The hypocrisy of free speech champions

The general perception, even amongst people who don’t see themselves as Islamophobes, is that Islam is obscurantist and medieval. What was once progressive no longer applies to the 21st century. Of course, this is true of most religions. But believers in religion X find it hard to grasp that religion Y or B or W has peculiarities which mirror its own. That is, religion X and religion W can both be absurd and abysmal even if they bring some believers joy.

A man holds up a placard reading “I am Nigerian, stop Boko Haram” at a gathering in Paris. The killings of thousands by the Islamist terror (and horror) group Boko Haram in Nigeria, even as the Charlie Hebdo attacks were taking place, saw comparatively little media time or collective outrage.  Pic/AFP
A man holds up a placard reading “I am Nigerian, stop Boko Haram” at a gathering in Paris. The killings of thousands by the Islamist terror (and horror) group Boko Haram in Nigeria, even as the Charlie Hebdo attacks were taking place, saw comparatively little media time or collective outrage.  Pic/AFP

So while the world is focused on Islam, here in India we are looking at our own ways to “combat” this threat posed by Islam and other religions. Hindus should have 10 children each, says Pravin Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Council. This way, presumably, Hindus will soon dominate the world. Indians already comprise one-sixth of the world’s population but why not a few million more Hindus to really improve those figures? The unwritten text here is to increase the Hindu population to deal with the presumed problem of more Muslims, Christians and so on.

Togadia however is most likely fighting a tough battle for the “I am the best Hindu” contest currently ongoing in various factions of the Sangh Parivar. He has to best BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj who feels Hindu women should have four children though that figure has been revised to three and/or five apparently. Sakshi Maharaj also feels that all non-Hindu Indians should re-convert to Hinduism. The battle for numbers is serious.

The attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo has led to an intense focus on Islam once again. But as the support for freedom of expression has died down, several voices have spoken out against the right to offend. These have been religious voices, very often. So while everyone is careful not to condone violence, there is sympathy amongst Christians, Jews and others for those Muslims who feel that Charlie Hebdo went too far in its satirical attacks on Islam and the its tenets.

But the same or similar voices, especially leaders of the democratic western world, find themselves stuck when it comes to open attacks on free speech by, say, Saudi Arabia. Blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes last year for daring to criticise Islamic clerics. Intellectuals and the general public may have protested but we saw no statements from Barack Obama or David Cameron either condemning Saudi Arabia or defending Badawi or indeed lecturing the rest of the world on “our way of life” being threatened. At the risk of being cynical, ‘he who has oil does not threaten my way of life’ is a safe western democratic principle.

The complications of life in the Middle East are too much for many of us to understand however, no less the hypocrisy of the politics of western democracies. The killings of thousands by the Islamist terror (and horror) group Boko Haram in Nigeria, even as the Charlie Hebdo attacks were taking place, saw comparatively little media time or collective outrage. Is it fair to say that the machinations of Europe in Africa mean that the lives of Nigerians cost a bit less than the lives of the French? Or is that terribly, unconscionably nasty?

And if there is hypocrisy, there is little chance that India will be far behind. Members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh have harassed and threatened and made life impossible for Tamil writer Perumal Murugan and his family after his novel Madhorubhagan was translated into English. The book is about a childless couple in the last century and a myth about consensual sex during a temple festival. The RSS in Tamil Nadu felt that the book was against Indian culture and made burning the book part of their campaign. Murugan issued a moving statement on Facebook saying “The writer Perumal Murugan is dead”.

Obviously, most of the Indian champions of free speech when it came to Charlie Hebdo (anti-Islam) were silent when it came to Murugan (perceived as anti-Hindu). It was left to the same old group, usually branded as leftist, liberal and other Hindutva terms of abuse, to stand up for Murugan.

At the end of it all, if there is any solace for writers, thinkers, cartoonists, film-makers, photographers, artists, it is that bigots of all colours fear their creativity so much. Or is that any sort of solace at all, when you consider that the battle has to be fought alone?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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2 Comments

  • Reuben Jadhav21-Jan-2015

    Increasingly the epicenter of governance has shifted to nagpur from delhi, if the embolden utterances of the fringe elements are anything to go by. These guardians of Indian culture and civilization are hurtling us back to the Stone Age notwithstanding the MOM success. If this trend goes unchecked the future is indeed bleak.

  • O H21-Jan-2015

    How conveniently you ignore the massacre of innocents in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria by Western forces

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