blasphemy

The recent furore over BJP spokesperson (now suspended) Nupur Sharma’s remarks on the Prophet Muhammad, has stirred a hornets nest the world over. Nupur’s condescending & arrogant outburst in a TV debate, wherein she made disparaging remarks with reference to Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Hazrat Ayesha, as well as to his night journey on Buraq, his steed, referred to as the Night of the Meraj, have hurt and angered the beleaguered Indian Muslim community – & to now Muslims across the world.

This has created a diplomatic nightmare for the Modi Government, with our ambassadors summoned by various Islamic/Muslim majority nations that comprise the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). This has endangered both our geo-political and our geo-economic strategic interests in South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa. It has further damaged India’s reputation of what was once respected as a beacon of a multi-religio-cultural, liberal secular democratic society – to now, an India which is increasingly seen as a belligerent & an intolerant, violent majoritarian Hindutva state, which oppresses & openly discriminates against it’s religious minorities.

This entire sordid episode has brought many issues to the fore, which must be honestly debated by Indian society.

Firstly, the spectacle of the Arab Gulf nations coming out openly to condemn the insult towards the Prophet of Islam, has multiple connotations and implications for India. This also seems to be a culmination of a series of hate-speeches and hate-crimes that have increasingly targeted the Indian Muslim community, as well as the Christians and Dalits, to which the entire world has been witness. The recent United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2022 annual report on India is a case in point. It goes on to say – “Religious freedom conditions in India are taking a drastic turn downward, with national and various state governments tolerating widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities.” (https://www.uscirf.gov/countries/india)

Our international image has been thoroughly undermined due to the Modi regimes hardline majoritarian Hindutva agenda. Today we are witness to the spectacle where conservative to regressive kingdoms and regimes, such as that of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even Afghanistan are giving us lessons on religious co-existence & equal rights. Nations with little respect for human rights and equality are today lecturing India. Also where were these Arab/Islamic nations, when Indian Muslims, Christians & Dalits – were and are yet subjected mob-lynching, riots, hate crimes & open calls for genocide? These very nations, who have abandoned the Palestinian struggle for freedom from the Israeli apartheid colonial occupation and who are responsible for the genocidal wars in Yemen & Syria, need to deeply introspect about the human rights situation in their own countries. Thus it took an offensive remark against the Prophet for them to speak out. Clearly for these regimes – Religion matters far more than Human Rights!

Moreover, Nupur Sharma is not merely an individual, but the official party spokesperson of the ruling BJP government. Thus what Nupur says is the official position of the party and thus far more dangerous, as it then further sets the tone for the ecosystem of hate. Herein lies the failure, or rather the complicity of many of the ruling party spokespersons and their allies, who have been openly fueling hate in our country.

It is thus utterly demeaning and shameful to witness the destruction of India’s modern secular image, our democratic institutions, our legacy of religious co-existence and the respect that we were once held in the comity of nations.

Secondly, here it also must be emphatically stated that Human Rights is a universal value and cannot be brushed away by merely stating that – “it’s an internal national matter”, as in an increasingly globalised world, no nation can state that anymore.

Thirdly and very crucially, this debate has once again thrown up the issue of the freedom of expression, the right to critique & question religions, their beliefs, revered figures, books, scriptures and even the right to offend, and crucially their differentiation from hate-speech and calls to incitement to violence. Here it must also be affirmed that there is no place for laws on blasphemy & apostasy in a secular liberal democracy! This is a very complicated, highly problematic matter indeed, but one must engage in this rather difficult debate.

From the highly offensive Charlie Hebdo Cartoons, Nupur Sharma’s disparaging remarks against the Prophet Muhammad, to cartoons and memes circulated widely mocking the Shivlings & Rama’s treatment of Sita in context of her kidnapping by Ravana, to mention only a few, all of the above have the following in common. They constitute a critique, as well as they even offend followers of revered religious figures, scriptures and beliefs. Yet they do not constitute hate crimes or an incitement to violence. Undoubtedly they do hurt the sentiments of religious believers. Infact the “Right to Offend” has already been internalised by believers in any case, a God-given right indeed!

The harsh reality is that, it’s high time that religious people realised one basic truth – every religious text & tradition is offensive, blasphemous & heretical to the followers of other religions & sects – period! Thus the right to critique & the right to offend are an inalienable part of the right to religious freedom & free speech! In fact, ironically, this is more to the benefit of religious believers, than those who really do not have a strong religious belief system.

In the context of the 3 major religions of Abrahamic origin, namely Judaism, Christianity & Islam, they all believe that they are the ultimate truth, the final book, the only path to salvation. Only their adherents will go to heaven, whilst the rest of the non-believers, heathens, pagans, goyim, kafirs, will be consigned to eternal hellfire. Then this logic extends to within each of these religions, where the believers of only the one true sect will achieve salvation, whilst the others, well, eternal hellfire. Thus the compassionate God has created humanity to consign the overwhelmingly majority to hell, so it seems. A ridiculous understanding & a debasement of religion indeed.

Thus there are clear & serious contradictions between the Old & the New Testaments & the Quran. Yahweh, the Jewish God arises as a Tribal deity, the God of only the Chosen People. Jesus Christ democratises the concept of a Universal God. The Jews never accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah, whilst the Quran states that the Crucifixion never occurred & both Jews & Muslims do not accept Christ as the Son of God. Clearly, stark fundamental differences indeed that go to the very root of each of their belief systems.

In our Indian context, there are grave contradictions between the Sanatan Hindu Vedas as against the Upanishads, and yet again Buddhism and Jainism that arose as a counter to the Manuwadi Varna-Caste system, the structural & physical violence inherent to it.

In our modern times, this ancient tradition of challenging Sanatan Caste hegemony, has been led by reformists such as Mahatma Jotiba Phule, Mahatma Gandhi, Ramaswami Periyar & Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar to only name a few. In today’s vituperative, volatile & highly polarised climate, their writings will be deemed as blasphemous and offensive by many. Thus a law that supports Blasphemy will prove to be highly damaging for the Dalit/OBC/Adivasi religio-cultural movements, as they challenge the dominant Manuwadi historical & religio-cultural landscape of Indian society.

Thus to simply just state that all religions share the same values, is just not true, never has been. Yes, there are certain fundamental commonalities, but there are certain fundamental differences as well. The various religions arose at different periods of humanity, in different regions and religio-cultural-socio-economic-political contexts, thus the teachings will differ, at times also oppositional, and so will the texts and scriptures.

On the other hand to only speak of mere religious tolerance too will not suffice. It’s not about tolerance, but acceptance. The time has come for people across religions to accept that apart from their own, there are other paths to salvation. That the path that we have chosen to walk along, is just one among the many paths that will lead humanity towards our collective salvation. Even as we each undergo that journey, let us continue to debate, critique & even offend each other, helping each other on our way………

I will end with my favourite couplet by the great Sufi, Ibn-Arabi (1165-1240 CE) who went on to say –
“My heart can take any form,
A meadow for gazelles,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Kabaa for the circling pilgrim,
The tables for the Torah,
The scrolls for the Quran,
My creed is Love,
Wherever it’s caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief,
My faith.

Feroze Mithiborwala is a social activist


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