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Is Religion Above Criticism?

by Vidyadhar Gadgil, 23 February 2009

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Herald, 20 February 2009

When journalist Johann Hari wrote an opinion article in The Independent,
UK, titled ‘Why should I respect these oppressive religions?’, lamenting
the ever-shrinking freedom to discuss religion openly and critically, he
could hardly have imagined that his article would itself become an
example of the suppression of this freedom, but that is exactly what
happened. The Statesman, Calcutta, reprinted this article a week after
its original appearance in the UK. Taking offence over some remarks made
in the article that they said insulted their religion and the Prophet
Mohammed, a group of Muslims surrounded Statesman’s office and brought
parts of central Calcutta to a standstill. After a virtual siege for
five days, with a number of incidents of violence, the Government of
West Bengal predictably succumbed, and arrested the publisher and editor
of the newspaper.

In the article, Hari began by bemoaning the fact that “the right to
criticise religion is being doused in acid” and went on to criticise the
changes in the role of the UN’s Rapporteur on Human Rights, whereby this
historical guardian of free speech has now been given the job of
suppressing it. Hari then listed various abuses perpetrated in the name
of religion, and pointed out that attempts to set religion above and
beyond criticism are against all the tenets of a free society.
The reaction against this article is, at first sight, difficult to
explain. Yes, it criticises religion in general. It also attacks the
specific beliefs and practices of a wide variety of religions, including
Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. It could be faulted for being
particularly harsh on Islamic beliefs and practices, and while this may
be condemned as being politically incorrect, it is hardly something
unprecedented or criminal, and comes well within the right to freedom of
expression. As Hari points out at the end of his article, “A free
society…is based on a deal. You have an absolute right to voice your
beliefs – but the price is that I too have a right to respond as I wish.”
But the reaction to this article is not all that strange if one locates
it within the historical continuum of the past quarter century or so,
where the purveyors of religion have become increasingly intolerant of
criticism. The most dramatic episode was the fatwa issued against
Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which led to Rushdie having to live under
police protection in hiding for 10 years. After that we have had a
series of episodes where spokespersons of various religions have seen
fit to take action against portrayals of their religions by artists and
by the media which they do not like. They have not confined themselves
to speaking out against these portrayals, as it is their right to do,
but have sometimes exhorted their followers to respond violently, and
have put pressure on the State to act beyond the law to suppress such
dissenting views.

In India, we have had numerous such examples. The Rushdie issue never
became a big problem in India, because the Indian government banned The
Satanic Verses even before it could be released. But the Bangladeshi
writer Taslima Nasrin has had meetings where she was speaking being
attacked, and violence on the streets of Calcutta in protest against
allegedly unsympathetic portrayals of Islam in her writings. She has
been hounded out of Calcutta and is currently an exile without a home.
Painter M F Husain has long been in the firing line of the Sangh Parivar
for his allegedly offensive portrayal of Hindu gods and goddesses, and
this nonagenarian is forced to live as an exile in Dubai. The release of
the film The Da Vinci Code led to protests across the country, with some
states – including Goa – actually banning the film.

As we can see, fragile sentiments and consequent over-reactions are not
the exclusive preserve of any one religion. Fundamentalist elements
within every faith are ever ready to seek some free publicity by taking
offence at the slightest pretext. And they usually find compliant
politicians who are ready to play their games for them. While this is
disturbing, it is not the most worrisome part of the phenomenon – after
all, such groups are what they are and they do what they do, and trying
to reason with them is an exercise in futility.

It is the reaction of the state that gives rise for concern. Governments
in India, both at the state and centre, almost always obligingly respond
with bans or by acting against the artists and journalists alleged to
have caused the offence. Almost never do we see them rising up in
defence of the freedom of expression. Concerns of ‘law and order’ are
invoked, even when there is no credible threat, as we saw in Goa when
the Government of Goa and the Directorate of Film Festivals hastened to
withdraw an award-winning M F Husain film from IFFI-2008 on the basis of
a letter received from a fringe group called the Hindu Janajagruti
Samiti, or when the Da Vinci Code was banned. And such an approach is
not the exclusive preserve of right-wing governments – it was the
‘secular’, leftist government of West Bengal which, instead of
protecting Taslima Nasrin, bundled her out of Calcutta.

Similarly, civil society groups, irrespective of their ideological
predilections, fail to take uncompromising stands on this issue.
Right-wing groups, of course, abhor concepts like freedom of expression.
But even the Left, taking cover under dubious concepts like
‘multiculturalism’, ends up being ambivalent on the issue. We saw this
in the case of the Danish cartoons, where we had reams of Leftist
critique about how culturally insensitive the cartoons were and how they
were stereotyping Muslims. This is true. Nobody disputes it. But there
is another side to the story that very few commentators had the courage
to talk about. All said and done, these were just a bunch of cartoons.
Wouldn’t suppressing their publication have been a gross violation of
the right to freedom of expression?

Another major problem created by the increased stridency of religion is
the curbs it imposes on artists and the media. Rather than face serious
problems, the tendency is to take the easy way out by imposing
self-censorship. The media has become paranoid about anything that may
hurt religious sentiments, and many things that need to be said are
therefore swept under the carpet. Artists pussyfoot around religious
sensibilities and are chary of any form of artistic expression that can
be seen as a criticism of religion. It was no less a personality than
Khushwant Singh who recommended to Penguin India that The Satanic Verses not be published in India.

Religion is just one of the many aspects of the human condition, and it
has varying degrees of importance in people’s lives. As something that
has a major impact on society, it must be subject to at least the same
standards of criticism, analysis and interpretation that other aspects
of life are subject to. History shows us that when religion sets itself
up as above and beyond criticism, it becomes a tool of oppression. This
is a lesson that we ignore at our own peril, particularly in our
troubled times, where the agents of religion seek to dictate to us how
society and the state should be run.