The last few days saw repeated clashes in Pakistan between the police and the protestors of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) who demanded the expulsion of France’s Ambassador from Pakistan. These demands arose because of the publication of cartoons last year in France that were disrespectful to the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).
In his address to the nation on 18 April, Prime Minister Imran Khan clearly stated that TLP and his government share the same objective: to end incidents of blasphemy.
Alongside protecting the sanctity of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) in Islam, the Prime Minister also mentioned his Government’s resolve to take steps to reduce or avoid “Islamophobia”. The Prime Minister also mentioned that his government’s and TLP’s methodology to deal with the issue was different.
Read more: Blasphemy under Imran Khan government
The Prime Minister’s statement that TLP and his government share the same objective is true. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the objective – or aspiration – to ensure the respect for the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) is something that unites 2 billion Muslims all over the world despite their different sects, political, cultural and social backgrounds.
But the West continues to ignore the plight of the Muslim World. The result has been protests and bitter relations between Western and Muslim countries. Above all, this has led to a sense of injustice in the Muslim World that feels betrayed.
Let me give some background as to why Western philosophical and legal thought is unable to understand the respect and stature of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) in Islam. Thereafter, I will suggest the legal options for Pakistan to take this up matter internationally with a view to inviting international attention to a very important matter that concerns 2 billion Muslims.
The dilemma of “freedom of speech”
After the Second World War, the new “international conscience” that emerged on the horizon was the legal and philosophical thought propounded by the U.S., the U.K., and other allies who had won the war against Nazi Germany.
The victorious allies considered it necessary to accord protection to the Jews who had suffered millions of deaths during the Holocaust at the hands of Adolf Hitler. As a result of this, it was decided that Holocaust denial would be a crime.
It is important to note that religion has also been a diminishing force in the West where religious personalities are not accorded the respect that we normally see in the Muslim World. In the West, although people have the freedom to practice their religion, they do not have the right to respect their religion or religious personalities.
There is another competing right involved here which is ‘freedom of speech and expression’. On the basis of freedom of speech and expression, people have the right to criticize others’ religions.
However, as mentioned above, Holocaust denial is not allowed in the West. In other words, freedom of speech and expression does not allow another person to deny Holocaust on the pretext of freedom of speech and expression.
On the face of it, this sounds rather strange. While on the one hand, people have the right to freedom of speech and expression, on the other hand, some protected persons (Jews) have the right that Holocaust will not be denied by anyone as it will hurt their sentiments and incite hatred and violence against them.
Understanding the limitations on free speech
This means that freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right. It is subject to limitations.
Another way of understanding the limitations of the right are as follows. A person has the right to go to a movie theatre and watch a movie like others. However, that person cannot shout “fire, fire” inside the theatre.
Why? Because doing so would invite chaos and possibly lead to a stampede. There is a famous saying in English which talks about the limitations on free speech. It states: “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins”.
In other words, a person has the right to swing his/her fist as they want, but it must not come into contact with another person’s nose.
Read more: Does law of sedition undermine free speech?
These legal provisions are important in the context of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s initiative. Let me explain.
Engaging the Muslim bloc
Pakistan must take the lead of taking up the matter of respect of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) at the United Nations. To do this, Pakistan must first garner the support of Muslim countries, all of which share the same sentiments towards the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him).
Pakistan’s initiative must include heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Egypt to forcefully raise this matter. However, the Muslim bloc must avoid arguing for a prohibition against “Islamophobia” at this stage.
I say this because “Islamophobia” is very generic in nature, and it is possible that the Western world and other countries will object to outlawing all criticism of Islam or Muslims (some of which they may consider legitimate).
Instead of this, at the initial stage, the Muslim bloc should seek a United Nations Resolution or an international treaty banning disrespect for religious personalities of all religions including Islam.
It is very important for the Muslim World to understand that getting a resolution or international treaty passed at international forums requires playing by the international playbook.
A resolution for all religions
It would be very difficult to get a United Nations Resolution, or an international treaty limited to Islam and Muslims. Instead, the proposed resolution or international treaty should cover all religions.
This will also show the desire of the Muslim world to accord protection to religious minorities in their own countries – something that will capture the attention of the Western world and compel them to attentively listen to the concerns of the Muslim world.
Another point that the Muslim bloc needs to drive home in this initiative is the importance of not only protecting ‘religious sentiments’ of the followers of religions but also the fact that disrespect for religions can lead to incitement and hatred – which is something that was earlier ensured for the Jews through the Holocaust denial.
Prime Minister’s initiative is commendable as well as a necessity for peace and stability in today’s world.
Read more: Long read: Battle for the soul of Islam
It is hoped that Pakistan will use the right international tools to raise global attention about respect for the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) which is one of the few matters that unite 2 billion Muslims around the world.
Hassan Aslam Shad is a practicing international lawyer based in the Middle East. He received his law degree from Harvard Law School U.S.A. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.