The silence of corpses

Blasphemy isn’t, as multiculturalists assert, meaningless rovocation. Instead, it’s critical to human progress

Written by Praveen Swami | Published:January 19, 2015 12:48 am
Charlie Hebdo, Charlie Hebdo attack, Paris shooting, France attack, Blasphemy isn’t, as multiculturalists assert, meaningless rovocation. Instead, it’s critical to human progress. (Source: AP photo)

In the year 1192, al-Hakim Yusuf al-Sabti watched as an angry mob burned down the library of a great doctor from Cordoba, who had been accused of atheism by the clerics of Baghdad. He saw in the hands of Sheikh Ibn al-Maristaniya, the leader of the mob, a rare copy of the Tadhkirah fi’Ilm al-Haya’a, a masterwork by the great medieval scientist Abu Ali ibn al-Haytham that contained proofs that the earth was round. Al-Sabti recorded: “The sheikh exclaimed: ‘here is a huge disaster’, and as he said that he ripped up the book and threw it into the fire.” The heirs of the medieval Islamic rulers who had been al-Haytham’s patrons did not resist the tide: with no challenge to their power then in sight, science was a small sacrifice to appease increasingly powerful clerics.

In the centuries that followed, the Middle East’s intellectuals plunged into what the Germans call kadavergehorsamkeit: the silence of corpses. The historian Abdur Rahman ibn Khaldun could even assert that ilm al-kalam, or intensive logical reasoning, was no longer “necessary in this era for the student of knowledge, since apostasy and heresy have become extinct”.

Al-Haytham’s work was rediscovered in Renaissance Europe, though; his breakthroughs on astronomy, mathematics, optics and, above all, the scientific method, helped lay the foundations for the continent’s long ascendancy.

The lessons from the book burning of Baghdad ought be evident in a world just days away from the massacre of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s staff: blasphemy must be protected not as some pious credo, but because ideas that challenge the very foundations of our beliefs are critical to human progress. Yet, even as the world mourns Charlie Hebdo’s murdered cartoonists, liberals have begun asking if the dead gave their lives for a worthwhile cause. In a widely circulated cartoon, cartoonist Joe Sacco asked his readers to introspect on exactly why Muslims find it hard to “laugh off a mere image”. In essence, the liberal multiculturalist case is this: though murder is wrong, so is gratuitous offence, particularly of a besieged religious minority.

This multiculturalist argument is profoundly misguided. For one, the Charlie battle isn’t one that pits one set of arbitrary beliefs against another, offering us the choice of moral ambivalence. It is, instead, part of a much larger struggle of theocrats against republican values — key among them the idea that human beings have inalienable rights but not ideas, like the divine right to rule.

In much of the world, this is not a trivial debate. Through the Middle East, murderous authoritarians have long cloaked themselves in the robes of the pious to legitimise their rule. The jihadist campaign against blasphemers is intended to show that their Kalashnikovs can guard god better than kings and their armies.

Algerian anthropologist Mahfoud Bennoune, writing in 1994 while his country’s government was still seeking to appease the Islamists slaughtering intellectuals, noted that jihadists had “induced a part of the popular classes to think that the Algerian state, which was created after an eight-year war of national liberation, is impious, and its head of state is a hypocritical tyrant and the majority of its citizens are infidels who must be re-Islamised by terror”.

Pakistan is the most egregious example of this process at work. Bowing to clerical pressure, the political establishment gave scripture a veto over the legislature’s working in 1956. In subsequent years, ever more concessions were made to the religious right. Today, the country is on the edge of the theocratic abyss, with clerics now riding the donkey cart the military had once recruited them to pull.

Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, fearful of a restive youth population easily seduced by jihadists, appeases its clerics by punishing apostates and blasphemers — the latest case that of Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes for critical commentary on religion. In Malaysia, Christians may no longer call their god Allah, a word all communities there have used for centuries.

Like Western reactionaries, ironically, multiculturalists seem incapable of seeing Muslims other than through what Maxime Rodinson called a theologocentric lens — the notion that all believers are driven by faith, and by faith alone. Yet, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and the West, it is Muslims who spearhead resistance to god’s gunmen. Even in France, vastly more Muslims serve their security services than the jihadists.

Islamism is in fact a radical break from the history of the faith, and a perversion of its traditionalist practices. The scholar Olivier Roy has pointed out that the Western jihadist by no means represents the vanguard of Muslim communities. Roy notes that the jihadists “are deliberately at odds with the Islam of their parents, as well as Muslim culture overall”. Their Islam, he argues, is an invention fired by “displays of violence in the media of Western culture”.

For many progressives in the Middle East, multiculturalism itself smacks of the racism it decries. Lebanese-born architect Karl Sharro suggests the multiculturalists are guilty of “essentially suggesting that Muslims are incapable of responding rationally”. Though “dressed up in the language of social justice and marginalisation”, he writes, this is “a patronising view of ordinary Muslims and their capacity to advocate for their rights without resorting to nihilistic violence”.

