Opinion » Lead

Updated: October 8, 2012 08:57 IST

Using hate to challenge modernism

Praveen Swami
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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.

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People are asked to respect right to freedom of expression of an individual no matter what the content and intent of his/her speech be.I as an individual should have no problems with the right to freedom of expression of others.However,if my freedom becomes a cause of concern for others I think my right to freedom of expression ceases to be a genuine right as I have violated others rights to be themselves.It is my birth right to listen to music,but if my TV or Radio or Tape Recorder is on such a high volume that others in my neighbourhood can not sleep or study,my right to listen to busic ceases to be a right.Freedom is freedom when it is balanced and not harmful for others.The Muslim rege,so to speak,as showm on TVs and depicted in newspapers has become a fine product for people to sell in the Market.If there is really a democratic country like America that respects the freedom of other people,then please tell them to stop this anti-Islam and anti-Muslim representational campaign.

from:  Ameen Fayaz
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 10:55 IST

Being offended by desecration of a sentimental belief is one thing. Reacting against it in a violent way is the unacceptable response. One can raise the outrage,disappointment and hurt by any peaceful, yet strong manner. Unless one sees that side of the story is what becomes the problem,one may want to bundle the number of reactionaries into one group and that is an error in judgement.

from:  Saratchandran
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 05:49 IST

looks like most of us are missing the point...the author is arguing for a renaissance movement in India.. ig you have time try to look up the free steam free trade article on India by Karl Marx...wonderful piece of thoughtful writing...

from:  kannan
Posted on: Oct 7, 2012 at 13:22 IST

Do you think, the absolute freedom of speech is possible in india or
any other underdeveloped or developing world ???? now some radical
groups in west also compelling and running huge rallies or riots to
stop absolute freedom of speech .... .......

if there is no Freedom of speech that means there is no
freedom.....there is no respectable law ( neutral law ....)

"Ism"s are now trying to build again "a deep black age".....

from:  Ianjoe
Posted on: Oct 7, 2012 at 10:22 IST

Observations made in the article are genuine, true and very intelligent.
The solutions provided are not though, at some level every individual
needs to reinvent his identity in terms of what he believes in, and what
parameters he feels his existence to be justified in. In this pursuit,
more likely than not the traditional values of one's family, country and
religion will be called upon. Only when this reinvention is amalgamated
into the fabric of the modernistic project, that the writer so prudently
talks about can the true modernistic and tolerant society developed.

from:  Harshvardhan Hemant Samvatsar
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 15:30 IST

I would like to copy Salman Rushdie's words "No one has a right not to be offended." I am offended whenever someone demands a ban on a book or a film or a song or anything else. That does not mean that I justify physical attacks on protestors when they do not breach the law.I hope they reciprocate.

from:  Sanket
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 15:25 IST

The article is thought provoking. It is necessary that the fundamentalists are not allowed to veto the voices of reason. But in India, different standards are used for different communities. There is shameless dishonesty in the way our intelligentsia deals with the controversies relating to a particular community. Unprovoked and disproportionate violence and hatred by that community is overlooked giving impression to others that any act of fundamentalism by that community is acceptable to the intelligentsia and the media. Unless the strategy of 'name and shame' is adopted to discourage such elements without any consideration of votebank politics, the situation will never improve. Fundamentalism of one community and its endorsement by a 'silent' intelligentsia gives rise to fundamentalism in other communities.

from:  Sunil Bajpai
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 14:33 IST

Whatsoever, the intention behind making this film has been succeeded. It is very easy to trigger the conservatives into street protests and violence. Reasons can be anything like religion, nationalism, language, culture, whatever it can be, what good it will bring with protests, bandh or violence, unless your intention is not safeguarding your sentiments. The enemy is within, do not search outside.

from:  Praveen
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 13:00 IST

I will be not surprised, if tomorrow, someone Saviour of religion(as he
himself thinks)will protest against this article too.

from:  Anil kumar
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 12:17 IST

Religion and culture are the pillars of our existence.We have always
reference of do and don't from our religion only.But religion is a
thought school and covers only a specific portion of people.In that
way many religion exists with many view points for living life.But
when it comes to the interference of these view points the defame of
one or other happens because of the superiority of the values on one
circle.And this is happening around us these days in many groups.The
protest is ostensible but this will lead to conflicts is the
sole responsibility of the intellectuals who are involving in such
acts not to play with the religious sentiments of the people.
Kenan Malik said that all religion is not equal but they are supreme
in their own circle and the third world activity of nodgeing in to
other religion will give rise to more and more hatred among
people.This is not good for the global peace and stability.In 1945 it
was power game now it is religion.

