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Memoranda of non-understanding

The issue isn’t always about freedom of speech but about the refusal to respect diversity, writes AG Noorani.

india Updated: Feb 25, 2008 19:33 IST

‘Happy birthday’ the Black convert said to the Mother Superior (Deborah Kerr) at Christmas and was duly corrected: “We do not take his name so casually.” This memorable scene in Black Narcissus reveals in a flash the impact of cultural diversity among people of the same faith. No Indian Christian would say, as Mike Huckabee famously did, “Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office” or emulate Robert Wright’s remark, “Jesus knew viral marketing.” A Polish paper published a picture of Jesus and Mary with gas masks over their faces. The American thrash metal band Slayer’s album Christ Illusion was withdrawn in India. Its depiction of Christ as an amputee drew protests in Britain also.

Within Britain the offence of ‘incitement to racial hatred’ covers, in Northern Ireland alone, incitement to religious hatred. History mandates diversity. An authority on freedom of speech, Eric Barendt notes that, “White English Catholics are more likely to experience vicious denigration of their religious convictions as insulting than they are hate speech about their colour”.

France’s ban on ‘conspicuous signs’ of religious affiliation in public schools flies in the face of realities. In her book The Politics of the Veil, Joan Wallach Scott demonstrates the conflicting approaches to sexuality that lay at the heart of the debate — how French supporters of the ban view sexual openness as the standard for normalcy, emancipation, and individuality, and the sexual modesty implicit in the headscarf as proof that Muslims can never become fully ‘French’. The ban, far from reconciling religious and ethnic differences, only exacerbates them. Insistence on homogeneity is no longer feasible in any plural society.

When defining the limits of free speech, respect for cultural diversity is not cultural relativism in respect of human rights. The test of ‘malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance’ is of universal application. International courts grant individual States a ‘margin of appreciation’. What passes for jest or satire in one country might be regarded as insult and ridicule in another. That is the core of the law of blasphemy in force in most European States, including Britain, and is applied by the European Court of Human Rights.

In 1993, it upheld the forfeiture of a film that disparaged Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Eucharist. In 1997 it upheld the decision of the British censors not to allow the release of a video portraying the sexual fantasies of St Teresa of Avila. In the 1994 case, it gave significant weight to the conditions in the Tyrolean region of Austria where the majority of the people were Catholic. Some States penalise denial of the Holocaust. Popular sentiment and the burden of history require that.

That is true also of Muslim sensitivity about the Prophet Muhammad. Ayyub Axel Kohler, a convert, and Chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, pleaded, “One has to understand how much we love our Prophet.” Urdu poetry is replete with reproaches at and complaints to the Almighty. But none would take liberties with the name of Prophet Muhammad. Hence, the Persian couplet, “Ba Khuda deewana basho, Ba Muhammad Hoshyar (Play madly with God if you wish, but be careful with Muhammad). Unfortunately, few non-Muslims have understood his station in the Muslim psyche and in Muslim lives.

The scholar, Arthur Jeffery, recalled that the rector of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Sheikh Mustafa al-Maraghi, once told his friend, the Anglican Bishop in Egypt, that “the commonest cause of offence, generally unwitting offence, given by Christians to Muslims, arose from their complete failure to understand the very high regard all Muslims have for the person of their Prophet”. On this, Annemarie Schimmel makes the perfect comment: “Misunderstanding of the role of the Prophet has been, and still is, one of the greatest obstacles to Christians’ appreciation of the Muslim interpretation of Islamic history and culture.”

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses identified 12 women in a brothel with the Prophet’s wives. To him, who said that “the ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr” are attributed these words: “Writer and whores I see no difference here.” The Prophet is called Mahound. Dictionaries tell us that it means “the false prophet Mammad (sic.)... a name for the devil” or “a name of contempt for Mahomet... sometimes used as a synonym for the ‘the Devil’”.

On May 15, 2007, L.K. Advani said that the BJP does not support a concept of artistic freedom to hurt religious sentiments. That he singled out Rushdie testifies to his sincerity. Debate in India on both sides was simplistic. Few read the novel. The poet Nissim Ezekiel and six of his colleagues did and denounced Rushdie in a detailed critique citing the text for outraging religious sentiment “by obscenity and slander”. Jimmy Carter called it a “direct insult” to Muslims. But the most devastating censure came from Lord Shawcross. It was not “a contribution to scholarship” but “a deplorable abuse of the freedom [of speech]”. The Danish cartoons fell into the same category. Hugh Hewitt, an evangelical Christian, remarked that “a cartoon of Christ’s crown of thorns transformed into sticks of TNT” would offend Christians.

The issue is not freedom of speech but the West’s refusal to accept and respect diversity. Michael Day, Chairman of the British Commission for Racial Equality, referred to the blind support for Rushdie and wrote that “what many people had in mind was not a pluralist society but one in which most immigrant groups gradually assimilated and, except perhaps for some essentially private customs, complied with the dominant systems of the ‘host’ community. There was indignation and transparent racism in response to the demand from Muslims that the right to freedom of expression might be constrained by sensitivity to non-Christian religious belief, which is not covered by the blasphemy law”, which protects Christian beliefs alone.

In a globalised society, respect for diversity is a moral and legal obligation. But as Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a devout Christian and scholar on Islam, wrote, “The fact is that the West has begun in only extremely incipient fashion to understand any civilisation other than its own."