Shireen Dalvi and Charlie Hebdo: Why the intolerant prey on the vulnerable

The travails of Shireen Dalvi, the Mumbai editor of Urdu daily Avadhnama who reproduced one cartoon from French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, are symptomatic of how far we have come from commonsense tolerance and a willingness to accept criticism.

Our fragile sense of self-esteem and prickliness about every slight, real or imagined, is crying out for national attention.

Soon after Dalvi published the cartoon, she was arrested by the Thane police for offending religious sentiments. No less than six police complaints were registered against her. And now, after being released on bail, she goes around in a burkha to avoid being recognised by members of her angry community. Shireen, a Muslim herself, and a widow with two children, is a professional journalist with over 20 years’ experience and can hardly be accused of Islamophobia of any kind. (Read her first person story here).

The sum and substance of what she did was simple: she published a cover of Charlie Hebdo. As Shireen tells it, she published it because the accompanying story was about the higher print run of this edition of Charlie Hebdo after the killings. When it upset some elements in her community, she apologised quickly. But to no avail.

Let us understand that this is not just a freedom of speech (FoS) issue. In diverse India, there are simply too many people and communities with a sense of victimhood to ignore. So, this writer would certainly not go around publishing offensive stuff just to prove a point about FoS, as many publications, including some in India, did, after the Charlie Hebdo killings.

Only people with a lot of self-confidence can take criticism or the Charlie Hebdo kind of critique in their stride. Our liberals will be the first ones to run away from this issue if it ever surfaces in India. So unnecessary provocation and foolish bravado is not something one would recommend.

So the best nuanced position to take in India is to defend the right of anyone to offend, but not recommend offense as a sensible policy in the short run.

However, the Shireen Dalvi affair is different. She could hardly be said to have offended anyone deliberately. She needs all the support of civil society and liberals precisely because she is not a routine offender bent on provocation. Kowtowing to the offence-mongers would be a defeat not just for liberalism, but humanity.

 Shireen Dalvi and Charlie Hebdo: Why the intolerant prey on the vulnerable

The cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine

But it is worth making a larger point, too.

What this episode proves is that intolerance is initially practiced mostly against the extremely vulnerable. Whether it is the beheading of western media persons by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the massacre of defenceless women and children by Boko Haram in Nigeria, or the killings of school children in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban, or the stalling of films and books by militants claiming to represent the sentiments of varied religions (Vishwaroopam, Da Vinci Code, PK, MSG, etc), the power of intolerance is being projected and deliberately used largely against the weak. (I include rich producers of films among the vulnerable for the simple reason that if you block films, commercial failure can ruin any producer. Media persons too get killed in conflict zones merely for reporting events.)

We need to understand what is at work here.

First, since the vulnerable can’t easily fight back (consider the Jews in Hitler’s Germany), violence against them serves the purposes of bullies best. The killings ensure that other, bolder segments, also get the message and duly restrain and censor themselves. Even the bold get frightened once the capacity for violence has been demonstrated against the weak. In India, no government, bureaucracy, or even the police has shown the willingness to confront bullies. Taslima Nasreen, Perumal Murugan and Khushboo are only some of the recent examples of people who had to fight their battles all alone for “crimes” merely involving the writing of books or articles (or even expressing views) against patriarchy.

Second, violence (if unchecked) always pays. Pakistan-backed jihadis needed to kill and rape only a few hundred Pandits in the late 1980s to ethnically cleanse half a million of them out of the Kashmir Valley. Similarly, it needed ISIS to behead only four or five journalists to ensure that all media in the vulnerable zones to fall silent. It needed only around 20 committed plane crashers to kill thousands on 9/11, and lead America to war and economic ruin. The power of terrorism always costs the victims more than the victimisers. This reality cannot be changed.

Third, those in the media who can’t understand why ISIS or Boko Haram would want to court high unpopularity by mindless massacres of the weak are missing the point. We Indians simply don’t get it. Every Abrahamic religion has at, some point or the other in its growth trajectory, used extreme force to establish, consolidate and expand its political and religious footprint. Once hegemony is established, it can adopt a more benign face.

This is precisely why an ISIS or al-Qaeda or Boko Haram make it a point to showcase all their atrocities on social media so that they can project power and demand acquiescence from the frightened. This is why ISIS released a gory video of the Jordanian pilot who was burnt alive last month.

While ordinary people recoil from such horrifying brutalities, this demonstration of the power of destruction is precisely what attracts more recruits to the ISIS cause. The fact that just a few people can cause so much damage is strangely empowering to isolated and angry individuals.

There are no clear answers to the reality of brute power and terrorism. Unleashing violence against jihadi organisations usually ends up hurting others who may merely be in the way. This, in turn, generates more cries of victimhood and recruits for violent ideologies.

A defensive strategy to protect those who can be protected, a proactive gathering of intelligence to pre-empt violent acts, and sustained public propaganda against violent ideologies are the only long-term answer to this problem of terror and extreme intolerance.

As for Shireen Dalvi, liberals must speak out, but it is sensible Muslims who must do so first and come to her rescue. She needs rehabilitation in her community, not just protection in some isolated place. Other people making Dalvi their cause can only harm her real interests.

Updated Date: Feb 04, 2015 17:38:37 IST