from:  Mayank Kanga
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 11:17 IST

It is very true indeed that religious intolerism has become
widespread. I feel that that there are couple of reasons for it. One
is lack of faith or loss of faith in the ruling class. As the common
man sees large scale corruption both in gouvernment and corporate
world, he has no one to turn to except god. This gullibility is
exploited by fundamentalists on either side (if two religion is
involved) to further promote their agenda and beleif and to promote
strife and insecurity.
Secondly, I feel strongly that fundamentalist elements have penetrated
the high offices of religious institutions and are propogating wrong
ideas. They have become very intolerant to an extent that they might
target individuals seamlessly if he/she does not fall in line. This
situation has come about due to non-participation of liberal voices in
building religion and religious institutions. It is high time that
liberals participate actively in religious activities and throw out
the fundametalist elements.

from:  Patrick David
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 11:10 IST

One doesn't necessarily have to believe in a god or a prophet, but
one doesn't have the right to ridicule those who believe. As the wise
man said, "Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins." I
am an atheist but that film's trailer brought out the blood in
me.But,I am shocked and surprised to see the muslim react to something
as disgrace,as this film that has been produced by one single or
probably a handful of coptic christians. This is not something other
non muslim people support of endorse.However by acting in such a
violent way the muslims are providing credibility to the world opinion
that they are fanatics, above all they dont have a confidence in their
own religion. Otherwise they would have fought back in a more peaceful
and sensible manner.

from:  Viswateja
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 10:09 IST

I am not against Liberalism or Free Speech. But do they have a perimeter within which it should be exercised. Today in the west if you make a statement against Holocaust say anything against the Jews, you stand as a condemned person. The full force of law enforcement will be lashed out at you. It is becoming clear now that the right to free speech was introduced with a hidden purpose and that is that if some one attacks you or your actions you can ask for protection. But if you want to provoke anger into others then you are free to do so under the clause of free speech. Fairness in a society of humans can make it in harmonious and peaceful. And fairness means that limits of free speech must be clearly defined. I may mention here that Muslims living in India should adopt the same principal when observing Eid al Adha by avoiding to provoke their Hindu neighbors when offering Qurbani. Allah knows ones' intentions. He will never accept the offering if laced with provocation against others.

from:  A. khan
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 08:50 IST

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the fact of the matter is that ALL innovations and advances in science, technology, human values, scientific methods, our understanding of governmance, morality, law and justice have come from the Western world. Some developing countries, such as India, have tried to adopt them without changing their population's basic mindset and education, and it is tearing the ancient culture apart. Other countries, such as the radical islamic countries, open rebel against them while using them when convenient to attack the West. ALL countries will do well to acknowledge that the only ideas worth following are the Western ideas and ideals and stop trying to resist them. Instead we should study, learn and embrace those ideas whole heartedly. Otherwise there is no hope for any sustained progress.

from:  K. Raghunathan
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 07:54 IST

The article is very thought provoking. If the voice of those with liberal thinking is becoming weak, it is necessary to find out why. We often notice that a head of a Hindu religious organization (‘Guru’ for his disciples) is not able to use his huge influence over them for spreading liberal thoughts even if he wishes to do so. Often he cannot advise them to accept other’s right to have a different view, for fear of losing his influence. Muslim intellectuals who are opposed to fundamentalist ways are unable to propagate their views. It is time we find out ways to defend liberal thinking more intelligently.

from:  Narendra M Apte
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 07:48 IST

Truly a masterpiece Praveen Swami and so timely! Every week we see riots by Islamists, Hindu fanatics or Christian purists, who all seem offended so easily. The advent of the internet has made it so much easier to coordinate such riots when simultaneos protests are organized thousands of miles away. The two protesters said it all 'don't watch it'!

from:  sridhar
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 04:29 IST

I agree with the basic premise that there should be real freedom of speech and that perhaps in India that has been eroded over time.

But for that point, somehow the idea the uproar is caused by disillusionment with capitalism sounds bogus. Also that an authoritarian secular leadership is better than a non-secular democratic one is also absurd. The author should really ask the citizen of these authoritarian regimes (like in Egypt) about how "joyous" it was. Why is it OK to suppress a majority religious community but not OK to suppress a minority secular community? They are both as bad at best.

Further, it should have been noted that what is affected is freedom of expression. It is just fine that there is more discussion of religion in society, it is just that viewpoints (however fringe they are to current society) should be protected.

from:  Kiran
Posted on: Oct 6, 2012 at 03:57 IST
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