How it happened
The Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders like many European politicians is opposed to mass migration but unlike most of his counterparts who see the issue in terms of European security, for Wilders, the migration issue is part of a wider battle against Islam which he claims is incompatible with European society. Even still, such views are not at all uncommon in Europe. What does however separate Wilders from those of a similar ideology is the fact that he frequently stages provocations designed to anger Muslims not just in Europe but in the wider world.
Wilders was planning to stage a cartoon drawing contest wherein contestants from the Netherlands and around the world would compete to see who could draw the best cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. Because images of prophets are forbidden in Islam, this was clearly going to generate controversy as similar incidents in Europe have done in the past.
Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan was the first major world leader to spearhead a global opposition to the Dutch cartoon contest. Imran Khan’s statements urging an immediate cancellation of the cartoon contest reverberated throughout Pakistan where mass protests took place against Wilders. Ultimately, Wilders cancelled the contest citing security concerns.
Does it matter and to whom?
To non-Muslims and to those not obsessed with hating Islam as Wilders clearly is, the entire issue may seem somewhat obscure or even irrelevant. However, in many parts of the Muslim world the provocation Wilders sought to stage would have been met with furious opposition. Just as many Americans would be infuriated if a foreign power with hostile relations to the United States held an “American flag burning contest”, so too is the staging of a anti-Islamic provocation in a European country considered equally incendiary to millions of Muslims.
On the other end of the spectrum, for Wilders and his supporters the issue is supposedly about free speech. If The Netherlands had blasphemy laws or other related legal statues, then Wilders’ contest would have been about free speech. Likewise, if the Dutch government used the power of the state to compel Wilders to cancel the contest, that too would have been an issue of free speech. But since The Netherlands abolished its blasphemy laws in 2014 and since likewise the Dutch government did not force Wilders to stop the contest, it cannot be said to be directly about free speech as Wilders and his supporters were not prohibited by Dutch law from staging the contest.
Because of this, while legal in the context of Dutch law, Wilders’ contest could have only served the purpose of provoking the anger of Muslims throughout the world. Clearly this was Wilders’ intent. The same would be true if for example an Iranian parliamentarian staged an American flag burning contest. In Iran it is perfectly legal and socially acceptable to burn the flag of the United States.
Imran Khan’s soft power victory
In leading international calls to oppose the cartoon contest, Imran Khan positioned himself as the respectful face of inter-continental de-escalation of what could have potentially been a major provocation. In doing so, Imran Khan was able to take an issue that ran a very real risk of being hijacked by extremists and instead helped retain decorum around the matter so that it could be addressed in a peaceful and civilised manner in spite of emotions running high in many quarters.
While Wilders has not credited Imran Khan’s statements as being the reason the cartoon contest was cancelled and while Pakistani news outlets hostile to Imran Khan have refused to do so for much the same reason, the fact remains that as a head of government who took a firm but calm stand on the issue, Pakistan can now take credit as a state for peacefully putting a stop to what could have been an unnecessarily heated endeavour.
Crucially, Imran Khan achieved his victory without threatening Wilders and without using any means of compulsion to force the cancellation of the cartoon contest. In so doing, Imran Khan has exposed both extremist Islamist elements in south Asia and extremist anti-Islamic factions in Europe for their equal and opposite absurdity. Extremists on all sides are very skilled at staging provocations, but they rarely are able to de-escalate a potentially harmful situation. Instead, extremists of all stripes merely set of a chain reaction where one provocation is met by another.
By contrast, Imran Khan has injected a powerful dignity to the entire matter and achieved the outcome that he and millions of other Muslims, including his political opponents sought. By taking the requisite peaceful and dignified action steps to solve a problem, Imran Khan delivered while other heads of government in Muslim majority countries did little to address the matter. Perhaps they would have only spoken out when it was too late as is the case with many flawed statesmen.
One needn’t be a religious Muslim nor a devoted anti-Islamic ideologue to understand the political significance of Imran Khan’s soft power victory. Without firing a shot and without making any threats or attempts at compulsion against Wilders, Pakistan’s Prime Minister was able to effect a positive change and avoid what could have easily become a situation that could trigger cycles of violence at a time when the world is already far too violent. In this sense, the entire world should salute Imran Khan – his peaceful actions kept people happy and kept people safe.