Here in India, we do not need to be told to be careful about upsetting sensibilities. Even our liberals — especially our liberals — are paranoid about inadvertently trampling on some extra-sensitive toes. Thus, we have Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses banned in India even before the Grand Ayatollah in Iran airs his opinion of the book; otherwise level-headed people going into a tizzy each time a ‘pressure group’ sees insults in paintings of goddesses; grown-ups agreeing with schoolmarms that ‘smut’ needs to be removed everywhere. So in India, the danger is never about too little sensitivity but about too much.
Mr Rushdie, who knows a few things about dealing with sensitive souls, stated this week that “people should calm down a bit” and that “immediate, manufactured outrage that takes place is getting to be excessive”. In our editorial comment about Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture that has subsequently raised such a furore among Muslims across the world, we had criticised the pontiff for being especially intemperate in these civilisationally sensitive times. The Pope has since then apologised for unintentionally hurting Muslim sensitivities. That does not seem to have satisfied everyone. This gives credence to the opinion that there may be people who simply thrive on finding handles by which to launch their tirade about being victimised. Mainstream society has as much of a responsibility to keep such elements in check as it does in ensuring that outright insults are not bandied about.
In Germany, a leading opera house cancelled the performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo this week as it feared reprisal from Muslims insulted by the 18th century Austrian composer’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in the opera. Does this now mean that the Italians will lock away their Dantes because of the unsavoury depiction of the Prophet in The Divine Comedy? Or that Bengalis will now have to throw away their Bankimchandra Chattopadhyays because Muslims are depicted as villains in his novels? To go on such an overdrive only amounts to enhancing the stereotype of all Muslims being philistines unable to differentiate between outright insults and artistic works that are historically situated. If Jews can handle The Merchant of Venice, what makes liberals think that Muslims will burn down the Deutsche Oper in Berlin for showing Idomeneo? Clearly, the liberals who tremble each time they hear the voice of rabble-rousers are to blame this time.