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“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries…wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live… The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities – but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith…and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.”
Winston Churchill, from The River War, first edition, Vol. II, pages 248-50 (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1899).
I was watching an episode of the Simpsons last night, enjoying their brilliant mockery of Catholicism, Mormonism, and other Christian faiths. Even as I doubled over in mirth, there lurked in some corner of my mind a nagging question whether they would dare do the same with Islam or Sikhism , Hinduism or Judaism. Few politicians or journalists will speak or write their minds in our day as Churchill did in his, or Marx or Mohammed or Gandhi did in theirs. Political correctness has sapped the ability to, in Mencken’s words (full quote later), “utter what seems at the moment to be the truth”.
A vestigial self-assurance may still remain. On ABC’s Nightline many years ago. Ted Koppel was interviewing a Soviet dignitary visiting Washington. Accompanying him was a junior functionary from the Embassy who spoke fluent English. In the middle of the program the young man protested to Koppel, “You are being unfair, you are not giving us equal time”. Saying, “I’ll worry about it when we get equal time on Moscow Television!”, Koppel continued on without skipping a beat.
The incident came to mind when I saw reports of protests, among other countries in Saudi Arabia (where one cannot possess a copy of the Bible or the Gita, and the only public worship allowed is that of Islam), and from Pakistan (where there are recent reports of young women being forcefully converted to Islam, and people of the “wrong” religions being on death row for blasphemy), up in arms about cartoons in a Danish newspaper making fun of the Prophet. In Gaza, Fatah activists (eager to make up for their recent electoral loss, perhaps) were shown bustling about with shoulder fired missiles, issuing threats to people from certain countries to leave in 10 hours, failing which their lives would be in jeopardy.
Of course, none of these same protesters have no complaint with western personages Carlyle, Bernard Shaw or Goethe for praising Prophet Mohammed. Like the rest of us, they are happy when they or theirs is praised, unhappy when criticized or satarized.
Except, however, most of us don’t threaten to kidnap and kill people who have criticized us, nor write specious screeds pointing out the difference between freedom and license. We shrug and move along, knowing that not everyone needs to accept our beliefs for us to be secure in ours. It is as simple as that.
And as vital. The quesion is whether the West will defend the central pillar of the Enlightenment, or will it abandon it to the new faith of ‘getting along at any price’ mealy-mouthed obeisances to self-censorship in the name of multiculturalism? Will it protect the one thing that has distinguished life in the West from life elsewhere on the planet — the protected freedom of expression? Or will it surrender before the threat of Danish biscuits vanishing from Arab storeshelves?
For in this crisis is laid bare a real cost of globalization — Western ideals in hock to the lure of free trade. Notice how the same people who are willing to start wars eight thousand miles away in the name of Democracy are ready to water it down at home at the first sign of economic disruption emanating from far-away lands. The global chickens have come home to roost.
After the principled stand by the Danish prime minister, who explained politely to critics that the government in Denmark could not order the press, some EU high-up weighed in with a disingenuous statement about the need to be sensitive to religion and culture. Following bravely was that unctuous hypocrite, Kofi Annan — who, it will be recalled, sullied his post by watching mutely when a UN member nation was savaged in a pre-meditated war — now expostulating on the need for freedom of the press to be tempered by respect for religion.
Weighing in the following day was Condoleezza Rice’s Department of State, whose spokeswoman blasted the Danish and other European papers for publishing the cartoons, stressing the need for press responsibility. For once they may be sincere — no one loves a supine press more than this administration!
The assault on free speech has been happening on a smaller scale for some time. I recall some company in the US which had used a picture of Gandhi in some unflattering fashion. A howl of protest went up on the Internet, and the company folded with the usual noises of forced apology and assurances of how much they respected the great man, etc. etc. About a year back, a play had to be canceled in the UK because members of the Sikh faith felt it offended them. The British state was nowhere about to protect the right of the organizers (in fact, the playwright, I recall reading, had to hide in fear of death threats. Not all are as prominent as Salman Rushdie).
Where is the State when it has a real role, which is it is to preserve and protect everybody’s right of free expression? President Bush speaks often about the threat to our way of life. If there is anything worth preserving in our way of life, the freedom of speech is first on that list.
“[I] know of no human right that is one-tenth as valuable as the simple right to utter what seems (at the moment) to be the truth.” Thomas Jefferson went further, ” “…truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
The president needs to speak out on this matter and defend free speech in clear terms. As does every Democrat and Republican, every organization including the ACLU, and indeed, every individual.
There has been criticism of the self-censorship and the written laws of censorship which European media meekly follow, chiefly on topics of questioning the holocaust and bogey of ‘anti-semitism’. But just as a person protesting a speed limit of 60 mph would drive at the maximum speed allowed even while campaigning for its raising, instead of driving at 40 mph to protest the limit, expanding the right of expression, not its curtailment, should be the goal.
“We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”, went the joke in the Old Soviet Union. Rather similar is the demand by protesters that Denmark, France, Norway and Germany apologize. This is the nature of both the apology and its demand in such cases. Galileo recanted, but did he stop believing the Earth went round the Sun? Compliance may be enforced, but respect is earned.
The editor of the Jyllander-Posten, accused of not ‘respecting’ Islam, said that what was being demanded was not ‘respect’, but ‘submission’. When told that Danish law allowed the newspaper to publish what it saw fit, the imam of the largest church in Denmark declared, “If this is Democracy, we want no part of it”.
I doubt if the imam had read Ved Mehta’s autobiography. When Mehta left India for America when he was not yet out of his teens. His father took him to take leave of Jawaharlal Nehru, whom he knew. Nehru wished the young man well and added, “Remember that wherever you are, you are an ambassador of your country.” In the chorus of outrage from muslim lands, Ayatollah Al Sistani in Iraq alone seemed to have grasped the import of Nehru’s words. He criticized muslims for bringing a bad name to their religion by postures of intolerance and threats of violence. Unknowingly, he was also echoing the late Nirad Chaudhuri’s apt reminder to his fellow Indians, “A tree is known by its fruits.”
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN can be reached at email@example.com.