Thursday, February 16, 2006

Op-Ed on the Continuing Riots

A friend of mine wrote me prior to the riots saying, “I’m worried about you. People are killing each other over cartoons in that part of the world!” She and I had met living in Morocco a few years ago, so she’s not one to be alarmed by CNN and Fox News reports alone. I was quite impressed with the Pakistanis that they had not been jumping on the protest the West bandwagon, but while watching the footage of the riots on 15 Feb that respect was lost.

I know they’re probably not reading, but I have two groups of people I want to address concerning the current situation: those who support the infamous cartoon and those who have incited and participated in the riots here in Pakistan. This blog is taking the place of sitting down to letters that I never end up sending, but at least after writing them I feel like my voice has been heard even if it’s only by the paper I’ve written them on.

Dear Mr. Danish Cartoonist & Co.,
Let’s get this out of the way first, I’m an American and I’ve grown up enjoying my freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. We have freedom to say and to publish whatever we choose, but I believe that we are still to be held accountable for what we say, write, or do. It’s words that will convict someone of conspiracy. It’s words that are used to order the hitman to kill the unfaithful wife. Responsibility can be found in words alone, provided it can be proved that those dialogues took place. Words have power and we all are called to be accountable to that power that is vested in us. In the same way, images hold power, especially to the illiterate, and we should be accountable to that power in the same way we are accountable for what comes out of our mouths.

Is it possible that you didn’t think of the effect publishing this cartoon would have? Did you not know that people would die for the sake of this “freedom of expression?” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m torn over a certain Indian author’s fictions novels which caused similar violent outbursts in the subcontinent. But judging from this incident and others, I would be upset to think that you drew and published this cartoon knowing the calculated costs of doing so. Did you think that students in the streets of Lahore would lay dead? Did you think about how people like me, who are living here investing in education and human development, wouldn’t be able to move or travel freely for the sake of your little joke? Did you look at the situation of world politics and decide that you should be the one to throw a match on the power keg of anti-western sentiment?

I’m not saying that you are the direct cause of the violence and deaths here in Lahore, but if you know anything about the worldview here, past events, and the current situation, it’s as if you looked at an arrangement of dominoes and decided to take the liberty of being the person to push the first one over. You know in pushing that first domino that all the others will fall. Is your freedom of the press worth the lives of other people halfway across the world? I would say that it’s not; and I would say that you should be accountable for the images that you give to the world. You know when you push the first domino what will happen to the others. There’s a bigger picture here.

And now to the people who took part in the riots:
My question for you is this: Is it possible to be offended by something and to let the cycle of hatred stop there? Violence begets violence. Why not stop the chain of dominoes from falling over? Why not prove everyone wrong and refuse to react in such a way, only proving right those who criticize you.

I think people agree that it’s not right to disrespect anyone; it’s not right to hurt people. But the problem is that people don’t always do the right thing. How should we react when that happens? Does it make the situation any better when you burn Pakistani businesses, wreck your own cars, and shoot your own people dead? Do you think people in Denmark are affected at all by your shouts in the streets? No. They’re sitting at home in their houses watching it on CNN, unaffected. What does it do if you go on strike and close down your shops? Well to start with you lose economic profit for your shop and your country, making you weaker. If you burn down the Daewoo station and wreck all their buses do you think Korean investors will want to put more money into your intercity bus systems? No, and you’ll lose the most convenient and reliable system of public transportation you have in this city. One of my Pakistani students was saying that people shouldn’t even both boycotting Danish or European products, on the other hand, they should be thanking international companies and investors for coming to Pakistan in the first place and sticking it out despite everything that’s going on.

Think about this: What would be an appropriate way to show your discontent without damaging property and losing more lives? Nobody’s denying you your right to be offended, but I’m sure there is a better and more effective way to voice discontent.

To anyone who has taken the time to listen to my venting:
Honestly, it is tough to not to be able to go into certain parts of the city and to have to be constantly getting updates to see if I should venture into town to teach class. This morning Anita was concerned about me wearing jeans and a kurti (short kameez) into work and warned me to ask the security guard to go and buy my shampoo so I wouldn't have to go out to the store. For one who values being independent, this is not fun! I'm in a safe part of town now, and I'm surrounded by people who care about me and are looking out for me, so you need not worry. Just keep reading my ramblings...

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