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Counterpoint: The silence of liberal Muslims

All of us who espouse the secular cause follow ? to some degree ? a double standard, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Feb 12, 2006 12:36 IST

I am sorry if you feel you have had enough of the latest religion vs freedom of expression controversy: the fuss over the Danish cartoons that featured the Prophet Mohammed. And yes, I am also sorry that my own position mirrors familiar liberal arguments — so, no surprises there. But I do think that much of what has been said or written about the issue misses the point. So, bear with me this Sunday.

The first distinction that I think is blurred is the difference between causing offence and losing the right to freedom of expression.

All of us accept that religion is a sensitive subject. We recognise that men who will forgive jokes about their looks, their jobs, or their wives, will suddenly lose their tempers when you make the slightest reference to their faiths. Thus, even if we make ethnic jokes, we will laugh at the community not at the religion. It may be okay to crack a Sardarji joke (though these days even that seems less acceptable) but you never ever say anything jokey about Guru Govind Singh or Guru Nanak.

So, we refrain from offending people about their religions; we exercise some internal restraint. But do we lose the right to focus on religion — in a critical or satirical way — only because we know it may cause offence?

The philosophical distinction is an important one. We have no right to make defamatory or slanderous statements about people. All of us also accept that the right to free speech can be curtailed on grounds of national security. But there are good reasons for these limitations. To reveal defence secrets may compromise the security of the state. To defame somebody harms their reputations and affects how they are perceived in the eyes of the public.

Do statements that cause religious offence fall in the same category? To argue that they do, we would have to prove that they caused damage to the safety of the religious faith (the national security parallel) or that they affected the way the faith was perceived by society, or even lowered its standing.

But surely none of the people who complain about insults to religion accept that the slights can have these consequences? Is the safety of Islam threatened because a Danish newspaper carries a cartoon? Is Islam so weak a religion that a couple of cartoons can cause the world or society in general to think less of it?

Clearly not. So, I’m not sure on what grounds we could abridge the right to free speech when it comes to religion.

The only argument you are left with is the “it has caused offence” line. And nearly all of the big ban-this-book, burn-this-cartoon, destroy-this-painting kind of demands have rested on the we-are-offended argument.

But just because something offends you, it does not follow that you have the right to stop me from saying it. For instance, I am deeply offended by the insistence of the more reactionary elements in the Catholic Church that the only way to get to heaven is to swear allegiance to the Vatican. But I wouldn’t dream of banning anybody — let alone the current Panzer Pope — from saying it. I am also offended by the Muslim fundamentalist position that a woman who wears make-up is loose and, therefore, condemned to eternal damnation. But I would not arrest or assault any loony cleric who took this position.

The problem with the people who think that their sense of offence gives them the right to curb your or my freedom of expression is that the basis of their value system is illiberal. I am quite prepared to believe that many Muslims find The Satanic Verses offensive. But my solution to their anger is simple enough: don’t read the damn thing — that way you won’t be offended. They have no business to curtail my right to read the book.

Similarly, I am prepared to believe that members of the VHP find MF Husain’s portrayals of the goddess Saraswati offensive. But given that the VHP is not a body that is known for its love of fine art, the solution there is also simple enough: don’t go to a gallery and see the paintings. But do not deny an artist the right to create art. And do not deny me my right to view it.

Of course we should be sensitive to religious sentiments. Of course we should try and avoid giving offence. But these are not absolute rules. If we do cause offence, then we are still within our rights as citizens of a free society to do so. And the people who are offended should simply avert their gaze. In no liberal society does the causing of offence automatically give those who are offended the right to demand bans.

The second important point that is blurred in this debate is that many of the people who protest the loudest have not actually been offended at all. Syed Shahbuddin had not even read The Satanic Verses when he demanded a ban on the book. The international Muslims who are calling for action against the Danish paper that carried the offending cartoons have not even seen the cartoons. The so-called Indian Muslim leader who demanded that we expel the Danish ambassador had never glanced at the offending cartoons.

It is instructive that the agitation against the Danish cartoons began three months after their publication. In many cases — dare one say, in nearly every case? — the outrage is manufactured by religious and political leaders who whip a frenzy among ignorant followers. Let’s stick with The Satanic Verses. Ayatollah Khomeini placed the fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s head only because he heard about demonstrations in the Indian subcontinent. He never read the book and nor did any of his assassins.

After the rabble-rousers have manufactured the outrage, they incite their followers to violence. The argument then placed before governments is straightforward blackmail: if you do not ban the book/film/play/newspaper/etc then there will be a riot and people will die.

Governments are expected to say, surely no cartoon is worth the lives of innocent people, and to promptly declare a ban.

It is to the credit of Western societies that they rarely give in to this blackmail. In India, unfortunately, we surrender at the slightest provocation. And so every nasty, unpleasant political grouping has a readymade strategy: protest against a book on Shivaji, an art exhibition, a novel or a movie. The threat of violence (and in many cases the violence itself) will cause the state to impose a ban and the political grouping will seem important and powerful. That is how the unit of Water was driven out of India and that is how the Shiv Sena has hounded MF Husain.

If India is not to become a soft state, then we must stand up for liberal principles. We must stand up to the rioters, arrest those who foment violence and never, ever, give in to the blackmail.

The third point is one that I am always reluctant to make because I know it will be misused by right-wing fanatics and extremists. But I think I am going to make it anyway.

All of us who espouse the secular cause follow — to some degree — a double standard when it comes to comparing Muslim anger to Hindu outrage. I first noticed this during The Satanic Verses controversy when perfect liberals — men who railed against Hindu fundamentalism day after day — suddenly abandoned their liberal values and began supporting a ban on the book on the grounds that minority sentiments were at stake.

We see this now on a regular basis. All of us are outraged when the VHP or the Shiv Sena objects to Husain’s portrayals of Hindu goddesses and argue that, as an artist, he has perfect right to paint what he likes. But would we take the same position if his paintings offended Muslims?

The sad truth is that we are much more mindful of offending the sentiments of Muslims than we are of Hindus, Sikhs or Christians.

We claim we do this because we know that Muslims are a minority. But the real reason is because we know that Muslims tend to protest more loudly than Hindus; because these protests can be unreasonable; and because so few liberal Muslims stand up to the extremists in their community. When the VHP goes on the rampage, it is liberal Hindus who issue the loudest condemnation. When the lunatic fringe of the Muslim community gets agitated about the length of Sania Mirza’s skirt or about a cartoon in a European paper, few moderate Muslim voices are heard.

In the process, it has become easy for Hindu zealots to caricature the entire Muslim community as comprising fanatics, fundamentalists and lunatics. As the joke goes: Islamic is a peaceful religion and if you don’t accept that, they start sending you death threats.

I have waited many years for liberal Muslims to break this conspiracy of silence. And while I do hear some voices, these are people on the fringes of their community. Muslim liberals are still as shamefully silent as they were when students at Jamia assaulted the gentle and scholarly Mushirul Hassan for saying that while he found The Satanic Verses deeply offensive, he did not believe in the principle of banning books.

The time has now come, I think, for us to stop waiting for moderate Muslims to speak up. Liberal Hindus must end the double standard of the secular mindset and speak out as loudly against Muslim fundamentalism as they do against Hindu extremism.

If we do not do that, we discredit the whole concept of secularism. More important, we admit that our liberalism is not an absolute value but a convenient stick to beat Hindu extremists with while making shameful and unnecessary compromises with minority intolerance.