Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, who canned a controversial cartoon competition last week that outraged the Islamic world. Photo: AFP/ Daniel Leal-Olivas
Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, who canned a controversial cartoon competition last week that outraged the Islamic world. Photo: AFP/ Daniel Leal-Olivas

The Pakistan government has claimed a triumph after Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders dropped his radical plan to have a competition for people to draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

The anti-Islam extremist MP cited “death threats” as the reason for his backdown, but in the immediate aftermath of the cancellation Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi put out a note on Twitter saying the “issue has been resolved due to effective diplomatic efforts of the Federal Government”.

In a press conference on Friday, Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said the cancellation was an achievement for Pakistan. “However, we still need to devise a global strategy against such attempts in the future,” he said.

Chaudhry, however, was quick to note that the Netherlands government did not support the competition, and reiterated that only a small group in the West was trying to provoke Muslims, so the majority of citizens should not be held responsible.

Pakistan claims victory

This standpoint is seen as a bid by the government to pacify a brewing protest by the radical Islamist Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which started a rally against the cartoon contest in Lahore last Wednesday. Thousands of protesters then traveled to the capital Islamabad late on Thursday night. Last year, the TLP had held the capital hostage due to changes in the original draft of the Electoral Reforms Bill 2017, which the group had deemed insulting to the Prophet.

The TLP called off the protest on Friday, maintaining that it was their rally that had ensured that the completion was cancelled.

“By the grace of Allah, we have achieved what we set out to do. Now we want the government to ensure that no one around the world should ever dare to even think about insulting our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him,” TLP spokesman Ijaz Ashrafi told Asia Times.

“In his victory address, [Prime Minister] Imran Khan said that he wanted to create a Medina state in Pakistan. Well, he should know that in the Medina state the punishment for blasphemy is death, which is also sanctioned by the constitution of Pakistan. He should now inform the world that this would be the fate of anyone who insults our prophet,” he added.

Pakistan’s much-scrutinized blasphemy laws sanction death for any mockery of Islam. While no one has been judicially executed for blasphemy in the country yet, the laws have encouraged mob violence, with non-Muslims especially victimized by radical Islamists seeking vigilante justice.

While the new Pakistani government reiterated its opposition to the cartoon competition, its failure to distance itself from protests like the TLP’s, amid fears of a domestic backlash, is being seen by many as an endorsement of radical Islamist views. Prime Minister Imran Khan has been criticized for pandering to the religious right, and his party the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) vowed to safeguard the blasphemy law in the lead-up to the national election in July.

With a Pakistani man arrested in the Netherlands for plotting to kill Wilders, and Saturday’s knife attack on two people at Amsterdam station linked to the cartoon competition, critics have said that Islamabad should condemn violence as well as anti-Islam provocation.

This was urged by reformist Muslim voices, especially after widespread calls in Pakistan for organizers of the cartoon competition to be killed. Banned Pakistani cricketer Khalid Latif had even offered a PKR 3-million [US$24,000] bounty on Wilder’s head, while pop singer Rabi Pirzada allegedly called for him to be “hanged immediately”.

Tehmina Kazi, a former project officer at the Equality and Human Rights Commission and a consultant for Faith and Free Speech in School, believes the reaction in Pakistan has shown the urgent need for the country to repeal its blasphemy laws and for public figures to remind people that beliefs do not deserve legal protection on their own.

“[People’s beliefs] are only protected insofar as they apply to living individuals. Further, religion as an idea – like all other ideas and belief systems – needs to be subjected to robust critique, and even ridicule. People [should] draw as many cartoons of historical religious figures as they wish, to break the taboo of doing so,” she argued.

Deliberate provocation?

However, others question the merit of such ideas.

“While protesters should certainly refrain from handing out death threats to anyone they think is a blasphemer, critics of Islam should also try and refrain from indulging in something that, they must be fully aware, is extremely hurtful to a huge mass of the world’s population,” Natasha Shahid, author of The Hashshashin: Precursors to Modern Muslim Terrorist Outfits, said.

“They don’t essentially need to do something just because they are legally entitled to do it. It renders the intentions of the competition holders very suspicious – is the competition being held as a service to art, or to incite hatred?” she asked.

Meanwhile, Pakistan government insiders maintain that the inertia against any reform of the blasphemy law is such that any leader who criticized radical Islamist views would be endangering their life.

“You saw what happened to [former Punjab governor] Salmaan Taseer, he was killed by his own bodyguard for criticizing the [blasphemy] law,” a senior government official said. “The TLP managed to sit untouched in the capital for weeks [last year] because they were accusing everyone of blasphemy left, right and centre.”

Veteran diplomats suggest that for Pakistan to strike the right balance, it needs to take other Muslim states on board through the platform of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

“The cancellation of the blasphemous cartoon competition is indeed a triumph for Pakistani foreign policy, but the government should now focus on a more long-lasting solution to an issue that keeps popping up regularly, which they need to push at the OIC,” former foreign minister of Pakistan Khurshid Kasuri said to Asia Times.

“Individually, they would struggle to get things moving at the UN, because the European leaders there say that their citizens have freedom of speech – although they have criminalized Holocaust denial,” he added.

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