If you have missed the controversy that led to the arrest of the editor of The Statesman in Calcutta for offending religious sentiments — which you might have, because the national media downplayed the issue — then here’s what it is about.
The Statesman reproduced an article by Johann Hari, the young liberal British commentator, from The Independent. Hari’s politics are clear: he stands up for secularism (for which he has won awards), tolerance (he has defended Islam against such critics as Mark Steyn) and environmental concerns.
The column in question was about attempts by the governments of some Islamic states to alter the UN’s commitment to free speech. These governments argue that free speech must be restricted on grounds of offence to religion and that discussions of certain issues relating to the rights of women must be curtailed because they could be anti-Islamic.
Hari makes the obvious objections to all of this and then says that religion can often be oppressive. So, why should people be stopped from speaking out against it? He quotes examples of regressive practices from all religions and says that just because these occur in accounts of the lives of gods, messiahs or prophets, that does not make them above criticism.
Who could possibly object to that?
Well, a small section of politically-motivated Islamic fanatics in Calcutta, that’s who.
As the people who rioted did not seem like typical Statesman readers (they were not genteel Bengalis, aged 60 and above), it is a fair assumption that some cynical leader of an extreme faction of the Muslim community told his followers about the ‘grave insult to Islam” and sent them off to riot.
The CPI(M) government then arrested The Statesman’s editor and publisher. But the arrest — though clearly unjustified — seems to have been largely symbolic. They were quickly released and the mobs, satisfied that “action had been taken”, melted away.
Several points need to be made about the incident.
First: The article itself. There is not one line in Hari’s piece that I would disagree with. If religions deserve respect, then so does atheism. Followers of religions have every right to their views and practices. But so do atheists have the right to criticise religion. Nothing in this world is above criticism.
Two: The rioters said they were offended by a passage in the article where Hari referred to the Prophet’s marriage to a much younger woman and his directive to burn Jewish villages. (In all fairness, he was as critical of other religions and of the Israeli assault on the West Bank.)
The rioters say that nobody can criticise any aspect of the Prophet’s life.
There’s no shortage of books and articles criticising Jesus, suggesting that he might have been secretly married (as in The DaVinci Code), arguing that the resurrection was a hoax or that Mary was never a virgin.
Similarly, would mainstream Hindus be offended if somebody wrote that Hindu mythology features practices that we would find abhorrent today: one wife for five husbands as in the Mahabharat, the compulsive philandering of Krishna or the appalling mistreatment of Sita (the agni pariksha etc)?
Some Hindu extremists may protest but I doubt if they would get very far with their objections. The community, as a whole, would shrug its shoulders and many Hindus will agree with the critics.
And yet, it is an article of faith with Muslims — even moderate ones — that the Prophet’s life is beyond reproach.
Does this make any sense?
Three: It is now clear that the liberal society has been suckered into relaxing its standards for free speech by militant Islamists.
Let’s take the most obvious example. Every liberal I know is outraged by the attacks on MF Husain. Why shouldn’t he paint nude Saraswatis? That’s his right. If people are offended by the paintings, they shouldn’t see them.
So far, so good. But now imagine that Husain had painted an extremely reverential portrait of the Prophet. (Never mind cartoons, nude pictures etc.)
There would have been riots. And even secular liberals would not have supported him.
We would have said: Islam prohibits any visual representation of the Prophet so Husain has committed a great crime.
But so what if Muslims cannot visually represent their Prophet? Why should non-Muslims be bound by their religious edicts? Why should non-believing Muslims be forced by liberal society to obey the restrictions of their religion?
Believers should follow what the Holy Book and the mullahs say. But why should the rest of us? Why should we abandon our right to free expression?
Nobody I know has ever explained why the double standards are justified.
Four: The reason we are suckered into accepting these double standards is because Muslim politicians play good cop-bad cop.
Look, they say, we are all for freedom of speech. But if you say anything that the fanatics object to, then they will take to the streets, burn property and hurt innocent people. We will do our best to pacify our community, but you must remove any provocation that will cause the hardliners to revolt.
Turn this around. How would Muslims have reacted if Hindu moderates had said to them: Look, we think this whole Ram Janmbhoomi thing is nonsense. But the BJP will gain support on this platform. So why don’t you agree to move the Babri Masjid? It’s not even a functioning mosque. That way, we remove the provocation and rid the hardliners of their issue and ensure communal harmony.
Well, Hindu moderates did say this. And we know how moderate Muslim politicians reacted.
Five: The real reason we give in to Islamic fanatics is the desire for a peaceful life or, to put it another way, cowardice.
Every one of their objections is always framed in terms of violence. Ban The Satanic Verses or we will kill Salman Rushdie. Apologise for the Danish cartoons or we will offer a reward for the head of the cartoonist. Arrest the editor of the Statesman or we will shut Calcutta down by rioting in the streets.
Faced with these threats, we abandon our principles and say things like, “Come on, is a single article worth the death of so many people?” or “Let’s just ban the book, otherwise these guys will keep rioting.”
The fanatics know this. They have identified the cowardice at the heart of our liberalism. So every demand is a) pitched in terms of protecting the religious sentiments of the Muslim community or b) facing murder, mayhem and more.
Almost every single time, we cave in.
Either we say that Islam is a peaceful religion.
Or we get death threats.
And finally: Isn’t it time to finally stand up to these thugs and blackmailers? It is up to the Muslim community to rein in its fanatics and some moderates are indeed trying to do this.
But as far as secular society is concerned, our position should be clear. We believe in free speech as guaranteed by our Constitution, not as defined by the mullahs.
Anything less would be a betrayal of the liberal, secular values we hold dear.