Perhaps it is a sign of our post-modern times that even in the most serious of matters, our political actions are not what they claim to be about. The publication of offensive cartoons in European newspapers was manifestly not about defending free speech, but about giving offence and precipitating conflict. By equal measure, many of the violent responses are not an expression of religious piety but a blatant attempt to capitalise on this opportunity for assorted political purposes. What else explains the fact that so much of the violence and street protests in places like Pakistan is associated with indiscriminate mayhem? Just as the cartoons were a statement of impunity, are the protests also about a will to power? Many were denouncing America for cartoons published in Europe. Of course, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories to link the Danes and the Americans. But every conspiracy theory can find its own self-fulfilling validation. The protests often display an assortment of historical rage rather than the quiet dignity of religious piety.
Or take another controversy which many groups have tried to link with the cartoon affair: M.F. Husain's offensive depiction of Bharat Mata. Again, many people are within their rights to be offended. But quite what they are offended about is less than clear. The real object of attack does not seem to be Husain or a concern for Bharat Mata. The occasion is being used to bait an assortment of people, from secularists to Muslims. Commentators seem more troubled by the fact that so-called secularists do not denounce Husain than they are by the plight of Bharat Mata. Or l'affaire Husain is being converted into yet another occasion to benchmark Muslim loyalty. Surely, the argument goes, you Muslims and secularists, who denounced the Danish cartoons, now show your true colours. Will you also denounce Husain or will your double standards be exposed? Once again, the purported issue, poor Bharat Mata, got lost in the din, just like freedom of expression or religious piety.
The overriding issue in all these episodes seems to have become the exposure of someone else's hypocrisy or a simple assertion of impunity. Muslims want to expose the hypocrisy of the West: how can a conservative paper that exercises self-restraint on matters Christian target Muslims? The West, in turn, turns around to expose the Muslim hypocrisy. How can those regimes that do not defend free speech, that routinely foment offensive depictions of the West or Israel now express indignation over having their sentiments offended? The Husain affair too becomes a matter of exposing someone or the other's hypocrisy. Indeed, the focus on hypocrisy is so much a post-modern obsession: the gap between appearance and reality is more significant than the reality itself. We're not looking for truth but a void from which we can ratify our own self-righteousness. Values like freedom of speech, religious piety or nationalism are mere ciphers.
The suspicion of the inauthenticity of much of the discussion is evidenced by one startling fact. The very act of denouncing something seems to be an act complicit in the increase of its power. So, those who were allegedly offended by the depiction in the cartoons were doing their best to ensure that they were disseminated widely. The slew of e-mails I got protesting Husain's indecencies did not fail to paste a copy of the painting in question—the virtual Bharat Mata was being circulated more intensely just as the real painting was being withdrawn. The power of the individual act was being magnified beyond its original significance.
The third curious feature of both controversies is the ascription of responsibility to whole collectives. It is as if there are no individual acts any more, the author of the acts becomes irrelevant to the subsequent meaning of the acts. So, a bunch of reckless editors came to stand in for Western civilisation, as a bunch of hoodlums came to represent the entire Muslim world; Muslims were called in to rein in Husain, and an assortment of groups arrogated to themselves the mandate of speaking on behalf of Hindus. It is as if everyone wants to speak for someone else, ascribe an identity to others, and place every action in a larger narrative context. The only thing we cannot do is make room for the individuality of any act. We cannot call a particular editor idiotic, a particular painter tasteless, or particular hoodlums misguided. No, each act has to be suffused with meta narratives: the clash of civilisations, art vs philistinism, freedom vs religion. It seems the age that rejected meta narratives has actually done the opposite: made it impossible for any action to be detached from a larger context. The only response that wasn't available to us was this: the cartoon or the painting may have been bad enough from a certain perspective. But can't we leave it at that? No, some collectivity has to be held responsible: a government or a people, instead of an editor or a painter.
Yes, freedom of speech has to be defended, not because it's more sacred than faith. It is rather because freedom is the only security we have that no faith will be trampled in the name of someone's convictions. If, in the process, some odious stuff passes through, this is the price we pay for ensuring that the great can be expressed as well and that the state will not use its powers to target people at its whim. And yes, on occasion, self-restraint is warranted, not because we don't value freedom, but having a right does not mean it should always be exercised; a right to publish is not an obligation to do so. But in our discussions, neither the value of freedom nor the importance of piety has any real place. Instead of building bridges, we want to slug it out under so many banners, as ignorant armies clashing by night.