Liberal silence on global free speech conflict has killed India's intellectual life
The decomposing corpses of ideas feed and sustain the toxic cesspool our intellectual and social life has become
In the Garden of Paradise, under the shade of the Tree of the Black-Eyed Damsels, the Sheikh reverently opened the quince — or pomegranate, or apple, or whatever God had willed — to find nestled inside it the girl who had been waiting for him four thousand years before the world was created. The black-eyed damsel was dazzling, but, as the Sheikh prostrated himself in gratitude, doubt crossed mind; perhaps she was just a bit skinny. In instant, she had “a behind that rivals the hills of ‘Alij, the dunes of al-Dahna’, and the sands of Yabrin and the Banu Sa’ad”.
“Thou whose awe-inspiring deeds make us feel impotent and summon to wisdom the ignorant”, the sheikh begged: “I ask Thee to reduce the bum of this damsel”.
In February 2013, a small group of men from Al-Qaeda’s Syrian front, Al-Nusra, drove into the small town of Maarat al-Numan, near the city of Aleppo, to behead the author of the blasphemous story. Al-Qaeda, though, arrived almost a thousand years too late: All the hit-squad could do was to deface a statue of the medieval writer Abu al-‘Ala Ahmad ibn ‘Abdallah al-Ma’arri, among the greatest figures of the Arabic literary canon.
The man the now-headless statue commemorates had written:
Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
One, man intelligent without religion,
The second, religious without intellect.
French history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded last week, for the crime of attempting to teach his students they were free to believe or not believe. His killer, Chechen refugee Abdoullakh Abouyezidovitch, was enraged the professor had displayed cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, published by the magazine Charlie Hebdo, in a class on debates surrounding free speech. In 2015, 12 people were killed in a jihadist attack on the magazine’s office; just in September, two more were stabbed by teenage Pakistani immigrant Zaheer Mahmoud outside the same building.
Ever since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, writers, scholars and bloggers across the world have been imprisoned or executed for the crime of blasphemy — some by the State, and others by its enemies. The struggle over the word has become the most fundamental ideological confrontation of our times.
Liberal discomfort over this war isn’t hard to see: In one notable triumph of evasion, The New York Times even succeeded in excising words like Charlie Hebdo, blasphemy, Islam and jihadism from its headline on Paty’s killing. The liberal argument runs thus: Though murder is wrong, so is gratuitous offence, particularly of a besieged religious minority. Instead, mutual respect — multiculturalism — must guide our coexistence in modern societies.
This argument is deeply misguided. Charlie Hebdo doesn’t pit one set of arbitrary beliefs against another, offering us the option of ambivalence. It is, instead, part of a much larger struggle of theocrats against Enlightenment values. Key among these values is the principle that while human beings have inalienable rights, ideas — like the divine right to rule — do not. God, like atheism, communism, capitalism or psycho-babble, must make His case.
In much for the world, this debate is being fought with a savagery that might have surprised even medieval theologians. Through West Asia, murderous authoritarians have long cloaked themselves in the robes of the pious to legitimise their rule. The jihadist campaign against blasphemers is intended to show that their Kalashnikovs can guard God better than kings and their armies.
Writing in 1994, while Algeria’s government was still seeking to appease the Islamists slaughtering intellectuals, the anthropologist Mahfoud Bennoune noted that jihadists had “induced a part of the popular classes to think that the Algerian State, which was created after an eight-year war of national liberation, is impious, and its head of state is a hypocritical tyrant and the majority of its citizens are infidels who must be re-Islamised by terror”.
Pakistan is the most egregious example of this process at work. Bowing to clerical pressure, the political establishment gave scripture a veto over the legislature’s working in 1956. In subsequent years, ever more concessions were made to the religious right. Today, the country is on the edge of the theocratic abyss, with clerics now riding the donkey cart the military had once recruited them to pull.
Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, fearful of a restive youth population easily seduced by jihadists, appeases its clerics by punishing apostates and blasphemers — the latest case that of Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes for critical commentary on religion. In Malaysia, Christians may no longer call their god Allah, a word all communities there have used for centuries.
In India, State-supported multiculturalism has brought about the annihilation of the discomfiting questions any society must ask if it is to find its way out of crisis. Today, it is impossible to even conceive of a sensible undergraduate seminar on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to DN Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow or Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, Maxime Rodinson’s Muhammad and Reza Aslan’s Zealot.
Instead, we are are left with a nation where the prosecution of public figures for legitimate criticisms of religion — or merely hurting someone’s roseate self-image — have become routine, abetted by both the criminal justice system and the political class.
Like Indian communalists, Indian multiculturalists seem incapable of seeing Muslims other than through what Maxime Rodinson called a theologocentric lens — the notion that the existence of believers is made up of their faith, and by faith alone. Yet, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and the West, it is Muslims who spearhead resistance to god’s gunmen. Even in France, vastly more Muslims serve their security services than the jihadists.
For many progressives in West Asia, multiculturalism smacks of the racism it decries. Lebanese-born architect Karl Sharro has suggested the multiculturalists are guilty of “essentially suggesting that Muslims are incapable of responding rationally”. Though “dressed up in the language of social justice and marginalisation”, he writes, this is “a patronising view of ordinary Muslims and their capacity to advocate for their rights without resorting to nihilistic violence”.
In response, multiculturalists would argue that Charlie Hebdo incited racism, not republican resistance. This fashionable argument, though, rests on weak empirical ground. In one cartoon recruited to their cause, the women slaves captured by Boko Haram are shown pregnant, demanding their welfare benefits. The cartoon, claimed to denigrate the slaves, in fact attacks France’s right-wing, mocking its claims that refugees were benefit-seeking “welfare queens”.
Christiane Taubira, a Black French minister represented as a monkey in one Charlie cartoon used by multiculturalists to press their racism case, has come out strongly in defence of the magazine — understanding, as Anglophone liberals did not, that the image caricatured attacks on her by the reactionary National Front. It is no surprise that Charlie’s anniversary issue, marking the 2015 murder of its cartoonists, assailed God head on: “the assassin is still at large”, it read.
In essence, Charlie Hebdo draws on a long European tradition of raucous satire, which now have a venerated place in the literary canon. Jonathan Swift, after all, assailed the English Parliament by calling on its members to “toast Old Glorious in your piss”. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale has the teenage Alison cuckolding her aged husband with a young lover — and sticking her rear end out of a window for an unlucky admirer to kiss.
Fanatics resist free speech precisely because of its power it upends the conventions which condition our understanding, shocking us into seeing the world differently. Arshad Mehmoud, the father of Zaheer Mahmoud, expressed delight his son had killed innocents in cold blood: “the one who kills those who commit blasphemy against the prophet enter paradise”. Al-Ma’arri invites us, instead, to contemplate the bizarre fantasies that underpin of our conception of heaven and hell.
The multiculturalist argument has proved seductive to liberals precisely because it permits what the Germans call kadavergehorsamkeit, the silence of corpses. Eliding over the many deep conflicts of values and beliefs that sunder Indian society appears to hold out at least the promise of peace; the murder of our intellectual life seems a small price to pay.
Liberal silence on free speech, though, hasn’t brought peace. It has, instead, empowered and entrenched the most reactionary elements in our society, and leeched India of its ability to listen with an open mind to ideas that provoke, confront and, yes, shock. The decomposing corpses of ideas feed and sustain the toxic cesspool our intellectual and social life has become.
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