I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it
It’s astonishing that the liberal intelligentsia in this country, which saturates us with its opinions on all topics that catch their fancy, have so little to say on what’s going on in Europe for the last few weeks. I refer of course to what is being called the Cartoon Controversy. Unfortunately, the issue is not funny at all. Now the 'protests' are spreading to India - in J&K and New Delhi already. The Indian media, with some notable exceptions, seems equally unresponsive. But ignoring the issue will not make it go away. It needs to be confronted head on as many liberal societies in Europe are trying to do. Remember, no British newspaper published the cartoons, yet there were Islamic extremists on the streets of London chanting "Death to Infidels."
Understandably, there are religious sensitivities involved here. One could question the wisdom of such a provocation in these times when Muslims, as a community, already feel targeted by the West. But, as a cursory glance at the timeline available from the bottom of this page would reveal, this is not a case of spontaneous public outrage, but an orchestrated campaign. Yes, there are those who actually feel offended, and their hurt feelings are being cynically exploited by the extremist fringe. It would seem that there are forces out there who are hell-bent on ensuring that a 'clash of civilisations' does take place. Viewed in that light, those rousing the rabble, as it were, are actually only reinforcing the stereotype of Muslims as an intolerant and violent lot, doing far more harm to the innocent Muslims, those who actually hold their faith in deep esteem.
First, yes, there is a disconnect. There is the whole European Enlightenment history which rests on questioning, making fun, mocking and even offending the various religious orthodoxies and sensibilities. The Muslims, on the other hand, argue that as per tradition, there cannot be any depiction of the Prophet at all, leave alone in such a derogatory and offensive manner. Surely, yes, the Muslims are entitled to register their protest, even as they need to be pointed to such historical iconography, art and imagery depicting the Prophet that's very much extant. A simple Google search is enough to show up enough illustrations, with many of these in reputed museums and libraries.
Arguably, the so-called cartoons could well be considered in bad taste or even "offensive". One of them apparently shows Prophet Mohammad wearing a headdress shaped like a bomb, while another shows him saying that paradise was running short of virgins for suicide bombers. But let's pause here. These may not be funny cartoons, but they do provide some food for thought. Surely the sort of protests they have elicited begs the question: what is more offensive? When the name of Islam is misused and innocents, women and children included, are slaughtered by those brainwashed into believing that their reward would be such and such or when a cartoonist, in howsoever an exhibition of bad-taste, mocking just those sort of terrorists who employ such methods? Could it not be argued that the one being mocked is not the Prophet of the true believers but the false one of those who misrepresent him? Or if one wished to object, surely that could be taken up with the newspaper as such without involving the whole country, and now the world, into it?
To give in to bullying under duress for the questionable - even arguably, grievously misguided - acts of one publication, would be suicidal for any society that values free speech. Can we imagine what the result would be if any group of people took to protesting against any cartoons they found or claimed were "offensive"? Where would we stop? First we banned the Satanic Verses because it "offended" some Muslims who hadn't read the book. And yes, then later we also banned a Sahmat exhibition based on the Jataka tales that showed Ram and Sita as brother and sister. Surely, yes, we could question the motivation, intelligence or the wisdom of such acts of provocation, and even disagree with them, but can one's protest not be registered without intimidations, and issuing of death threats and involving the whole country and the world into it? Or take the various plays on the assassination of Mahatama Gandhi because the Congress party objects or books on Shivaji because they allegedly offend some Maharashtrian sensibilities that get routinely banned. Where is all this supposed to end? How far can a liberal, secular society bend to accommodate the dictates of extremists claiming to be acting on the outraged feelings of the innocent true believers?
The reason why nearly 30 newspapers in 13 European countries decided to republish the impugned cartoons is not to insult Islam but to challenge what they see as a trend towards self-censorship for fear of intimidation. Satire, criticism, and poking fun at the presiding deities - be they religious, political, or cultural - is the essence of a liberal, tolerant culture. Freedom of expression is too precious to be negotiated at the threat of guns and violence. And humour has been a very effective instrument with which individuals and societies have historically overcome even the strictest regimes of laws and taboos.
