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Denial, double standards and destroyed lives

Mahjabeen Islam 
The writer is a physician and freelance columnist residing in Toledo Ohio

Denying the Holocaust got David Irving prison time but ridiculing the Prophet of Islam got the shelter of freedom of speech. What's wrong with this picture? The West is so proud of its democracy, freedom and justice. Why is there now its selective application?

From Indonesia to the United States the Muslim world is livid; the camera lens is unable to totally encapsulate the teeming protesters. And with mob mentality taking over, there has been violence and deaths. And while their fists and placards dance on the television screen, quietly, in Vienna, British historian David Irving has been sentenced to three years in prison for denying the Holocaust. Irving appeared shocked at the sentence and said that it was "ridiculous" that he was being tried for expressing an opinion. "Of course it is a matter of freedom of speech…I think within 12 months this law will have vanished from the Austrian statute book," he said.

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the UK's Holocaust Educational Trust welcomed the verdict. "Holocaust denial is anti-Semitism dressed up as intellectual debate. It should be regarded as such and treated as such," Ms Pollock told the BBC. Very interesting, indeed! So one cannot even think that the Holocaust did not happen; here it is not just freedom of _expression that is at question it is veritably the death of freedom of thought!

So David Irving's neurons need little shackles until he repents and the chains are released. But the Danish government invokes freedom of speech, impenitent, in the face of furious Muslims. To the non-Jew the Holocaust is one of the greatest tragedies in history; it has no apparent religious significance. To the non-Muslim, Muhammad (peace be upon him) may have been the most influential man in history according to Michael Hart author of The 100: A Ranking of The Most Influential Persons in History but he was just a man. Either side has difficulty seeing the other's perspective.

And yet why is freedom of speech given the power to offend and destroy? Since when did self-_expression supersede the value placed on life itself? The Holocaust defines Jewish psyche in much the same way that the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad shape the lives of 1.5 billion Muslims. Both are sacred to the respective faiths. They should be made impermeable to cheap shots. Jews across the world have been successful in this aim, as several European countries as well as the United States have passed laws making Holocaust denial a criminal offence.

It is entirely reasonable for Muslims, as represented by the OIC(Organization of Islamic Conference), to ask for a passage of resolutions within the United Nations, and legislation within respective countries the world over that would outlaw denigration of any faith and any religious figure. Fatwas demanding the cartoonist's death have a rabid ring to them and work only to undermine the credibility of its issuers.

On a different yet related note. My little Toledo town is essentially the back of beyond as far as world affairs go. But lately it has been rocketing to national limelight, almost two days in a row. First there was the summary closure of Kind Hearts, a charity that had done a marvelous job even in earthquake ravaged Pakistan. The same allegations of funding money to Hamas have been made, and investigations and formal charges will be made later. Right now it is padlock and shutter time. The dedicated gentlemen that ran Kind Hearts are suddenly jobless and headed to more than the unemployment office.

Toledo Ohio had barely recovered from that shock when the media-tsunami hit on February 21. Three men ages 24, 26 and 42 all Toledo residents, one an American citizen of Jordanian descent, the other a naturalized Egyptian and the third a naturalized Lebanese, have been arrested on charges of conspiring to kill American forces in Iraq as well as President Bush. The three men are unknown to the Muslim community at large and appeared to have been very private people. They were learning to work explosives and took to practicing shooting at a local range, according to the allegations.

I can't live with the thought of the many lives destroyed by the madness that is going on around us. Why would seeming adults hold competitions to defame the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)? Why would Iran stoop to the same level and hold competitions to denigrate the Holocaust? The Jyllands-Posten editor admitted that had he known the impact of his decision he would never have hit the send button for the cartoons. He also apologized. Why doesn't the Danish government apologize? Why do the crowds in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria break and batter the property of their own countries? Why did the police open fire on a protesting crowd?

"I put my savings into buying a motor bike so I can do a job that involves riding all day, now it has been burned and I still have to pay the installments…" said a despondent bystander surveying all the bikes and buses that the crowd had burned. Geo TV was gallant in posting a request for names and ID cards and listing of property lost during the protests so that there is governmental compensation.

In 2003 the American government, on the behest of Bill O'Reilly, the ultra-right wing TV talk show host, arrested Prof Sami Al-Arian, placed him in inhuman jail conditions for two years and caused him incalculable damage due to the poor treatment of his diabetes during his incarceration. Finally, in December 2005 he was acquitted of charges of funneling funds to Hamas, but remains in custody pending deliberation on the other charges. His life though was effectively ruined.

Colorado lawyer Brandon Mayfield, a revert to Islam, was charged with the Spain train bombings, on the basis of a fingerprint, even though Spain said it was not his. He was arrested, imprisoned for several months and then tried and acquitted. Justice was served, but his life has not been.

Former army Capt James Yee, a Muslim chaplain at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was arrested on suspicion of espionage and held in solitary confinement for 76 days before being released and given an honorary discharge. What effect does solitary confinement have on a person is one thing, on an innocent one at that, is quite another.

Al-Arian, Mayfield and Yee saw the hand of justice. The purported Toledo terrorist trio may never. Like the thousands languishing in Guantanamo Bay and the Carolina brigs that the legal machinery has forgotten. The US government has become quite notorious for locking up folks and throwing away the key. The premise in the US used to be "innocent until proven guilty", now the converse applies.

The national backlash after the cartoon protests had already begun, sadly reminiscent of the immediately post 9/11 days. Only this time the hatred, hyper vigilance and fear seem worse. A friend that wears the hijab and works as a checkout clerk in a grocery store reports lately that the checkout lane in front of her has three carts and the one behind her at least two: no one seems to want to come to her lane. As a physician I am in a relatively empowered position, and yet when this consultant in Addiction Medicine and Palliative Care walks into a patient's hospital room, faces blanch, hands fidget and eyes dart nervously. At least until the realization that I am not Martian and do speak understandable English.

Peaceful protests and passage of resolutions and legislation making denigration of any religion and religious figure a crime would be sufficient. That amazing man (peace be upon him), the mercy to all mankind, the one who loved his enemies and treated them with kindness and compassion, would be mortified to see the destruction caused in his name. Especially the burning of churches.

And while the crowds in the insular Muslim world go on rampages, the targets of retribution will be American and European Muslims. Especially those that are obviously Muslim: our hijab observing women. Dispelling Islamophobia is an arduous, repetitive though doable trek; playing victim, going on rampages and issuing fanatical fatwas serves to only endanger fellow Muslims. If only we did what the Quran repeatedly recommends: think, reflect and then act.


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