Tolerating Islamist intolerance
Crucially, it is precisely this tolerance of intolerance that has allowed vocal and violent radicalised Islamist minorities to silence Muslim majorities and to transform the global image of Islam into the grotesque parody of the faith that the Danish cartoons sought - perhaps indelicately - to reflect.
Offensive though these cartoons may have been - and they were not offensive to at least some Muslims, who saw in them, not an insult to the Prophet or the faith, but rather a critique of the unrelenting violence that has become the defining character of much of the Muslim world - the criminal incitement and calls to 'butcher/kill/behead those who insult Islam' have only reinforced the images the cartoons reflected, "allowing mass hysteria to define Islam's message".
What dishonours Islam more? A few irreverent cartoons? Or the acts of remorseless murder, of relentless violence against people of other faiths, of the intimidation and abuse of all other faiths and communities, which the Islamists - including states adhering to the Islamist ideology, such as Pakistan - routinely engage in? Why, then, does the Muslim world not rise up in rage against these fanatics and political opportunists who are bringing disgrace and disrepute to their faith? Why are the voices of criticism against extremist Islam and Islamist terrorism so muted?
Indeed, why is it that all occasional and invariably qualified criticism of these terrorists is accompanied by vague justifications of the need to 'understand root causes' and the 'hurt' caused to the 'Muslim psyche'? Is the 'Muslim psyche' uniquely susceptible to injury?
Venomous characterisations of Hindus, Jews, Christians and, generally, all kafirs, are the stock-in-trade of the discourse in some Muslim countries, often communicated through official media, such as national television channels. The ideologies of hatred against other faiths are systematically propagated in so many Muslim states - we in India are familiar with the Pakistani case, where school curricula routinely demonise non-Muslims.
And do the words or pictures or caricatures by non-Muslims do more injury to the 'Islamic world' than the hideous acts of terrorism that Islamists have been inflicting on non-Muslims - and, indeed, on so many Muslims - all over the world? Worse, after so many Muslim-majority states have simply wiped out their own minorities, or are, even today, in the process of doing so, these very states go shrieking around about 'hurting the sentiments of minorities' when something is said against Muslims or Islam.
Indeed, 'Islamic' states oppress even their own sectarian minorities - be they non-Wahabbi Sunnis in some cases, or Shia, Ismaili, Ahmadiya, or Sufi, in others - not only through systematic denial of elementary religious rights to these sects, but, as in the case of Pakistan, through state sponsored terrorist movements against such minorities - recall that the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan was set up by General Zia-ul-Haq to target Shias in the wake of the Iranian revolution, and continued to enjoy the support of the state under successor regimes, till it got mixed up with the Al Qaeda and anti-US terrorism, and lost its status as a sarkari (state supported) jihadi organisation.
Many 'Islamic' countries have institutionalised this intolerance, outlawing the public practice of any other Faith, and made the possession of any religious icon, other than Muslim, a punishable offence. Non-Muslim minorities live in abject terror of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, as in many other Muslim countries.
The truth is, the state lies behind much of the Islamist extremism and frenzy that we are witnessing today. To return to the case of the Danish cartoons, there was no 'spontaneous outburst' of popular sentiment; it was only after the Organisation of Islamic Countries decided to whip up emotions around the issue, and states like Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia began to incite the rabble through official statements and actions, or statements by religious leaders tied to the regimes there, disseminated through official media, that the violent street protests commenced.
In Pakistan, the protests and the violence have principally been led by the Jamaat-ud-Dawa - the reincarnation of the purportedly 'banned' Lashkar-e-Toiba - which has flourished under state patronage, and that was cast by the Musharraf administration into a 'leadership' role recently in the relief operations after the earthquake that devastated parts of Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
But the 'cartoon crisis' is not unique. Even while this controversy was raging across the world, Shia minorities were being attacked by Sunni terrorists in Pakistan; in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, a case was registered against the local chapter of the Bible Society of India for the 'grievous crime' of distributing "gas cylinders, three water bottles, audio cassettes and a copy of the New Testament in Urdu" to earthquake victims in a village in Uri.
In Ladakh, riots were engineered between Muslims and Buddhists because some torn pages of the Quran were recovered, leading to allegations of sacrilege. In the Aligarh Muslim University, a young girl was being threatened with collective rape for daring to protest against a diktat against wearing jeans and a T-shirt. These are only a few current and proximate examples of a remorseless oppression over the decades.
Such thuggeries are, of course, not unique to Islam. There are extremist groups drawing dubious 'inspiration' from other faiths who ape such conduct as well, and Valentines Day this year - as in the past few years - attracted the ire and violence of Hindu extremist hooligans. But these remain - fortunately - aberrations in the larger context of conduct among adherents of other faiths. They have increasingly become the dominant form of public articulation in the Muslim community.
There is an American Indian saying: 'it takes an entire village to raise a single child'. Similarly, it takes a very large community, often entire nations, to raise a single suicide bomber. For far too long, extremist Muslim discourse has been tolerated - to the point of incitement to murder - in the belief that acts of terrorism are distinct from such ideologies of hatred. But it is the wide acceptance within large sections of Muslim communities in many countries of these ideologies of hatred that produce the environment within which groups can mobilise, recruit motivate, train and deploy terrorists and suicide bombers.
Muslim liberals have long advocated 'understanding and tolerance' when dealing with Muslim sensibilities, but have seldom been known to aggressively argue for greater 'understanding and tolerance' for other faiths in 'Islamic' countries, where the record of intolerance towards and oppression of religious minorities is utterly revolting. There is a great 'Muslim exceptionalism' at work here.
The 'Muslim world' demands an absolute freedom without limits, but confers no freedom whatsoever, either on other faiths, or on dissent within its own faith. The 'tolerance' advocated by certain passages in the Quran is only something to parade at inter-faith conferences, and constitutes no part of the practice of most Muslim majority states - no doubt with occasional exceptions.
The demand, today, to impose a selective censorship in Europe on speech that is insulting to Muslims - when similar speech against other faiths enjoys full freedom - is an effort by Muslim minorities to impose, through mass violence and intimidation, their belief systems within the larger systems they have come to inhabit.
Europe would be, not only foolish, but suicidal, if it succumbs to this terrorism and coercion to invent new curbs on the media and on the freedom of speech. The democratic world must remain committed to its enlightenment values and ideals, and to the rough-and-tumble of free discourse in the 'marketplace of ideas'. All communal thuggeries, whatever faith they may claim to 'represent', must be brought to an end, and every available means must be bent to this purpose.
Personally, I think, the more fun we make of our own religions, the better it will be for the whole world, and, indeed, for our respective Faiths. I am immensely proud of being a Sikh, and am confident that no jokes or cartoons can ever undermine the eternal verities of my religion.
(Published in The Pioneer, February 18, 2006)