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Friday, January 16, 2015

Theology and sense - Appropriateness is very culture-specific

By Swapan Dasgupta


It is an unfortunate reality that when the West sneezes the rest of the world—barring China—catches a cold. The calculated murder of 17 people in Paris by those who saw themselves as jihadis earlier this month resulted in more than a common cold: the West developed pneumonia and some of the resulting scare inevitably spread to the rest of the world. It was so unlike the massacre of some 2,000 people by the Boko Haram in Nigeria the same week that got relegated to the News in Brief section of the global media. 


This is not the occasion to rail against the inherent iniquity of the world information order. Like the reform of the UN Security Council, corrective action must necessarily await a further shift in the economic centre of gravity away from Europe and the United States. However, amid the disagreeable happenings in France, there was at least small comfort that India wasn’t blown off its feet by the legitimate sense of outrage in the West. It is reassuring, for example, that only one mainstream paper chose to reprint the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons—and it apologised for causing offence the very next day. Till the time of writing, no Indian publication has also reprinted the satirical magazine’s post-massacre cover depicting a bearded gentleman resembling an Arab of yore shedding tears. 


To some, particularly those Indians that incorporated the cartoons in their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter as an act of solidarity, this exemplary display of ordinary decencies may appear an act of capitulation or even squeamishness. That may well be so. However, it is important to bear in mind that appropriateness is very culture specific. The veterans of the 1968 rebellion who ran Charlie Hebdo—and paid for it with their lives—were guided by a culture of irreverence and iconoclasm. Perceiving themselves as the libertarian inheritors of the bloody French Revolution of 1789, their world-view was not moulded by the notion of restraint. They sought to extend the boundaries of free speech and free thought to the limits. It was a replay of the “Be realistic, demand the impossible” banner unfurled Sorbonne students in the heady climate of 1968. 


It is worth remembering that the turbulence that defined that generation wasn’t confined to the West alone. The youth unrest nurtured by the opposition to the Vietnam war is remembered—perhaps a bit too fondly—today because it gave the world some rather good music, hallucinatory experiences and removed many layers of sexual inhibitions. Less remembered is the perverse impact that China’s Cultural Revolution—that took place around the same time—had on the minds of young, educated minds. The unrestrained destructions of the symbols of a defeated, “feudal” order was eerily similar to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Nearer home in Calcutta, puerile Maoists went on an orgy of iconoclastic violence beheading statues of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, murdering traffic policemen and venerable Vice Chancellors, and getting themselves killed as a consequence. 


It is a commentary on the transience of political fashion that the Cultural Revolution isn’t listed as among Mao Zedong’s achievements in China, and the Naxalite movement is at best a source of dubious nostalgia for ageing radicals who have moved on to better things. 


The thread that linked the murderous, alienated jihadis in France with their targets that sought to laugh at the real world was a common lack of restraint. The French Muslims of Algerian origin who were frustrated by their subordinate status in the metropolis attached great store in their re-discovery of faith. Their Islamism gave them a new purpose in life and cleansed them of the stigma of a life of petty criminality. They may not have been as erudite and aware as their cartoonist victims but they were driven by a common desire to disobey existing social codes and forge new rules—one governed by doctrinaire beliefs and the other by irreverence. 


The massacre of the cartoonists by self-appointed custodians of the faith was quite rightly seen as an assault on the culture of scepticism born out of the Enlightenment. The solidarity marches in Paris, attended by the leaders of many countries, and other parts of Europe suggested a deep revulsion to the violent ways of settling differences. There is also a simmering disquiet in Europe at the unintended consequences of a multiculturalist approach that didn’t take into account the fundamentals of prevailing national cultures. No wonder there is a rise in sympathy for nationalist parties that berate mainstream consensus politicians for their moral cowardice in handling both a political and cultural challenge. 


This combination of fear and anger that has surfaced in many parts of Europe is not entirely based on prejudice and Islamophobia, as has been suggested by disoriented uber liberals. In her revealing study Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam (Hurst, 2014), Innes Bowen has documented the frightening extent to which the hardening of the trappings of religiosity has been accompanied by cultural separatism, especially in the Muslim ghettos. It is one thing for an increasing number of Muslims to wear the hijab and burqa and grow beards as a sign of distinctiveness but the problem arises when this is accompanied by pressure from the local mosque to maintain a social distance from non-Muslims and view them as lesser beings. Traditionally, first-generation immigrants have stuck to their own kind, being unfamiliar with the ways of the host society. But when this aloofness is perpetuated across generations and, more important, conferred a quasi-theological legitimacy, the results can be deeply unsettling. It would seem that the rash of Al Qaeda terror cells in Britain and the departure of nearly 20,000 Muslims across Europe to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq are direct consequences of the emotional rejection of their adopted homeland.  


That Muslim immigrants in Britain, France, Holland and Germany must take an honest and non-theological view of the reasons that are contributing to Islamophobia is apparent. Although this is a daunting project whose success can only be measured in the long-term, the incorporation of Europe’s Muslims into the mainstream—without compromising their religious faith—cannot happen if libertarians persist in gratuitous insult. There are some facets of religious belief—the dietary taboos, codes of outward appearance, rituals of birth, marriage and death, mythology and even art forms (including the Islamic disapproval of the any human depiction)—that are personal and socially non-offensive. Wilfully offending these on the ground that nothing is beyond rational dissection is needless and in bad taste. However, in the event of theology acquiring the garb of political ideology and intruding into the secular domain—as used to happen with the Christian faith a few centuries ago—a clash is unavoidable. 


Despite its recent history, contemporary Europe is by and large an easy-going (perhaps too permissive) and accommodating society. Since the conclusion of World War II and decolonisation, it has swung from destructive nationalism to New Age cosmopolitanism, with mixed results. Today’s European Islamism, along with disruptive immigration and the expansion of the European Union, is threatening the new order and prompting a regression. The turbulence this can result in will not be limited to Europe. The disorder is global. 


A hundred years ago the crazy actions of some Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo triggered a sequence of events that led to one of the great human disasters. There are too many institutional safety checks in place for a similar recurrence but in dealing with crazies it is best to not take chances. 

The Telegraph, January 16, 2015








Shivangni said...

Your way with words is unsurpassed. Very well articulated, though I do believe that if the cartoons(ists)weren't breaking any French Law, & lampooning all faiths with horrid cartoons, immigrants should've respected the openness of their hosts.

Jitendra Desai said...

With those cartoons and killings of the cartoonists, world witnessed two types of extremism.One that won't mind hurting your deepest sentiments and the other that won't accept anything less than snuffing out lives.Traditional Hindus who have suffered nudity of their gods and goddesses at the hands of home grown liberals are bemused at the violence and the confluence of the entire world on this issues.