The pious Sheikh, so the lewd poem began, entered the Garden of Paradise, in search of his divine reward: A Houri hanging from the Tree of the Black Eyed Damsels, nestled inside a fruit. In early 2013, a pick-up truck piled with al-Qaeda jihadists drove into the Syrian town of Ma’arat al-Numan to punish the man responsible for the parody on male desire, scripture and God. Only, they had arrived a thousand years late: All that remained to be beheaded was a statue of Abu al-‘Ala Ahmad ibn ‘Abdallah al-Ma’arri, the great eleventh-century Arab poet. So, they did just that.
The frontlines of the global war on blasphemy moved to India this week, after two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders denounced Prophet Muhammad. Furious Middle-East regimes demanded an apology from India; angry protesters battled police in Uttar Pradesh; al-Qaeda threatened to unleash armies of child suicide bombers.
Fearing the unravelling of ties with a region that sells India over half its oil and gas, the BJP is seeking to hush its strident anti-Islam polemicists. India’s violent conflicts over religious identity—which have raged, unresolved, since well before the colonial era—are becoming entwined with a larger, global conflict.
India’s blasphemy battles
Free speech and religious offence began their battle in India in 1924 when Arya Samaj activist Mahashe Rajpal published Rangila Rasul—in Hindustani, ‘the colourful Prophet.’ The polemic reviled the Prophet’s sexual life, contrasting it with Hindu ascetic ideals. The BJP leaders who claimed Muhammad’s third wife was a child might have been unaware of the heritage of their claims: Their taunt was a central theme in Rangila Rasul.
Lower courts condemned Rajpal to prison for hate speech. Lahore High Court judge Dalip Singh, though, demurred: “If the fact that Musalmans resent attacks on the Prophet was to be the measure,” he reasoned, then “judgement passed on his character by a serious historian might [also]”.
Aisha bint Abi Bakr’s actual age at her wedding is, in fact, an issue of serious theological disputation. There could also be a serious conversation on religion and child marriage. The practice is, of course, far from unfamiliar in Hindu tradition. The age of sexual consent in the US, “till late in the nineteenth century, was ten. In medieval Europe, girls were sometimes married as young as five”.
The subject of the debate—in Rajpal’s time, as in that of Nupur Sharma now—wasn’t the rights of adolescent girls, though.
Ilm-ud-Din, a Lahore carpenter, eventually murdered Rajpal in 1929—the third in a series of assassination attempts targeting the blasphemous publisher. Even though the assassin was hanged, his memory still fires the imagination of Islamists in Pakistan.
Long before Rajpal’s murder, though, the escalation of communal tensions in Punjab had led colonial authorities to overrule the high court, and pass a new law that proscribed speech that insults any religious belief, or incites hatred.
Free India upheld the blasphemy laws. Lower courts, the Supreme Court said, erred in acquitting Tamil leader E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker for destroying an idol of Ganesha. Instead, courts ought to “pay due regard to the feelings and religious emotions of different classes of persons with different beliefs.” This ought to be done “whether those beliefs, in the opinion of the Court, were rational or not.”
Faith, in other words, was allowed to fail the test of reason.
A tradition of insults
As the Hindu nationalist movement gathered momentum, its protagonists began pushing the State to guard their religion. In 1993, a cultural presentation involving the Dashrath Jataka—a variant telling of the Ramayana, where Ram and Sita are siblings—was subjected to prosecution. There were successful mobilisations against James Laine’s historical account of the rise of Shivaji. A.K. Ramanujan’s magisterial account of Ramayana had to be removed from the Delhi University curricula.
The campaign continues. Hindu religious-Right activists, just weeks ago, threatened violence against Delhi University professor Ratan Lal, who mocked claims that a Shivling had been found inside the Gyanvapi mosque.
Islamic invective directed against Hindus is also common—though less politically powerful. The cleric Illyas Sharafuddin has repeatedly railed against Hindu worship of what he describes as ‘genitals’. Zakir Naik’s proselytising programmes often featured a Hindu or Jew converting to Islam after being persuaded of its superior virtues—a theatrical device he borrowed from American televangelical shows.
The Republic of Hurt Sentiments, as journalist Mukund Padmanabhan called India, has many martyrs to faith: Sanal Edamaruku, forced to leave the country after he exposed the tears flowing from an icon of Jesus as drain-pipe leakage; cricket star Mahendra Dhoni prosecuted for an advertisement invoking the Hindu god Vishnu.
In general, these conflicts have not had gentle endings: Muslims have been killed by Hindus; Muslims have been murdered for offending Hindu beliefs; purported sacrilege and heresies have led to lynchings by Sikhs.
Faiths in conflict
The violence that erupted following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988 marked the globalisation of the blasphemy war. From anti-India riots in Kashmir, to the massacre of intellectuals in Turkey, the book came under sustained attack. The multiple jihadist strikes that followed the publication of purportedly blasphemous cartoons by The Jyllands-Posten in Denmark, and the 2015 slaughter in Paris sparked off by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, built on this project.
Little imagination is needed to see why this happened. Across much of the developing world, religious nationalism had emerged as a powerful political ideology, to challenge authoritarian, venal regimes. The discourse over blasphemy, fundamentally, is a debate about political power—not religious belief.
Fragile nation-states responded by seeking to cloak themselves in the robes of the pious. In Pakistan, Islamists had been cultivated by the military to undermine democratic political parties. The religious Right, though, used the State’s purported tolerance of apostasy as a weapon against the establishment. The clerics succeeded in marching the country to the edge of theocratic abyss, riding the donkey cart the military had once recruited them to pull.
Saudi blogger Raif Badaai, jailed for insulting Islam, and Egyptian intellectual Ahmed Abdo Maher, sentenced for refuting classical theology, were persecuted by nation-states seeking to shore up their flagging legitimacy—not al-Qaeda or Islamic State jihadists.
India, through this period, witnessed its own blasphemy campaign. From 2014 to 2018, an official United States government study notes, India ranked fourth, behind Pakistan, Iran and Russia, for the number of religious-offence prosecutions it initiated. Instead of stilling religious tensions, scholar C.S. Adcock has noted, the law gave “strategic value to invoking or mobilising wounded religious feelings.”
Laws to curb hate speech, the argument goes, are necessary to keep the peace in societies with varied, but passionately held, belief systems. The argument’s proved deeply misguided.
Faith and democratic values
For one thing, as the philosopher Kenan Malik points out, “hate speech restriction has become a means not of addressing specific issues about intimidation or incitement, but of enforcing general social regulation.” Legal restrictions on speech elide over that deeper problem of large numbers of people finding contemptible ideas morally worthy. The Indian government might prosecute some hate speech—but this covers up the unwillingness to challenge the sentiments it expresses.
Importantly, hate-speech prosecutions haven’t ensured communal peace in India; they’ve engendered fear, censorship, and competitive mobilisation to control the State system. The law has deterred few religious chauvinists. Few professors, though, would risk teaching DN Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow or Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, Maxime Rodinson’s Muhammad or Reza Aslan’s Zealot.
The Indian government’s action against hate speech might be geopolitically expedient, but it will feed a cycle of competitive religious-nationalist mobilisation. Hindu nationalists will seek to recover their hegemonic position, while Right-wing Muslims will increasingly reach out to the global religious community for support. The State and society will be mired in these competing, toxic currents.
Enlightenment philosophers laid the foundations for modern democracies by asserting that while human beings have rights, ideas do not. Gods, just like atheism, communism, capitalism or psycho-babble, must make their case.
Al-Ma’arri, centuries before the Europeans, invited us to consider a world where Gods might be able to take a little mocking—and, perhaps, take some of the criticism on board. The poet wasn’t an optimist, though. The human race, he wrote, was divided into two:
One, man intelligent without religion,
The second, religious without intellect.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.