Why we need more blasphemy, not less

To all those Muslims who feel hurt and angry over the anti-Islam video, they should stop to think back to the time of their Prophet. He was one of the earliest to blaspheme against religion.

Without the Prophet’s initial blasphemy, where he entered Mecca and destroyed what he thought were false gods and mindless idolatry, there would be no Islam as we know it today.

For those who worshipped the previous gods, the Prophet was a blasphemer. For Muslims today, people who think differently about the Prophet are blasphemers.

When Jesus railed against the malpractices of the Jewish priests, he was blaspheming against the religious practices of the day. He was not even trying to create a new religion. But he was sent to the cross.

Protests against the film have erupted across the world. Reuters

Blasphemy was what the Buddha indulged in several centuries before Christ, when he criticised the Vedic religions and what they had been reduced to by narrow Brahminism. He saw no need for a god when we had reason and ethical values to guide us with independent thinking. He may not be a blasphemer in the same league as that US creator of the Islam video, but for that age he surely shocked his audiences.

The thought process of his contemporary, the Mahavira, was different, but he too went against the dominant ideas of the day to embrace a non-deistic concept based on ahimsa (non-violence). We know it as Jainism today. He was a blasphemer of sorts, too.

When Guru Nanak found both Hinduism and Islam wanting in terms of progressive ideas, he established Sikhism. Between him and Guru Gobind Singh, you can say they took a critical attitude to two established religions, even while drawing elements from both. This may not be blasphemy, but rejecting the religions you were born into is apostasy – something not too different from the purpose of blasphemy.

When Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote harshly about the “Riddles of Hinduism,” it sent shockwaves among the upper castes. But it was a necessary wake-up call to reform Hinduism. Without Ambedkar’s blasphemy, Hinduism would have died long ago.

To be sure, it has become fashionable to welcome free speech and blasphemy in some degree, but we still pander to those who are burning and killing in the name of protecting Islam or Hinduism by adding a personal disdain: “Oh, that anti-Islam video was so pathetic, so bad.”

This is what we did when Aseem Trivedi was arrested for his “seditious” cartoons. We had news channels and writers loudly proclaiming the right to free speech, and still ridiculing his cartoons. The question is not how good or bad they were, but did they try to express a thought in some way that challenges us? If it didn’t, why bother?

This, for example, is what Hillary Clinton did on the Islam video. She called the video "disgusting and reprehensible."  She said “it appears to have a deeply cynical purpose, to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage.” There was thus “no justification, none at all", for the video. As the US Secretary of State, she may have said it to defuse the powderkeg situation in the Islamic world, but it  won’t work. If you are going to defend free speech, you might as well defend it without ifs and buts.

Moreover, what would have been a better justification for the video? Would it have done less damage if it had better production values or story line? MF Husain was one of our best painters but we still managed to work up a rage over a few of his paintings.

Is it wrong to question or provoke believers in a religion, any religion?

For all those Muslims who think the anti-Islam video is a plot by crusading Christians against their religion, I would only urge them to read Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, which denounces born-again Christianity in no uncertain terms, to feel better.

For smug Hindus, who think this is all about other religions, I could recommend any number of books by Dalits castigating their religion in no uncertain terms. They are all more or less blasphemous. The ongoing efforts to organise beef festivals in various universities is part of the Dalit campaign to provoke Hindus with gastronomic blasphemy.

Hindus should be provoked enough to introspect and change.

What we all need to understand is this: to provoke, is to force someone to think and reconsider. While it is fine to get a bit angry or even protest about whatever it is that angers you, the fact is blasphemy is the basis of progress. When you challenge what you think is wrong or untruthful, you blaspheme against an existing thought process.

That is how we change for the better – never mind if the odd writer or film-maker or cartoonist produces low-quality work. It is the message, not its quality, that matters.

I invite Muslims to read Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie's memoirs, and Hindus to read AK Ramanujam's 300 Ramayanas. I invite Dalits to read Arun Shourie's Worshipping False Gods on Ambedkar. For a  slightly longer list of books that will offend someone or the other, please read this article on Firstpost. And these are hardly the most subversive or blasphemous of the lot.