In response, multiculturalists would argue that Charlie Hebdo incited racism, not republican resistance. This fashionable argument, though, rests on weak empirical ground. In one cartoon recruited to their cause, the women slaves captured by Boko Haram are shown pregnant, demanding their welfare benefits. The cartoon, claimed to denigrate the slaves, in fact attacks France’s rightwing, mocking its claims that refugees were benefit-seeking “welfare queens”.

Christiane Taubira, a black French minister represented as a monkey in one Charlie cartoon used by multiculturalists to press their racism case, has come out strongly in defence of the magazine — understanding, as Anglophone liberals did not, that the image caricatured attacks on her by the reactionary National Front. It is worth noting Charlie draws its politics from France’s feisty leftwing, assaulting religions of all shades and fighting for the rights of workers and minorities — including, notably, the so-called sans-papiers, or undocumented immigrants.

The magazine also builds on a long European tradition of raucous satire, given a venerated place in the literary canon. Jonathan Swift, after all, assailed the English parliament by calling on its members to “toast Old Glorious in your piss”. Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” has the teenage Alison cuckolding her aged husband with a young lover — and sticking her rear end out of a window for an unlucky admirer to kiss.

For all its failings, the multiculturalist argument is seductive to Indian liberals, precisely because it permits silence. Hindutva, Islamist and Christian reactionaries have, for many years, used violence and intimidation to censor dissent. Liberals, with some honourable exceptions, haven’t summoned the courage to resist.

Now, as a result of this silence, the state decides on our behalf whether we may read The Satanic Verses or Aubrey Menen’s irreverent retelling of the Ramayana. It chooses not to prosecute the vandals who block stores from stocking D.N. Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow, James Laine’s history of Shivaji, or Paul Courtright’s explorations of oedipal undertones in Hindu mythology.

The silence of these corpses will cost us, just as it did the Middle East centuries ago.

praveen.swami@expressindia.com

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  1. V
    Viren
    Jan 19, 2015 at 3:22 am
    Pravin Swami is a agent...bet he gets portion of his ry from ISI
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      Viren
      Jan 19, 2015 at 3:21 am
      this guy is a agent...bet he gets portion of his ry from ISI
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        Irfan
        Jan 19, 2015 at 4:55 pm
        Some Journos in India seem to be suffering with Gulam Nabi Fai syndrome. They r eager to write what pleases ISI.
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          IndianWellWisher
          Jan 19, 2015 at 5:02 am
          Killing in Islam have been active for more than 1000 yrs, let us not equate that to the reaction of Hindu reactionaries to their abuse - a century at most.
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            IndianWellWisher
            Jan 20, 2015 at 3:15 am
            This was not because of following Hinduism - where as Islam's Quran and hadith (?) are used as the basis for killing non-believers of Allah - including believers of God!
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              charvaka
              Jan 21, 2015 at 9:05 pm
              You have no clue what he is talking about!!
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                Ashok .
                Jan 19, 2015 at 5:50 am
                The author should learn to express in simple English otherwise he won't be understood by a large section of IE readers.
                Reply
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                  Aman
                  Jan 20, 2015 at 7:58 am
                  Swami you are a phenomenal writer, but don't you think you must cater to the large section of Indian society by keeping it a bit simple and easy. I mean one must not have Phd in English to understand what you are writing
                  Reply
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                    Ashwini
                    Jan 19, 2015 at 7:20 am
                    10 readings if one is lucky....
                    Reply
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                      ahirwan
                      Jan 19, 2015 at 10:50 am
                      Sheer Hocus pocus.
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                        Ban
                        Jan 19, 2015 at 8:02 pm
                        And clearly you have NO bias right?! LOLOL...go hide behind your finger a little more apologist.
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                          Nissar Ahmed
                          Jan 19, 2015 at 10:42 am
                          Message from a Singapore Muslim lady to Churches in Singapore:“...One of our greatest blessings which we share in common, amongst many others, is to call Singapore home. We were born and raised here. Our closest friends are Hindus, Christians, Catholics, Buddhists and Muslims and believers of many other faiths. ...The majority of Muslims,...are lovers of our Prophets and Messengers. All of them. ....fact, it is part of the faith of a Muslim to believe in the Holy Bible and Jesus, upon him be peace as with the Torah – the scriptures of the Jews and Moses....Believing in them is a testimony of our Faith 628 AD, adelegation from St. Catherine’s Monastery came to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and requested his protection. He responded by granting them thefollowing charter of rights.St. Catherine’s Monastery is located at the foot of Mt. Sinai in modern-day Egypt and is the world’s oldest monastery. It possesses a huge collection of Christian mcripts,second only to the Vatican, and is a world heritage site. It also boasts the oldest collection of Christian icons. It is a treasure house of Christian history that has remained safe for 1,400 years under Muslim protection.The following was penned in the Charter of Rights.“This is a message from Muhammad son of Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God, I hold out against anything that displeases them.No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenantand disobey His prophet.Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them.If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval.She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation of Muslims is to disobeythe covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”This promise is eternal and universal. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) ordered Muslims to follow it until the Day of Judgment just as we follow his last sermon beforehis ping. The charter imposes no conditions on Christians for enjoying its privileges. It is enough that they are Christians.”To get the URL to the complete text google, ‘fyndingnoor’.
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                            Nissar Ahmed
                            Jan 19, 2015 at 10:43 am
                            Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Britain’s first and thus far the onlyperson of Jewish parentage to reach the premiership (1868 and 1874-1880),described in his novel Coningsby the “halcyon centuries” during the golden ageof Muslim Spain in which the “children of Ishmael rewarded the children ofIsrael with equal rights and privileges with themselves.” Disraeli describedglowingly how Muslims and Jews alike “built palaces, gardens and fountains;filled equally the highest offices of the state, competed in an extensive andenlightened commerce, and rivaled each other in renowned universities.”
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                              Diva
                              Jan 19, 2015 at 11:33 am
                              Praveen,did you press sambit Patra to protest against Pak about Boat incident and reinforce his patriotic credentials.Don't let him go.
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                                disgusted
                                Jan 19, 2015 at 4:04 pm
                                Mr Swami, you are beating around the bush rather than coming to the point. What smacks from your w argument is that you want to equate the murderous islamic terrorists with the Hindu rights activists who are opposing the free-for-all Hindu bashing in a democratic manner!!ये तो वही बात हुई की हम आह भरें तो हो जाते हैं बदनाम और वो क़त्ल करें तो भी चर्चा नहीं होता..या यूँ कहें की हम आह भरें तो भी आप जैसे liberals हमें सूली पे चढ़ा देना चाहते हैं।।
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                                  Deepan Joshi
                                  Jan 19, 2015 at 4:05 pm
                                  Brilliant piece. It straddles the past, tells us where we might be at present, and makes a really terrifying case for the future. This piece appreciates the fact that reading is as important an art as writing. I am enriched by the historical context, by all that is written but what I am really grateful for is what is left unsaid, the silence of the piece, the margin that the piece has left for the reader's imagination to fill. Orhan Pamuk in his amazing novel My Name is Red gives the following dialogues to an illiterate Jewish woman called Esther in a story set in the 1590s. She has been given a letter by the beautiful leading lady Shekure to be delivered to the novel's protagonist Black. "True, I can't read what's written, but I can always have someone else read it. And as for what's not written, I can quite readily "read" that myself. Confused, are you? Let me put it this way, so even the most thick-headed of you will understand: A letter doesn't communicate by words alone. A letter, just like a book, can be read by smelling it, touching it and fondling it. Thereby, intelligent folk will say, "Go on then, read what the letter tells you!" whereas the dull-witted will say, "Go on then, read what he's written!" Then Esther goes on and interprets the letter and the meaning of all that is written changes radically.
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                                    DA
                                    Jan 19, 2015 at 11:41 am
                                    "The silence of these corpses will cost us, just as it did the Middle East centuries ago."I get the larger point, but this g statement is a bit of a stretch. Religion and blind faith are irrational, but their Marxist detractors like those at Charlie Hebdo are equally delusional about the way this world works.Killing off scientific discourse is far serious a matter than silencing deluded rancour. As a matter of principle, of course, that rancour needs protection as well. But its suppression will have less ing consequence for our civilization.
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                                      Devaki Khanna
                                      Jan 19, 2015 at 12:08 pm
                                      I think you should be able to do a Google search on each book/author.
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                                        baychain
                                        Jan 19, 2015 at 9:35 am
                                        Asoka had butchered so many people in the B.C that it sickened him to penancy. Early enough for you?
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                                          baychain
                                          Jan 19, 2015 at 9:33 am
                                          He is talking about the rise of radicalism, he starts the article with an anecdote about book burning in early middle east, and you still don't understand the connection?And as a so-called rationalist, what you are you defending a religion anyway? Or do you even understand what a rationalist is? Hint, it doesn't just mean a rational argument. There is more to it than that.
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                                            Fakir Chand
                                            Jan 19, 2015 at 7:08 pm
                                            It is beyond your IQ level...I will make it simple for you...Praveen is saying that without questioning the (supersious) beliefs organized religions (whose followers blindly believe that 'God' revealed himself through some 'spokesman'), there will be no progress...Christianity, Hinduism and many other religions have been undergoing change for centuries and that's why the West rules the world while Eastern nations; like China and India are progressing (while Middle-east and AfPak is going back to stone ages).
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