Anything that moves

Even Indian liberals don't really support truly free expression

Many questioned the need to publish cartoons of prophet Muhammad.

In the course of its long history, India has supported free speech for precisely 17 months. The brief burst of freedom began with the coming into effect of India’s Constitution on January 26, 1950, and ended with the enactment on June 18, 1951, of the first amendment, which placed several restrictions on expression.

In the succeeding decades, we have developed into one of the most illiberal parliamentary democracies in the world. There is little appetite even among the intelligentsia to support truly free expression. Two examples stand out in my mind in this regard: the poet Nissim Ezekiel’s support for a ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, though PEN International, whose Indian chapter Ezekiel headed, includes among its major goals the fight for free speech. And Arundhati Roy’s effort to prevent the release in India of Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. Even Supreme Court justices in India betray an arbitrariness about basic principles of freedom. Everything Indians say about the Charlie Hebdo affair, then, is purely academic, with no conceivable application to our own situation.

A number of liberals, even as they condemned the Paris massacre, questioned Charlie Hebdo’s publications of cartoons of Muhammad. Among this group was Joe Sacco, a cartoonist himself, and one I greatly admire. He made his argument in the form of a comic strip, which sets out the position of the group very precisely.

Sacco’s critique of Charlie Hebdo is based on two ideas. First, that the pictures are prejudiced, and second that supporters of the weekly ignore the larger international political context. Sacco sketches a monkey-like black man and a money-grubbing Jew to illustrate his point about bias, and uses the infamous photograph of a hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib as shorthand for atrocities committed by the West in the Muslim world. This, he indicates, provides a framework within which to “think about why the world is the way it is, and what it is about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image”.

Roots of intolerance

Let me deal first with the idea that Muslim outrage results from the contemporary political context. I would believe it if a counter-example were given of similar images being created somewhere in the world at some other point in history without giving rise to protest. If no such example can be provided, and I have seen no indication that it can, it is difficult to explain the violent reaction to the Charlie Hebdo pictures, and to the Danish cartoons of a decade ago, solely in terms of modern-day politics.

Of course, contemporary context matters: the undermining of the idea of the nation-state in the age of globalisation, and changes in the dissemination of information brought about by the Web are crucially important. But globalisation and the internet could only spur the growth of pan-Islamism because the idea of the ummah has been persistent within Islam for 1,400 years. Globalisation hasn’t inspired Indian Hindus to make common cause with their co-religionists in Fiji, Guyana and Bali, after all. Even the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka has remained an ethno-linguistic one, and never become a religious issue in which non-Tamil Indians took sides as Hindus against Sinhalese Buddhists. If men of Pakistani origin in Britain, or Caucasian origin in the United States, or Algerian origin in France, turn against civilians in their own countries because of events in Palestine, Iraq, or Afghanistan, that tells us something crucial about the nature of Islam itself.

I disagree also with the idea that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons display anti-Muslim prejudice, or Islamophobia. To understand why, one must first make a distinction between race and religion. Race, or ethnicity, is something people are born with, and is unalterable. It is, in other words, part of a person’s being. Religion, on the other hand, is a set of ideas and practices, which are learned, and can be rejected and discarded. Satirising or criticising an ethnic group is fundamentally different from satirising a religion or any practice associated with a religion. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons deemed most offensive had nothing to do with Muslims in the way Joe Sacco’s two images have to do with Africans and Jews. They had everything to do with the religion of Islam. As this series of covers shows, the magazine lampooned Christianity as brutally as it did Islam, or even more so if you consider cover number 5 which depicts Jesus sodomising God.

Questioning and even mocking deeply held beliefs is the very essence of liberal society. As such, Charlie Hebdo was and is a beacon for freedom, and not in any way an exemplar of racist prejudice. Commentators have pointed to the sacking of a Charlie Hebdo employee who made anti-semitic remarks as an indicator of double-standards, but it just shows the magazine made a distinction between critiquing Judaism, and Israel (both of which it did), and demonstrating prejudice against Jews as an ethnic group.

Breaking a taboo

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons caused outrage because they broke the taboo against depictions of Islam’s prophet. There is nothing in the Quran that proscribes such images. It is a tradition that emerged from the actions and words of Muhammad himself. The fundamental idea behind the taboo is that images tend to become idols, detracting from the worship of Allah, who is the only true god, and whose form is unknowable. Islam’s dislike of idols is at the root of an iconoclastic tradition that stretches from the destruction of pagan figurines in the Kaaba by Muhammad himself to contemporary acts of vandalism by the Saudi regime, and the Taliban government’s dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas (it is worth remembering that those monumental statues were damaged and defaced in the course of at least four separate assaults in previous centuries, so any contemporary political context is insufficient explanation in itself for the Taliban’s dreadful act).

The prophet of the Quran is a special but fallible human being. The Muhammad who has become central to Islam over the centuries is an infallible, sinless, man who experiences miracles like journeying to heaven on a horse-like steed. His sayings and deeds, compiled decades after his death, are central to Islamic jurisprudence.  Relics of Muhammad are treated very much like relics of the Buddha or of Christ. The Hazratbal mosque in Kashmir is famous for holding a strand of the prophet’s hair, and the Shrine of the Cloak in Kandahar is a pilgrimage site because it possesses a garment supposedly worn by him. This cloak was donned by Mullah Omar, chief of the iconoclastic Taliban, in front of a hysterical crowd which then proclaimed him Commander of the Faithful. It is difficult to reconcile all these facts with the picture of Muhammad as a mere human being. Certainly, he is a dearer and more sacred figure for Muslims than most gods are for Hindus.

The irony contained in the response to the Charlie Hebdo images is that the cartoons do not transgress the original impulse behind the taboo against depictions of Muhammad. Far from being potential idols, they serve an opposite function: they desacralise a figure who has become for all intents and purposes an object of worship, idolised without physical idols. Today, the taboo on portraying the prophet serves to preserve his aura, while making cartoons of him removes it, and deconsecrates him.

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