In fact, even as the Islamic extremists have gone on rampage, there is an art exhibition currently on in London titled "Was Jesus Homosexual?" One of the exhibits carries the inscription "God Loves F******!" and Virgin Mary is depicted as a crack whore in the other. There are many who must be feeling deeply offended by these exhibits. Yet, the creators of this artwork have justified it by arguing that the aim of art is to provoke and question one’s own deeply held assumptions. Indeed it is but it seems it applies only to non-Islamic faiths.
Yes, one could argue that not many mainstream newspapers would take on religious figures, particularly in these tense times. But here the issue transcends the wisdom of publishing those cartoons, and is about the right of free media to publish them without being threatened. Sure, there could be limits to free speech, and different societies have different concepts of it anyway. In this, Europe which was at the forefront of Enlightenment is having to revisit the dark ages of India in the 80s. This is Satanic Verses revisited. A bunch of mullahs decide what’s worthy of being read or seen and what’s not, and the extremists take to the streets, making the majority of them believe that their faith has been violated, abused, insulted. The government bows to their demands and the cycle continues as extremism only begets extremism.
Today, there are voices of protests and violence raging in the Middle East. Those who are shouting the loudest, quietly sit by when the Arabic media routinely insults Jews and thrives on all kinds of conspiracy theories that pass for journalism in the region. The way dissenters or critics of Islam are treated is also symptomatic of a larger malaise. Be they Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen or more recently, Irshad Manji -- a lesbian Muslim woman writer who has dared to question Islam’s treatment of homosexuals now has to walk around with a posse of bodyguards. Is this the best way to negotiate our differences? Of dealing with minorities?
Embassies are being burnt in the Middle East, protests have reached the streets of J&K and New Delhi but instead of confronting the real issue, which is that there cannot be double standards on the issue of Free Speech, such is the level of ignorance among the provocateurs that it is not being realized that in a free society the press does not work for the government.
Common sense demanded that the cartoons be seen as actually strengthening the faith of the peaceful and compassionate believers because they only targeted the terrorists and their methods. And also pointed to the perception problem that Islam faces in the world today. But instead of containing the violence, it is being sought to be spread, it is being advocated openly. During a protest rally last week in London, placards read "Massacre those who insult Islam," "Europe you will Pay, Fantastic Four are on their Way," referring to the four British-born suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London on July 7 last year. Such extremism completely overshadows the moderate voices in the Islamic community. A Jordanian editor asked Muslims to be reasonable and wrote in his editorial, "What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures - or pictures of a hostage taker slashing the throat of his victims?" He was immediately sacked.
But the fact that he stood up, risked sacking and worse, should be seen as a sign of debate and introspection that seems already underway in the not talked about private spaces. It is time to strengthen that debate. Of discussing traditions and making the point that even if the internet were to be filled with all sorts of sacrilegious and blasphemous nonsense, as any visit to any 'discussion area' of websites would readily reveal, it is no loss to the faith or the strength of the religions being maligned. Perhaps we should realise that with each such transgression, the press would gradually chip away the intolerance. Look at the post-Enlightenment Europe and the way a Passions of the Christ or a Da Vinci Code do not ruffle many feathers. Monty Python have perhaps immunised the believers from taking offence. Only because caricaturising Christianity which once led to bloody crusades has become routine.
But for now the extremists have been successful in forcing the British Government and the US State Department to repudiate the publication of these cartoons. It is ironical that the two states at the forefront of the fight to bring democracy in the Middle East have been the first to challenge the bedrock of any democratic society, freedom of expression. Islam is a dignified religion as are all others. All our religions appeal to the highest aspirations of humankind. But when we allow them to be dominated by the extremists, we do our religions and their founders greater dishonour than when we poke fun at them.
Yet, on this current controversy, the silence of the majority of those leading protests against sundry bans is deafening. Is it because if this issues comes in to the public domain, passions will start running high? Is this the fear of being threatened and bullied by the extremists? If so, it’s a sorry state of affairs. The silence of the liberal intelligentsia will be self-defeating. How would they next be able to protest if another religious group were to suddenly get up and stridently demand more bans? What if a political party's supporters started giving death-threats because their leader had been caricaturised in a cartoon?
Avoiding sensitive issues just because we don’t want to rock the boat will only lead to self-censorship without any bounds. A threat to the freedom of expression is particularly dangerous for minorities. How can my speech be free if yours is so expensive? We better start discussing it first if we want to confront it.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.