The recent violence over an anti-Islam film is part of a wider clash with the idea of the modern republic
Last month, two men stood on a Mumbai sidewalk, holding up posters to a furious mob that was demanding a ban on a movie said to have blasphemed against the Prophet. The counter-protesters’ hand-written placards had some simple advice: “Don’t watch it”. For their pains, the men were threatened and then roughed up.
Familiar with the story? Probably not. The counter-protesters go by the name of Dileep D’Souza and Naresh Fernandes. The protesters were pious Bandra boys — not the Kalashnikov-waving Muslims who have ably helped television stations rake it in these past weeks. The film in question was Kamaal Dhamaal Malamaal, a Bollywood flop that appalled the faithful because, according to the Vatican news agency Agenzia Fides, “a priest is portrayed as a lottery maniac”. The church withdrew its objections after cuts were made; to no one’s surprise, the Mumbai Police hasn’t been falling over itself to prosecute the assailants.
India’s outrage industry has had a busy few weeks. The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee has threatened to seek a ban on Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s new book, which includes “a hairy man-woman” Sikh character. Hindu priest Rajan Zed, tireless in his pursuit of publicity, has held out dark warnings about Kevin Lima’s forthcoming Mumbai Musical, which tells the Ramayana from the point of view of monkeys.
Large swathes of tropical forest have been expended, in recent weeks, to printing commentary seeking to explain “Muslim rage” — the wave of anger that is purported to have gripped believers from North Africa to Indonesia, because of the release of the crude anti-Islam film, The Innocence of Muslims.
From an Indian optic, as this autumn’s epidemic outbreak of clerical madness demonstrates, it is far from clear that the problem is centred around either Muslims or rage. There is a far larger crisis unfolding in what used to be called the Third World, a breakdown of the modernist project that has empowered a variety of politics based around narrow ethnic and religious identities.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of “Muslim rage” is the absence of evidence that it exists; that is, as a force that shapes the political actions of believers, as opposed to a propagandistic tool useful to Islamic neoconservatives, anti-Islam bigots and confused liberals alike. The Innocence mobilisation was propelled, in each case, by reactionary politics, not spontaneous outrage. In Egypt, competition between establishmentarian and revolutionary Islamists, combined with anti-police hooliganism, fanned the riots; in Libya, warlords sought religious legitimacy; in Pakistan, the vanguard was made up of jihadists backed by the military establishment to undermine the civilian order. The bulk of the 23 people reported killed in Pakistan died at the hands of riot police; their targets in Karachi included liquor stores.
Yet, the Innocence violence is hardly exceptional. Ethnic and religious conflicts routinely claim a far larger toll of lives on a regular basis: Sri Lanka’s Buddhist chauvinists, Indian Hindutva groups, and African ethnic groups all have records rivalling the Islamists. Many of these movements have been as successful as the Islamists in transcending geography. The malaise cannot therefore be seen as something intrinsic to what is carelessly called “the Muslim world”; there are larger forces at work here.
In 2002, the British Marxist, Kenan Malik, shocked many with this proposition: “all cultures are not equal”. The real crisis flagged by 9/11, he argued, was not the rise of religious fundamentalism; it was instead growing liberal pessimism about the prospect of a better world. Mr. Malik argued that “scientific method, democratic politics, the concept of universal values — these are palpably better concepts than those that existed previously, or those that exist now in other political and cultural traditions”. These ideas, he went on, were “western”— but emerged there not “because Europeans are a superior people, but because out of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution flowed superior ideas.”
Post-colonial radicals of an earlier generation would, more likely than not, have been entirely comfortable with this argument. The radical C.L.R. James, Mr. Malik noted, condemned imperialism, but applauded “the learning and profound discoveries of [the] western civilisation.”
Frantz Fanon, despite his trenchant criticism of colonialism, conceded that “the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought”.
Precisely these emancipatory ideas guided the great tide of change that swept nationalists to power across the world in the middle of the last century. In a magnificent speech now available online, Egypt’s former President Gamal Abdel Nasser recalled that the Muslim Brotherhood had offered peace in 1953 — if only the government made women wear the tarha, or headscarf. Nasser’s audience laughed uproariously at what then seemed surreal; “let him wear one”, a man shouted.
Begum Akbar Jehan Abdullah, the wife of the Kashmiri politician, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, urged women to leave purdah; her successors, like the People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti, cannot but seem to endorse it. Jawaharlal Nehru’s atheism; Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s savage attacks on caste: these are almost inconceivable for a modern Indian politician.
No great insight is needed into why this retreat came apart — and the religious right became resurgent. Post-colonial societies have been through an extraordinary ripping-apart of their cultural fabric over the past century and more. “English steam and English free trade,” as Karl Marx noted in his now unfashionable but remarkable 1853 essay on colonial India, had produced a social revolution; post-colonial industrialisation and neoliberalism have accentuated it. In the context of countries like Egypt, Libya and Pakistan, authoritarianism, and its opportunistic alliances with religion, further de-legitimised the secular-nationalist project.
Large doses of metropolitan liberalism, as well as establishmentarian politicians, have confused the inequities of capitalism with the modernist project itself — thus legitimising, as scholars like Meera Nanda have pointed out, the worst kinds of political reaction which emerged out of the post-colonial crisis. Instead of building a political vocabulary based on citizenship, the republic degenerated into a series of political claims based on identity. Not giving offence to these identities was valorised as a means of engaging with the tide of hate washing across India. The defenders of M.F. Husain, for example, were compelled to argue that his paintings were deeply respectful of the Hindu tradition — not that he was entitled to offend who he chose.
Veto over intellectual life
Ever since the 1970s, Indian ethnic and religious reactionaries have thus come to enjoy a veto over India’s intellectual life. The Hindu’s Hasan Suroor has ably documented the huge volume of literature and knowledge, from Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana to James Laine’s Shivaji or the anonymously-authored al-Furqan al-Haqq. It is hard to imagine that a mainstream press would today publish a popular version of D.N. Jha’s work on beef-eating in Vedic India, or Maxime Rodinson’s speculations on the roots of prophetic revelation in epileptic disorders. Each of these acts of censorship represents an act of assault on critical inquiry.
The triumph of this vicious anti-politics has been to comprehensively shape our political imagination and language. There are closer affinities between the upmarket metropolitan liberals who coo over handicrafts and the aesthetic world of the communal terrorist than we care to acknowledge.
Lucius Seneca, the great stoic philosopher and statesman, spoke of the perils of the poisonous culture we find ourselves mired in. He pointed, wryly, to a populace which, “defending its own iniquity, pits itself against reason”. The relentless march of unreason, he went on, meant “a mistake that has been passed on from hand to hand finally involves us and works our destruction. It is the example of other people that is our undoing”.
India desperately needs a new modernist project — not the backward-looking search for authenticity which has so impoverished our public life. This ought to be the real lesson of the Innocence riots, though such reflection is improbable; there have been no shortage of opportunities to awake, and none of those was heeded.