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Lessons from Charlie Hebdo: Keep an eye on the loony fringe

Secularism was a founding principle of India’s Independence movement. It can serve as an example and legacy to all democracies, writes Farrukh Dhondy.

columns Updated: Jan 17, 2015 08:36 IST
charlie hebdo attack,secularism,india

The terror in Paris, which began with the murder of 12 cartoonists and journalists of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, poses a score of political, social, civilisational and security questions. I want to ask a less portentous one: What does the name of the magazine mean? Everyone knows that ‘Charlie’ is friendly for ‘Charles’. But the ‘Hebdo’? Is it short for the Hebdomadal Council which governed the affairs of Oxford University for centuries? Or does it simply mean Hebdomidaire, the French for ‘weekly’? Or when it’s said aloud in French as ‘ebdu’ is it the common pronunciation of the name ‘Abdul’?

Though the ‘weekly’ meaning is the most prosaic, I favour the ironic combination of a Christian and Muslim name which, as in Amar Akbar Anthony or Ram Rahim Ranjit, could stand for secular unity or fraternity.

France, Europe and perhaps the United States are, as their heads of state and religious leaders have immediately emphasised, in need of underlining such unity and fraternity. The tendency to blame the Muslim populations of these countries or even the teachings of Islam for these atrocities needs to be ruthlessly combated.

When in May 2013 two maniacs, African Christian converts to Islam, attacked, slaughtered and attempted to publicly behead a British soldier in broad daylight on the street of London they had a stated strategic aim. They didn’t attempt to get away from the scene of the murder. They addressed passers-by and attacked the police when they arrived. They expected to start, they said, a ‘civil war’. They hoped that their barbaric act of murder would provoke a reaction or retaliation against the Muslim population of Britain, which would then force the Muslims to fight back and the clash would radicalise thousands of them and bring about a permanent threat of terror and instability. No such thing happened.

There were, after that murder and now after the Parisian terror, voices that vilified Islam as a religion that condones violence. Anti-immigrant, proto-Nazi groups rallied to argue that the presence Muslim populations in Europe would inevitably expose the country to continuing terrorist acts.

While it is true that particular readings of the Quran can lead to the injunction to kill non-believers and some interpretations of the hadith say that the Mosaic law against ‘craven images’ means killing cartoonists who portray the Prophet, other readings and interpretations say precisely the opposite.

Through the centuries the Bible has been quoted as giving sanction in law to the burning of thousands of heretics. Even today, if one interprets certain passages of the Old Testament and some of Saint Paul literally, there would be a lot of burnings, amputations and cruel and inhuman punishments for beliefs and practices which modern society takes in its stride.

For that matter, a reading of the Vedic texts also prescribes rather nasty punishments for women and for ‘untouchables’ who transgress.

Even though Henry VIII made the Monarch of England, the dispenser of law, also the Head of the Church and though all the European Catholic countries recognise the authority of the Pope, the influence of religious doctrine on law has almost disappeared. It’s true that Ireland till very recently made artificial contraception illegal and other anomalies remain but by and large the modern states have, through the democratic process, broken the hold of religion over law.

The stated purpose of the Islamic Caliphate and those it inspires to terror abroad is to bring into governance the rule of Sharia law as they interpret it and spread that governance to the world. However remote and ludicrous such an ambition may seem, the Parisian terrorists, two of them apparently al Qaeda followers and the third an ISIS-wallah, supposedly shelving or unaware of the deep antagonism of these outfits, united in this absurd aim and killed 15 people, quoting the service of this delusion.

The constitutions of very many modern states are still nominally dedicated to one or other religion. Even so, Israel doesn’t pass laws enshrining punishments for, say, adultery, laid down in the Torah by Leviticus. Pakistan declares itself a religious state but doesn’t follow the Islam prescribed by the Taliban, which denies secular education to girls and sanctions the shooting of schoolchildren.

The nations of Europe, though they have a history of Christian schisms, have only in the last two generations, through the global movement of labour, become multi-religious. India has been so for centuries. The founders of Indian Independence bequeathed a secular constitution to the nation, conscious of the dangers of religious interpretations of law and conscious perhaps that freedom to believe and worship is central to the life of the diverse majority.

The designation of India as a secular state was a founding principle of the mainstream Independence movement, made more urgent when the agitation for religious supremacy and for separate electorates and then for Partition began. The principle can serve as India’s example and legacy to all democracies, but that depends on the maintenance of the principle in every aspect of the law and in all institutional practice. It means keeping a beady eye on Mad Mullahs and Sinister Sadhvis.

(Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

First Published: Jan 15, 2015 22:22 IST