Free Speech vs. Anti-Shi’i Vitriol ?

Recently, a contentious article published in one of Pakistan’s leading English language newspaper by an academic based at the University of Vermont, created a public furore with its content based on some seemingly degradatory views and insinutations about the Shi’i faith and rituals. The story created an outrage and was removed from its website within twenty four hours, with an apology being issued by the editors.

The Professor’s opinions were termed as ‘outrageous’ and ‘insulting’ by many in the Shia and the non-Shia community in Pakistan. He describes the tragedy of Karbala as  ‘a historic event which has been distorted at the behest of culture to take on new heights of absurdity and masochism’ and can be characterized by ‘utter lunacy’.  In the aftermath of the uproar created by this article,  the Professor apologized publicly and published a modified version of the article where he removed an extremely volatile and contentious assertion saying, ‘Drunken horses being paraded through streets, with mobs of men, high on testosterone (and God knows what else), bleeding themselves unconsciousness, is an utterly embarrassing spectacle.’ Hereby making a over-reaching speculation that those participating in the rituals are motivated and propelled by some sort of primitive debauchary and frivolity rather than religious devotion. In the revised version of the article he  makes a new assertion about the rituals saying that ‘such customs are  a danger to public health and communion’.

The vitriolic tone of some of  the assertions in the article however takes away from the fact that the author had made some very pertinent observations regarding the influence of culture on religious practices, the need to question rituals and the necessity for Sunnis and Shias to  move beyond such ‘provocative displays of disfavour for each other’ , for ‘constructive confrontation as means of peace-building’ and the need for ‘a major pan-Islamic reconciliation process between sects’.

It is worthy to note that regardless of the fact whether the rituals in question are cultural perversion of religion or whether they are actually grounded in Shi’i theology, the fact remains that they are percieved and accepted by the Shi’i as a genuine form and expression of Ashura mourning. The irony is that whereas the author seeks to curb sectarian hate speech he himself indulges in the sort of language and discourse that can easliy be described as hate speech which seeks to restrict the right of self-expression of a community. He believes that change is being stifled by such ‘bullying about religious sensitivity exhibited in this episode’ when he himself can be seen as a ‘self-righeous bully’ who can be accused of being consdescending and presumptous with regards to a community that is already facing excessive persecution. What he sees as his ‘duty’ as a ‘socially conscious writer to push the envelope and challenge people to question their assumptions’ can also be subverted potentially to encourage distorted and caricatured representations in an already polarized society.

In the article he further deplores what he calls the ‘malaise that has struck Muharram (Ashura) processions’ and which in his opinion needs to be severly protested by the ‘educated elite’. Thus making a case based on the assumptions that those affirming such acts are neither educated nor a part of the elite of the country. These assertions can be soundly contested as can be garnered from the reaction of  a great majority of the educated elite to such views.  The Professor himself acknowledges this in another article that was a response to this controversy,  as ‘being surprised that educated people questioned my right tocriticize a cultural practice by referring to it as hate speech’ and calls it  ‘a surprising torrent against free speech even from highly educated writers’.

Here the controversy becomes entangled with the narrative of lack of free speech with the author becoming ‘deeply troubled about the state of journalistic independence inPakistan’ and suggesting that this episode highlighted ‘a larger issue of media freedom’. In his opinion this incident was ‘a test of free speech in Pakistan and it is clear that the country is still stuck in a time warp of religious hypersensitivity’. Such sentiments were also echoed by some people in the Pakistan media. It is interesting in this sense to see how this controversy has generated a debate that seeks to delineate the limits of personal opinions trespassing over public or religious rights. At the very least therefore this episode has initated a dialgoue which can possibly lead to self reflection in all sections of the Muslim community.

3 responses

  1. I really appreciated the sentiments you expressed in this response, particularly in the 3rd paragraph. I agree that it’s extremely unfortunate that this professor allowed his ideas about sectarianism and religious culture to be overrun by disrespectful language. Studying Shi’ism in an academic setting amongst practicing Shi’as has made me realize how difficult it is for one to approach any branch of religion from an academic, objective viewpoint without trivializing the beliefs of the subject. Understanding how to discuss these theological issues in a less heated, more composed manner is crucial to furthering understanding in all diverse religious communities, not just Islamic ones.

  2. I agree with you that this professor does not seem to be “pushing the envelope and challenging people to question their assumptions” as much as he is blatantly attacking their faith. I especially liked your final paragraph, however, in which you extended the implications of this article into the realm of free speech. On one hand, I understand why The Express Tribune removed his article. Saleem H. Ali was expressing his viewpoint, but his tone in doing so was insulting and belittling. Consequently, I’m surprised that The Express Tribune published his article in the first place–I’m sure that they could have easily anticipated the outrage it would cause. In their apology, The Express Tribune blames their own lack of “proper editorial judgment” as the reason for publishing the article. This, though, naturally raises questions as to what is “proper” to be censored, and what is “proper” to be printed. One can only decide such things by agreeing on a value system that quietly asserts the immutability of some things, and leaves others open for debate. It will be interesting to see whether this particular disagreement about freedom of speech also evolves into a deeper discussion of the value system of the Muslim community.

  3. I agree with the idea the everyone should reflect on ritual practices and on faith in general, and try to take steps that will foster reconciliation. However, this man, while purporting to make that very reasonable argument, was just venting his frustration over certain Shia observances/practices. That is certainly wrong. One should voice views as objectively as possible, especially in order to enable sustainable and amicable dialogue, which is what needs to happen on a massive scale. Both sides are misrepresented and misconstrued, and people like this professor who make inflammatory, insensitive and unintelligent remarks engender the kind of chaos and aggression that lies underneath Shia-Sunni sectarianism. Often times, it’s people in reputable positions with a certain standing in society who just screw things up and make circumstances worse because of the affect they have on others, especially others who are comparatively uneducated, unexposed and underprivileged. I think it’s really important to ensure that people who abuse their reputation are absolutely reprimanded and corrected, because saying sorry really does nothing in the end; words spoken don’t fall on deaf ears, and much worse than hurting some people’s feelings, they encourage ignorance and hostility in others.

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