Last week’s protests over the blasphemous film have apparently led to no change, as not only the film remains unbanned in theUSA, its country of origin, but also fresh blasphemy has been committed inFrance, where the free speech defence is used by the government to protect a magazine that has published blasphemous cartoons.Pakistan’s President has been congratulated by theUSSecretary of State for successfully handling the protests. If the 25 people who died represent a successful handling, then one would hate to see what failure would have meant.

However, what came across clearly was the powerlessness of the Muslim world. If the blasphemy is to go unpunished, at least it should have been stopped. However, all that seems to have been done is that an anger has been made public. It is almost as if a prediction that had been made, was being fulfilled. Indeed, no protest document of any kind was handed over. No state formulated any demand, none having the right to do so. It is at times like this that the Muslim world most feels the lack of a Caliphate, which would express the feelings of the Muslims. More to the point perhaps, it would provide the kind of muscle that would allow it to prevent such outbreaks.

There has been much criticism of how the damage incurred would only benefit the ‘enemies’ of Islam, and thus fulfilled the purpose of the blasphemers. This implies that only the damage incurred was wrong. In turn, this implies that if the demonstrators had heeded the government’s call to be peaceful, all would have been well. Unfortunately for the government, while it was strong enough to prevent any harm from coming to any of theUSdiplomatic missions in its territory, it was not strong enough to prevent blasphemy.

The protests served to highlight a reality that did not reach a lot of Americans, who thought Muslims were enraged into acting as they did. This ignored the intervening stage, where Muslims quite dispassionately realised they had a religious duty to prevent further blasphemy and punish those who had committed that which had already taken place. This realisation was transformed into the passion seen last Friday.

It was this realisation too which came into conflict with the principle that has been used to justify the state’s non-intervention, that of freedom of speech. The protests served to make aware the fellow countrymen of the free speaker (the blasphemer) that there was a cost involved. Free speech apparently is about hurting others. Most of the other examples of how the West applies this principle are about hate speech against the Jews, and Holocaust denial. The latter may be a historical debate, but for any Jew, including any with relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, denial would be painful. At the same time, it cannot but be noted that there is nothing to indicate why freedom of speech should be elevated into a kind of religious principle.

Freedom of speech is part of the more general principle of freedom, which it seems is the new secular religion that seems to have replaced Christianity. This freedom of speech, by the way, is also enshrined in the Pakistani Constitution in Article 19, though it is restricted. This is, probably, the result of the attitude reflected by the original Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which provided punishment for any blasphemy by any person against any religion. This provision, despite the belief of the drafters in freedom of speech, was made so that the British could rule what must have seemed to de-Christianising 19th century Englishmen as excessively religious Indians. However, it points to a truism: the West is willing to sacrifice its freedoms whenever they seem to pose a threat to the upper class ruling, whether it be over a colony, as was the case of the Raj, or its own country, as nowadays.

The refusal to do anything about blasphemy, which was most recently stated by US President Barack Obama in his address to the UN General Assembly, does not satisfy protesters inPakistan, who feel that their own state is not just able to pull strings, but does so at American behest. The protesters can thus be forgiven for their assumption that the American state could have prevented any further blasphemy had they so wished. That Pakistan is being asked to sacrifice the rule of law, and accept that there will be arrests and handings over to the USA, that there will be disappearing persons, all without legal justification, is generally known, and it is also known that the US approves of all this. The logic is thus that theUSAis a lawless state when it comes to matters of state interest, and thus if it chooses to rest a defence on the law, then it must want to do so, rather than be obliged to do so.

At the same time, this does not factor in the use of freedom as a kind of substitute for Christianity, as a type of new religion. This new religion took about a century to prevail, but it emerged during the French Revolution. The anticlericalism of that revolution was not so much because the Church was seen as part of the existing, exploitative order, as it was putting forward a new religion.

From theUSA’s point of view, the protests were more in the plus column than the minus. The people who died did not include anyUSmission staff, and noUScitizens. At the end of the whole affair, the Muslims may well have become exhausted, while theUShas remained unbowed, still aggressively defending freedom of speech.

From the point of view of those protesting, there was not much success! If the real motive was indeed anti-Americanism, Americans not only suffered no losses, but also remained adamant about its defence of freedom of speech. However, though there is in orthodoxy no distinction between blasphemy motivated by a desire to irritate Muslims and other kinds, no one has paid much attention to the fact that this blasphemy was aimed to provoke, and succeeded. Those killed in the protests inPakistanare victims of this, and thus of the film. All those with hidden agendas tried to achieve them, but the reality remains that Muslim discourse is still dominated by those who oppose blasphemy against the Prophet (PBUH), and who do not support freedom of speech above this.

Blasphemy is a cheap shot in the anticlerical argument, which is not particularly relevant to Muslims anyway, and thus is to be avoided. The Western state, which includesPakistan, whose state aims to do what European states do, has viewed blasphemy as a law and order problem precisely because Muslims see it as a challenge they cannot ignore.

The Pakistani state might find itself in a bind, because it rules over Muslims, who object strongly to blasphemy (and one of the features of this episode was the unity of the Ummah), but it espouses aims parallel to that of European and American states. It has weathered this crisis, and has been left virtually undamaged. However, there is no guarantee that it can similarly survive more than one repetition. And it should rest assured that repetitions there will be, so long as blasphemy remains not just unpunished, but defended as freedom of speech.

 The writer is a veteran  journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation. Email:maniazi@nation.com.pk