Free Speech or Incitement of Violence?

“If the government doesn’t shut him [Hamza Ali Abbasi] up, the honorable Muslims of this country know how to preserve the honor of their faith”, said a red-bearded cleric on a national news channel of Pakistan.

“Atheists aim to offend and it is not inconceivable that someone who is so deeply offended would react violently to an atheist”, decried a bureaucrat turned analyst on another news channel.
Apparently, the above statements seem like incitement of violence as many have claimed but are they really?

That question took me back to the days immediately after the release of the infamous movie “Innocence of Muslims” which caused attacks on diplomatic missions all over the Muslim world. The movie was about the persecution of Copts by Muslims in Egypt which, according to some accounts, is a historic fact but one could not escape the feeling while watching the movie that the movie was intentionally made to offend and going by the history of recent Muslim reaction, the possibility of violence wasn’t that far fetched.

So the debate ensued in USA: Is the movie an incitement to violence or protected under the First Amendment of the constitution of the United States? When I was asked that question, I simply stated that my personal opinion notwithstanding, the movie fails the Brandenburg test for incitement of violence.

Clarence Brandenburg was a Ku Klux Klan leader from the state of Ohio. In 1964, he addressed a Klan rally and in his speech he said that the government in Washington DC was involved in suppression of the Caucasian race and if they continued their policies, there was a possibility of a revenge against Blacks and Jews. The state of Ohio convicted Brandenburg of incitement of violence for that speech but he appealed the conviction in the United States Supreme Court (USSC) stating that what he said comes under protected free speech and he was merely mentioning a possibility. In 1969, the United States Supreme Court delivered the landmark decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio which, to this date, is used to determine what is and what is not an incitement of violence. The Supreme Court reversed Brandenburg’s conviction saying that what he said was not a direct call to any individual or a group that it was their duty or their right to take lawless actions. That landmark verdict gave birth to the Brandenburg test: Is a statement or an act a direct call to a group or an individual to commit imminent violence? The movie “Innocence of Muslim” fails the Brandenburg test and so do the two statements cited at the top of this article.
That is in the context of the law of United States. Pakistan is a different country with its own dynamics. But even within those dynamics, are the cleric and the analyst really asking others to commit violence? My contention is that they are not. They are merely pointing to a possibility; a possibility no one in Pakistan can deny.

One can rightfully argue that what they do by issuing such statements is magnifying the threat by broadening the audience base but then again what they say is quite benign compared to some of the things that are said from the pulpits of some mosques. Even if one concludes beyond reasonable doubt that these statements are inciting violence, their critics are, for lack of a better expression, barking at the wrong tree. On that, later.

What is incitement of violence in Pakistan’s current perspective? Calling someone an apostate is considered a virtual death warrant for any individual but is it really an incitement of violence? I’ve had this discussion with a number of friends who were of the firm opinion that in Pakistan’s current environment, calling someone an apostate is incitement of violence. But then these very friends were also of the opinion that the blasphemy law in Pakistan should be revoked. I find these two positions inconsistent with each other. If one has the liberty to use derogatory expression towards religious personalities, how can one take away the liberty of someone else who truly believes that an individual is an apostate and wants to express that belief?

I guess, in such a scenario, the right tree to bark at is the legislature. Most countries that have laws against incitement of violence have very well defined standards to judge what is incitement and what is not. The Brandenburg v. Ohio is an example of that. What Pakistan requires is not shutting people up arbitrarily, since nothing should take precedence over the freedom of expression without reasonable cause, but a clear and concise standard to define incitement of violence. Ironically, this can be said about most, if not all, Muslim countries where the incidents of incitement of violence against an individual or a group of individuals are much more frequent than the rest of the world. Recent events in Bangladesh against secular and atheist bloggers are a testament to that. Posters asking people to commit violence against members of LGBT community are a very well known phenomenon in Turkey. Even the countries like Malaysia that have taken certain steps to legislate against incitement of violence are using those laws mainly to curb political dissent.

Now that the lawmakers in Pakistan are waking up to what they are supposed to be doing which is making laws, the need of the hour is that they come to a consensus of what constitutes incitement of violence in very unambiguous terms and put it in the law of the land and then the government needs to apply that law without discrimination. That is the only viable solution of the problem. I have no illusions about the capabilities of the legislators of Pakistan. I am almost certain that I will have problems with the language of the law they would come up with. But the acts of legislators are considered the collective will of the people. One can disagree with certain legislative actions but democracy offers only one way to reform those laws which is changing the collective will of the people. Whatever standard or definition legislators of Pakistan come up with about incitement of violence and however flawed that maybe, it will help take away the guessing game of what is incitement and what is not and it will be a good first step towards a better law.

Now you can call me naive!

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