DAWN - Editorial; September 22, 2006

Published September 22, 2006

Inter-faith understanding

PRESIDENT Musharraf’s call for a dialogue among faiths comes against a background of some unfortunate developments straining the Muslim-Christian relationship. Last week, hardly had the controversy over the Danish cartoons died down when the pope chose to make remarks that have touched off a wave of anger in the Muslim world. What the pope later said was hardly an apology, for he did not regret what he had said but the “misunderstanding” of his remarks by the Muslims. So the fault again lies with the Muslims for misconstruing the pope making a point by quoting a Byzantine emperor. In a speech to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York on Wednesday, President Musharraf, calling Pope Benedict’s remarks “most unwarranted”, said times like these demanded building rather than burning bridges. It was time to close fronts, he said, rather than open new fronts. In a wide-ranging speech that touched upon a number of issues — terrorism, Palestine, Lebanon, Taliban and Al Qaeda, the deal with tribal heads in North Waziristan, aid and trade, and the flashback to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its consequences — the president laid emphasis on two points: an inter-faith dialogue and the resolution of unresolved disputes involving Muslims. He was right when he said that the Palestinian issue had priority over all others, including Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Few in Europe and America have any idea of the scars inflicted on the collective Muslim psyche by the Palestine trauma. While the Crusades took place in the medieval times, Israel was created out of Palestine in the 20th century by powers that had fought two world wars with the aim of making the world safe for democracy and giving the right of self-determination to subjugated peoples. Yet the UN partition plan gave 60 per cent of Palestine to European settlers who were in a minority, while the Arab majority had to be content with only 40 per cent of the holy land. What followed was a series of tragedies for the Palestinian people, their expulsion from their ancestral land, the demolition of Arab villages and repeated massacres that have included names that Palestinians and Muslims can never forget — Deir Yassin, Sabra-Chatilla, Jenin and Lebanon. These wounds and humiliations have been the principal cause of what Bernard Lewis calls the “Muslim rage” and contributed to the growth of anti-West terrorism worldwide. What was apparent was that the Palestinian people were made to suffer for Europe’s guilt, and the unqualified support Europe and America, especially the US and Britain, have lent to Israel in its attempt to hold on to the occupied territories.

The West’s indirect responsibility in the growth of terrorism is not confined to Palestine alone. As President Musharraf pointed out, the West encouraged religious fanaticism among the Muslims, especially in Pakistan, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but abandoned it once its aim was achieved. The result is that Pakistan is still suffering from the effects of the militancy encouraged by a West that now expects Islamabad “to do more”. Given the intricate nature of Muslim-Christian relations spread over a millennium and a half, the present situation deserves to be handled with care and understanding. While the provocative attacks on Islam that come from the West from time to time must cease, the real possibility of an improvement in the Christian-Muslim relations is dependent on a solution of the Palestinian issue.

Dangers of used syringes

IT IS hardly surprising to know that recycled syringes are a major cause of hepatitis B and C. That only a few hospitals have incinerators that can safely dispose of hospital waste should serve as a reminder to the government of how much more needs to be done if it is serious about containing diseases. The hospitals that do have incinerators seem not to have an effective monitoring system in place to ensure that needles and other equipment are properly destroyed. How else does one explain scavengers getting their hands on used needles outside hospital premises which they sell to traders? It is a vicious cycle that is putting peoples’ lives and health in jeopardy. In March it was noted that that the use of recycled syringes was responsible for 90 per cent of hepatitis B and C cases in the country, yet nothing seems to have been done to tackle the problem. The most immediate step the health authorities can take is to install incinerators in as many public hospitals as possible. They should also consider installing incinerators that can be shared by several smaller hospitals as this is likely to prevent used syringes falling into the wrong hands. At the same time, health inspectors must strictly monitor the safe disposal of hospital waste. Those who do not follow the rules need to be taken to task. Anyone caught stealing or selling used syringes should be proceeded against.

The bigger issue is one of raising awareness about diseases like Hepatitis B and C and HIV/Aids whose prevalence is growing. Educating the people on safe blood transfusions is critical and such awareness campaigns should be carried on throughout the year, rather than doing so through sporadic ones.

