The relationship between religion and art has been extensively debated on several occasions. One of the longest raging controversies centred around UK’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act, 2006. When the Bill was first proposed in November 2004, writers, painters, artists, lawyers, comedians, civil rights groups and others warned that the proposed legislation would serve as a sanction for censorship. Given the subjective nature of interpreting ‘hatred’, ‘insult’ and ‘offence’ they advised the Labour government to let ‘sleeping dogmas lie’. The advice was ignored. As if in response, a thousand Sikhs stormed the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and forcibly stopped Gurpreet Bhatti’s play Bezhti alleging that it was “sacrilegious”.
The debate on religion and free speech lies at the heart of hate speech debates. Hate speech is the generic term for speech attacks on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any other social grouping. Advocates of the suppression of hate speech argue that it promotes discrimination against those it targets. The protection of hate speech as free speech has been a bitter bone of contention among those committed to protecting the rights of minorities and constitutes the faultline along which the anti-censorship movement is split.
But many us oppose the censoring of hate speech because we feel it never serves the interest of the minorities. Enforcement histories demonstrate that hate speech laws are disproportionately used against those it purports to protect. The first individuals prosecuted under the British race relations Act of 1965 were Black power leaders. In India, hate speech laws have prosecuted MF Husain but have never been invoked against the communal rhetoric of Bal Thackeray or Narendra Modi. Bangladesh has prosecuted the Ahmediyas while Pakistan has prosecuted Shias and Christians.
The implementation of hate speech laws is not very different from obscenity laws in that it relies heavily on the interpreter’s subjectivity. Section 292 of the IPC, 1860, prohibits obscenity which it defines as any visual or written material that is “lascivious or appeals to prurient interests” or which has the effect of depraving or corrupting persons exposed to it. Since terms like ‘obscene’, ‘depraved’, ‘corrupt’, ‘impure and libidinous nature’ has been left undefined, the scope for interpretation can range from the conservative to the liberal.
There is a need to recognise that individuals and communities do not perceive hate or hurt uniformly. Location, identity, collective and personal experiences all play a role in the way injury is experienced. Contrary to popular belief, the reaction of Muslims to the Danish cartoons has been far diverse from the position taken by European commentators who refused to look beyond the predictable dichotomies of western liberalism vs. fanatical Islam. European media portrayed Jyllands-Postens, the paper that published the cartoons, as championing free speech when in April 2003, it had refused to carry cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ. In his rejection note to the cartoonist, the editor wrote: “I don’t think Jyllands-Postens’ readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them.” Europe’s deep crisis of secularism received little media attention.
Neither hurt nor injury is homogenous or universal. We need to challenge what I call the hierarchy of hurt. Why does religious hurt have a monopoly over every other kind of prejudicial speech? Why does prejudicial speech targeting caste, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs fail to elicit the kind of concern that ‘religious sentiments’ do? It is ironic (and hurtful) that secularists, who should certainly have no prejudices against atheism, frequently privilege the sensitivities of the believer to be more deserving of protection than that of the non-believer.
We never discuss “principles” or “guidelines” when debating a controversy of art and religion, so that “a balance can be reached”. This is really a plea for responsibility, which, again, is a matter of interpretation. Historically all ideas and movements that challenge normative thinking have been called ‘irresponsible’. If we value freedom and choice then we must continue what author Philip Hensher calls “ the noble and long history of irresponsibility.”
Shohini Ghosh is Zakir Hussain Professor at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia