Updated: December 25, 2020 4:19:26 pm
“Should we be free to burn Korans, mock the passionately held religions of others? Maybe we should – but should we also be surprised when the believers we have offended respond in fury? I couldn’t answer that question at the time and, with all good will, I still can’t. But I am a little proud, in retrospect, that I spoke against the easy trend, reckoning with the wrath of outraged western intellectuals, and suffering it in all its righteous glory. And if I met Salman [Rushdie] tomorrow? I would warmly shake the hand of a brilliant fellow writer.” – John Le Carre, 2012
In 1989, as the Cold War was drawing to a close, the contours of a new “clash of civilisations” were being defined. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, published a year earlier, had angered people across the world for its seemingly cavalier attack on Prophet Mohammad, and Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme religious leader, issued the infamous fatwa against the writer, placing his life in danger. Many countries, including India, banned the book for fear of “hurting religious sentiments”. Rushdie became, and continues to be till today, a symbol of resistance against a perceived medieval mindset; a revanchist religiosity that pits itself against the idea of liberal democracy and free speech. In some senses, the cleavages that were wrought by the Satanic Verses controversy have only widened. “Islamism”, “fundamentalism”, “Islamic extremism” are the great “Other”, like Sauron and the East in The Lord of the Rings, something the “Men of the West” must fight to maintain the virtues of their world.
The most recent threat-to-liberal-values call has come from the Emmanuel Macron government in France, in the aftermath of the unconscionable and unforgivable murder of a teacher, Samuel Paty, in October and the killing of three more people in Nice in the same month. Since 2015, beginning with the attack and killings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January that year (whose form of satire is in the same vein as Satanic Verses), over 250 people have been killed in terrorist attacks by religious extremists. France — more egalitarian than Britain, more cultured than America — has arguably been at the frontline of the “clash of civilisations”. The latest move in this battle against what Macron has called “Islamic separatism” is a proposed law “to reinforce republican values”, which would allow the state to monitor Muslims, their religious gatherings and organisations, allow police greater freedom (which often, in practice, means acting with impunity), including while acting against hate speech when it emanates from Muslims.
For many around the world who empathise with the French people, and believe in the values that the world’s first successful revolution put in place as a republic — liberty, equality, fraternity — the reaction by the Macron government is understandable, both as a political necessity as well as a security measure. Yet, talk of the “enemy within” (Prime Minister Jean Castex) is not mere political rhetoric. It betrays an idea of citizenship, and by extension republican and liberal values, that is deeply insular and which relies on what social anthropologist and theorist Pierre Bourdieu called meconnaissance or misrecognition.
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Simply put, meconnaissance is a form of hegemony by which the interests of a particular section of society is presented as a universal value. In the current context, that interest is of the security-state, and particular ideologies that seek to consolidate political power at the expense of the rights of individual citizens. This misrecognition of class and political interests as something that is in the interest of society as a whole is also based on creating a false dichotomy. During the Cold War, the false opposition was between “freedom” and “tyranny” for the West and between “bourgeoise democracy” and equality behind the Iron Curtain. Now, the false opposition is between a form of nihilism that emanates from religion and the state as a protector against this rising tide of the Muslim Other.
The first step in taking away individual rights in this process is by robbing citizens of their individuality. Hence, a Muslim citizen — in India, as much as in France — is defined by her Muslimness more than her Indian-ness or French-ness. Once such a hyphenated identity is put in place, a form of apriori criminalisation is often attached to a community, and the rights of citizens who belong to it are gradually trammelled — whether by a law to “protect liberal values” or prevent “love jihad”. In contrast, the European Union’s Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, an annual document, has repeatedly recorded incidents of violence by right-wing extremists, access to weapons and propaganda against refugees, immigrants and minorities in France and the rest of Europe — yet, it is unlikely that a special law to monitor Caucasian citizens and their financial records will be put in place. Their citizenship, after all, is not hyphenated.
It was a disagreement over this hypocrisy that became the source of one of the most well-known literary feuds of the late-20th and early 21st-century. In 1997, an argument that unfolded in the letters column of The Guardian that only ended in 2012. John Le Carre, the greatest exponent of the espionage novel who died earlier this month, took exception to what he saw as the pointless provocations of The Satanic Verses. He was, of course, pilloried by Rushdie and the literary establishment of the day for his views. But Le Carre who, as a spy and a novelist, dealt with the subtle entrapments of ideology and the immoralities of nationalism perhaps understood better than most that the certainties of “universal values” must be tempered with a virtue that is all too rare — respect.
It was not Le Carre’s case, nor is it of this article, that bigotry, violence and terror do not deserve a response. Nor did he support the call for Rushdie’s murder or the book’s ban. The question was, and continues to be, of the larger ethos by which certain communities are casually painted as the other, and where the source of violent extremism is sought. It cannot be the case, for example, that a gau rakshak or a crazed gunman in an American school is the product of his upbringing, mental health and the various failures of state and society while the barbarity of someone from a minority community is because of his “radicalisation” and religion. And the acts of a few, in the latter case, must not be so easily allowed to attach to a whole community.
The values of the French Revolution and the French Republic have found echoes around the world, including in our own Constitution. A basic corollary of liberty, equality and fraternity is that unlike fundamentalists, the states that adhere to these values do not in law (and ideally, in culture) differentiate between citizens according to their religious or political beliefs. When those principles erode, the results can be devastating: Just look at what has happened to Pakistan, particularly after the reign of Ziaul Haq and what is happening in India, today.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 25, 2020 under the title ‘A Le Carre lesson for France’. Write to the author at email@example.com.
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