Ramazan price package

THE government’s ‘Ramazan package’ offers some welcome, albeit short-term, relief to inflation-hit consumers. Subsidies and price controls may not be concordant with the principles of deregulation, but state intervention in an area as basic as food supply is not just inevitable but desirable in a developing country. Pakistan’s foray into the free market is still at a nascent stage, and though prices are now determined largely by demand and supply, the latter is prone to manipulation by hoarders at the wholesale level. A surge in demand or a drop in crop yield can make essential food items more expensive but the root cause of price hikes often lies in artificial shortages. The sugar crisis of 2005 was an example of such profiteering by unethical means. At one point, hoarding by mill owners and wholesalers became so intense that sugar all but disappeared from the open market. In an attempt to ensure supply and stabilise prices, the government decided in August last year to allow the duty-free import of sugar from India. In response, some producers imported as much sugar as they could and promptly hoarded the same. Consumers, a largely voiceless community, continued to pay the price for this brazen exploitation.

The Ramazan package promises to make a number of essential items available at subsidised rates through the government’s Utility Stores chain. The proof of the scheme will be in ensuring uninterrupted supplies to the Utility Stores Corporation (USC) during Ramazan, something that may not be within the scope of a Rs650 million subsidy. Much will of course depend on demand. Here, it would be proper for those who can afford general retail prices not to buy from the Utility Stores, allowing these supplies to reach those who need them the most. Looking beyond Ramazan, the government would do well to act on recommendations that the USC network be widened — in terms of stores as well the corporation’s scope of business, which could include wholesale and distribution in addition to retail. To act as a stabiliser of prices, the government will have to significantly increase USC’s market share.

Freedom of thought in Islam

By Sidrah Unis

FREEDOM of thought enables an individual to draw an independent and logical conclusion and serves to boost creativity, which is the core of progress. Freedom of expression further strengthens freedom of thought as man can freely state his opinion and share his views with others, so evolving new concepts and ideas.

This freedom, with its bloody implications and dire consequences, has existed in all ages. In fact, history reveals that advancement of every nation was directly proportionate to the availability of this freedom to people of that time. The Quran has itself furnished an example of free and fair debates in ancient times; when Bilqees, the Queen of Saba, received a letter sent by Prophet Suleiman (PBUH) which bore the message that she and her people should adopt the religion he preached, she sought advice on how to reply to the letter: “....O chiefs! Advise me in (this) case of mine. I decide no case till you are present with me (and give me your opinions).”(27: 32). This shows that seeking of another’s views was a practice among the rulers and those in authority even in olden times. It was the masses who were mostly denied this freedom; they stood helpless before those who wielded power and authority.

Islam has laid down a comprehensive and unique concept of freedom of thought and expression. It has also ordained limitations on the same. Islam stands for truth. Also, the Muslims through Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) have been awarded a priceless and everlasting gift in the form of reason. The following verse was revealed to Hazrat Muhammad when it was made known to him that he was the Prophet of Allah: “Read! In the name of your Lord Who has created (all that exists). He has created man from a clot (a piece of thick coagulated blood). Read! And your Lord...has taught (the writing) by the pen...has taught man that which he knew not.” (96: 1-5)

Use of logic and reason based on rational conclusions has been duly emphasised in various verses of the Quran: “Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alteration of night and day...and the water (rain) which Allah sends down from the sky...and the moving (living) creatures of all kinds...are indeed signs for people of understanding.” (2:164). (See also 51: 20-21, 16: 12 and 28: 71). The above verse shows that individuals have been enjoined to think keeping in view the signs before them. They have been asked to draw their own conclusions based on their own perceptions and understanding. Thus Islam lays down the concept of freedom of thought.

Freedoms of thought and expression have not only been granted to Muslims, but also to non-Muslims. When the Holy Prophet invited people to adopt the Muslim faith, he was commanded to spread the message of Islam without resorting to any form of compulsion: “There is no compulsion in religion.” (2: 256) “And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed, all of them together. So, will you (Muhammad) then compel mankind, until they become believers.” (10: 99) The Holy Prophet was directed to spread the message in a gentle manner, “So remind them (O Muhammad) — you are only one who reminds. You are not a dictator over them” (88: 21-22)

As is the case with all other freedoms, freedom of expression is subject to certain limitations and restraints. First and foremost, Muslims can employ reason, but the same should not be used to draw conclusions which jeopardise the very spirit of Islam. Any form of expression of thought which contradicts the principles laid down by the religion is prohibited.

