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Published in THE POST May 18, 2008

What does Cadbury have to do with 12 sketches and a 17 minute film? Nothing, really. Cadbury is neither Dutch nor Danish. But by now most Pakistanis - if not all - have probably received a text message stating otherwise. And thus begins a boycott campaign of all things Dutch or Danish. The self righteous lot, in their overzealousness, would acquiesce willingly. Yet, few who have received an email or sms that proclaimed the success of this boycott and lobbied for its continuity - or witnessed the demonstrations meant to convey outrage against both Denmark and the Netherlands for their alleged laxity in safeguarding certain religions’ sanctity - will stop to reflect on the virtues of pushing a hostile policy intended to coerce but neglecting to convince. Fewer still will bother to dig deeper and corroborate details of such episodes.

The cartoon controversy returned in 2008 – helped on by the aptly titled film ‘Fitna’- similarly denounced for its unflattering portrayal of Islam. The din of condemnation that followed drowned out a little known fact - that the immoral dispensation of personalized death squads for real and/or perceived insults provoked a re-run of the cartoon episode.

According to Al-Jazeera, Danish newspapers reprinted 12 images found distressing by Muslims in 2005 - as a mark of protest after uncovering an alleged murder plot against the cartoonist. “Regardless of whether Jyllands-Posten at the time used freedom of speech unwisely and with damaging consequences, the paper deserves unconditional solidarity when it is threatened with terror" claimed an editorial in Politiken and newspapers that refused to run these images 2 years ago, showed no qualms about doing so now. And just as the West made the resultant violence its cover story - so too has the East chosen to harp on the purely incendiary nature of the dispute.

The fact that Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende renounced the anti-Islam film at the Hague conference, stating that “it serves no purpose other than to offend”, rejected its interpretation of something that “equates Islam with violence” and the condemnation by Netherlands' Central Jewish Board who viewed it as "counterproductive" and "generalizing" has been conveniently left out whenever this topic is broached.

But if the cartoonist and filmmaker wittingly offended the Muslim faith, revered icons of Christianity have also been provocatively depicted. ‘An important piece of contemporary culture’ is how BBC perceived the contents of, ‘Jerry Springer- An Opera’, rightly seen by Prayer group ‘Christian Voice’ as a clear example of blasphemy. The producers came under fire for airing the highly sacrilegious show –that would be legal fire by the way and the Christian group lost the case. Recently, Col. Gaddafi - the Libyan leader- ruffled many feathers by questioning the authenticity of the Bible while addressing a Good Friday gathering in Uganda. No Christian group has put a price on his head yet.

Although EU refuses to develop any new laws against blasphemy, a recent resolution passed by the Pakistani Senate expects UN to step in and “take all necessary legal, political and administrative steps” to protect the sanctity of all religions. No doubt, a re-examination of the highly cherished ideals that govern free speech has become necessary, but repressing subversive tendencies harboured under the pretext of religious duty and let loose under the banner of Islam is a prerequisite. While 1 billion faithful may concede that their grievance is legitimate, radical verdicts are anything but. Some may even wonder why well known militant groups have a hard time making it on the mullahs top 20 hit list which obscure cartoonists from Denmark, obscure writers from U.K, and equally obscure filmmakers from Netherlands occupy so effortlessly. One can ask how such coercive tactics are any different from the ones adopted by terrorists. Soon Senator Dr. Babar Awan’s pro-Islamic film will join documentaries by two Iranian film makers, in an attempt to salvage the image tarnished as much by the deeds of those victimized as by architects of this scandal.

When Gandhi urged Indians to boycott all British goods, courts, institutions, elections, believing that the sheer scale of this movement would force the British to grant India self rule, M.A Jinnah observed that “… the weapon will not destroy the British empire… it is neither logical nor is it politically sound or wise, nor practically capable of being put in execution.” Replace Danish with British and the logic of his argument still hold true.

Public interest may wane in this boycott that has left many retailers in the Middle East with excess stock and consumers with no clear picture of its true impact. When that happens, the wrath would probably then be channelled at images of US Marines in an Iraqi mosque and the assignment of former U.S. Commander Guantanamo Bay - Jay Hood as the new US defence representative in Pakistan. Even before the General’s arrival, sms’s attributing every deplorable act in the infamous prison solely to him had been circulated; the visit of West Point Cadets who were on a hearts and mind mission in the Islamic Centre of Jersey City, and attended prayer services, was quickly buried by emails with graphic depiction of transgressions in war torn Iraq. Bridging the divide between East and West is hard enough without self-serving interests laying mines along the way.

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