated accusations by many Pakistanisthat American law and politics reflect undue Jewish influence). While Idisagree with the limitations on free speech in Europe, there is at least aworkable legislative pathway for repeal of these laws. In Pakistan, the prospectof any legislative change to errant laws is stifled by precisely the kindof bullying about religious sensitivity exhibited in this episode.

The duty of any socially conscious writer is to push theenvelope and challenge people to question their assumptions. This will makepeople uncomfortable, but incremental social change always happens through sucha dialectical process. If people were always trying to stray from controversy socialchange would never take place. Cultural sensitivity is far too often used as anexcuse for maintaining the status quo in places like Pakistan, and this needsto change if the country is ever to overcome the polarization that continues toimpede communitarian peace.

Saleem H. Ali is professor ofenvironmental studies at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School ofEnvironment and Natural Resources and the director of the Institute forEnvironmental Diplomacy and Security at the James Jeffords Center for PolicyResearch. He can be followed @saleem_ali