Freedom of expression does not condone concealment of truth. Man is ordained to support the truth unconditionally: “And mix not truth with falsehood, nor conceal the truth...” (2: 42). According to a Hadith, it is a virtue on the part of a believer to accept the truth without any reservation whatsoever. Thus a believer has to accept the truth and promulgate the same even if it goes against his own interests. This virtue has been placed on a high pedestal as truth begets justice: “...Stand out firmly for Allah as just witnesses; and let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice.” (5: 8)

Islam prohibits asking of unnecessary questions and making inquiries which are unnecessary and fruitless in nature. Needless curiosity complicates matters and may become a cause for conflict or rift between people: “...Ask not about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble...” (5: 101) The Prophet once said: “Do not put me questions unnecessary and be content with what God has allowed or forbidden. I am afraid, any answer that I give to your questions may become binding on all the followers of Islam and thus curtail their liberties in the sphere of life that has been left free for anybody’s rational judgment.”

Some of the restraints are such that violations of the same fall under the category of offences. One such violation is in the form of qadf i.e. slander, for which punishment has been prescribed in the Quran: “And those who accuse chaste women, and produce not four witnesses, flog them with eighty stripes, and reject their testimony forever.” (24: 4) (See also 104: 1, 49:11, and 68: 11-16)

Freedom of expression makes no amends for blasphemy: “And it has already been revealed to you in the Book (this Quran) that when you hear the verses of Allah being denied and mocked at, then sit not with them...” (4: 140) “And when they hear AL-Laghw (dirty, false, evil vain talk), they withdraw from it and say: ‘...We seek not (the way of) the ignorant.’” (28: 55).

Freedom of expression should not be hurtful nor should it abuse the sentiments of others. It should not encroach upon another’s rights, privacy or dignity. “...Let not a group scoff at another group...Nor let (some) women scoff at other women... nor insult one another by nicknames...” (49: 11) “...Avoid much suspicion; indeed some suspicions are sins. And spy not, neither backbite one another.” (49: 12)

Islam upholds religious tolerance. The believers are commanded to show tolerance and patience towards other religions and attract disbelievers to Islam by illustrating its virtues. Freedom of expression cannot be used as a tool to insult other faiths and beliefs: “And insult not those whom they (disbelievers) worship besides Allah...to their Lord is their return and He shall then inform them of all that they used to do.” (6: 108)

Freedom of expression should not be used to project evil be it in any form. It can only be exposed by the one who is victim of the vice: “Allah does not like that evil should be uttered in public except by him who has been wronged.” (4: 148)

Freedom of expression should not make vulnerable essential interests of individuals i.e. life, belief, understanding, heredity and assets. “And the believers, men and women...enjoin the right and forbid the wrong...” (9: 71)

At present, many national and international documents, which declare human rights, have duly acknowledged that the freedoms of thought and expression are interlinked. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December, 10, 1948 has mentioned both freedoms consecutively in Articles 18 and 19 of the document. The legality of the exercise of these freedoms is judged by the underlying intention of the expression and the reason that caused the same to be made. Needless to say that Islam pioneers the providing of these freedoms to all and sundry centuries before the masses were provided the same by the West.

Turmoil in Thailand

THERE had been 17 military coups in Thailand since its absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. Number 18 occurred on Tuesday, when soldiers circled the offices of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra with tanks, seized TV stations and declared martial law. The military claimed to be acting on behalf of the popular monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thaksin was in New York at the time to attend a session of the United Nations, and his future as Thai leader is now seriously in doubt.

The coup could also jeopardize the recent stability and economic prosperity across Southeast Asia, traditionally among the most volatile regions in the world.

Thailand has been an anchor to that stability, but now the restive foes of Thaksin are taking a huge step backward. It would be in the best interest of the country if its monarch took a page from the Spanish playbook and came out against the coup — as King Juan Carlos I did in 1981 — if he is free to do so.

Thaksin, a billionaire media mogul, is very popular in the rural north but widely despised in Bangkok. The first democratically-elected Thai prime minister to serve a full four-year term, he was first elected in 2001 and easily reelected in 2005. But urban voters, dissatisfied with Thaksin’s control of the media, manipulation of democratic institutions, mishandling of a Muslim insurgency and other issues, held frequent protests against his regime.

Thaksin responded by holding snap elections in April, and won once again. But the election was boycotted by the minority party, leaving 38 parliamentary seats unfilled, and Thaksin wisely decided to step down. Then, after the courts declared the April election invalid, Thaksin returned to work as “caretaker” prime minister in a country without a parliament, while new elections were scheduled for this fall.

Thaksin bears some blame for his government’s downfall. Had he made it clear that he wouldn’t seek the premiership after the coming elections, opposition and turmoil in Bangkok would have died down.

—Los Angeles Times



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