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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 February 2006, 11:57 GMT
Pakistan's mild reaction to cartoons

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Pakistani protestors burn a Danish flag to condemn Prophet Muhammad cartoons
Protests over the cartoon issue have been restrained
The response in Pakistan to the controversy over Danish caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad has been relatively measured and restrained, taking many observers by surprise.

Pakistan is, after all, a country that has a history of violent protests against any perceived sacrilege.

In November 1979, enraged Pakistani protestors had set fire to the US embassy in Islamabad after Saudi political dissidents briefly laid siege to the Kaaba - the premier Muslim place of worship in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Ten years later, seven protestors were killed in police firing as they demonstrated against Salman Rushdie, the author of Satanic Verses.

More recently, the 2005 controversy over the alleged desecration of the Muslim holy book of Koran in the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay led to widespread protests across Pakistan.

In comparison, the cartoon controversy has drawn little more than the regulation fare: an inconsequential condemnation from the upper house of parliament, echoed by President Musharraf, and diplomatic protest by the government to various European countries.

There have been some demonstrations by religious groups - nearly all poorly attended - besides a few newspaper editorials urging the West to show restraint in such matters.

'Political mileage'

For a country that emerged as a resilient sanctuary for militant Islam after the 11 September attacks on the US, the restraint is indeed surprising.

Salman Rushdie, author of Satanic Verses
Salman Rushdie's book triggered riots in 1989

Or is it?

"Muslim leadership the world over has historically been the most cynical manipulator of Islam - and this is especially true of Pakistan," says one analyst.

"Injured religious sentiment has seldom translated into public unrest unless there was political mileage to be gained from it by some vested interest," he argues.

The 1979 sacking of the US embassy in Islamabad, say these analysts, was aimed at convincing the US of Islam's destructive potential and hence its utility in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's prime minister at the time of the anti-Rushdie riots in 1989, has repeatedly said those riots were instigated by the country's military leadership to destabilise her government.

And the Guantanamo desecration protests came at a time when Pakistan's military government was under pressure over the large number of Pakistani detainees in that facility.

"We all saw the impassioned protests against desecration reports from Guantanamo," says another analyst.

"But the post-Saddam sacking of the Baghdad museum which destroyed precious manuscripts of the Koran went completely unnoticed in Pakistan."

'Intellectual oppression'

What is also striking in Pakistan is the lack of any real discussion of the issues in this latest row over the Danish cartoons.

Pakistan protestors demonstrating against Prophet Muhammad cartoons
Human rights groups call Pakistan's blasphemy laws 'inhuman'

Pakistan is one of a number of countries with rigid blasphemy laws often described by the global human rights groups as "inhuman".

In Pakistan, the blasphemy law has pre-empted all possibility of an open debate on Islam and its role in a rapidly changing world.

Indeed, there have been blasphemy cases instituted against teachers for trying to explain to their students that the Prophet's parents could not have been Muslims for the simple reason that they died before the advent of Islam.

"The intellectual oppression across the Muslim world has left the onus of initiating an informed debate on religion entirely in the hands of the West," says one analyst.

"We see that happening again on this cartoon issue."

So if the West chooses to conduct the debate within a strictly liberal paradigm, there is little that Muslims can do about it.


For example, the issue for many in the West is that of freedom of expression but for many Muslims, it is a question of how much humiliation - irrespective of what form it comes in - they have to endure at the hands of the West.

A Pakistani man at a protest meet against Prophet Muhammad cartoons
Islam and the West - irreconcilable world views

"It is not a question of who is right and who isn't," says a multi-national employee.

"The issue is a failure of the two sides to realise that their world is split between two seemingly irreconcilable world views, that of Islam and the West."

Expecting the West to show restraint is only one component of a solution that sidesteps the question over what role the Muslims can play in bridging the gap.

Pakistani liberals argue that Muslims know very well that the West - despite its emphasis on personal freedoms - also has its sacred cows, the Holocaust being a prime example.

What the Muslims have yet to learn, they say, is how to persuade the prevailing Western mindset to pay similar respect to what they hold so dear.

That is a task which liberal Pakistanis feel is unlikely to be accomplished by banishing the cartoons for being sacrilegious or burning down Western embassies.

"The cartoons should be treated as a window into the western mind and examined to understand the exact nature of this gap of understanding," concludes a lawyer from Karachi.

"Only then can the Muslims hope to explain to the West that suicide bombings are not a politically glorified quest for virgins in the hereafter."

(The people interviewed for this article did not wish to be named.)

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