Secularism contested

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IT is hardly surprising that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who heads a supposedly secular UPA government, has chosen to write a letter to the Imam of Delhi’s historic Jama Masjid condemning the controversial cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in September 2005, and later reproduced by newspapers in several European countries to ostensibly reaffirm their freedom of expression. While the ‘communal’ BJP legitimises the most conservative, backward-looking sadhus, mahants and other charlatans who masquerade as religious leaders, the ‘secular’ Congress does the same with self-serving, fanatic Muslim clerics who claim to represent their community. By recognising the Imam as a legitimate leader of India’s Muslim community and thus strengthening his position, Manmohan Singh was simply emulating his late leader Indira Gandhi who had entered into a written pact with his father before the 1980 Lok Sabha elections so as to garner Muslim votes.

Who is this worthy to deserve a prime ministerial communication? It is the same person who led processions to demonstrate support for Osama bin Laden and delivered rabble-rousing speeches showering fulsome praise on the supreme leader of international Islamic terrorism. He has become, like his forefathers, the hereditary Imam of Shah Jehan’s Jama Masjid in complete disregard of the fact that Islam has no place for hereditary priesthood and every good Muslim is entitled to lead the prayers.

The way secularism is practised in India faced its first real challenge two decades ago when BJP leader L.K. Advani launched a nationwide debate on it and accused its practitioners of being ‘psuedo-secularists’. For a while, he was able to convince large sections of the Indian society that the Hindu communalism espoused by him and his party was in fact the genuine secularism. Now, more and more people are getting disillusioned with this spurious brand as its true nature was revealed in Gujarat in 2002. However, this should not lull us into believing that all is well with our secularism. Perhaps a time has come when the questioning should be done by those who consider themselves secular and would like to see all religions coexisting in India in peace.

Hindu secularists train their guns exclusively on Hindu communal organisations such as the RSS and its affiliates. Seldom would you find a Hindu secularist criticising a Muslim communal organisation or leader. Perhaps this shyness is born out of fear of being misunderstood and clubbed together with those who have turned Muslim-bashing into a profitable business. Since Muslims as a community remain socially, educationally and economically backward, they receive nothing but sympathy from our secularists who try their best to rationalise the reactionary politics of Muslim leaders. Muslim secularists often come into conflict with communal elements within their community but Hindu communalists remain the main target of their attack.

While the Muslims and their leaders want the support of other communities when they are under attack, they rarely extend such support to others. A majority of those who are pitted against Hindu communalists for their role in the state-sponsored anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat and communal violence elsewhere happen to be Hindus. When the Babri mosque was demolished, non-Muslims were in the forefront to oppose this boorish, vengeful act. They took out processions and organised protest demonstrations all over the country. But one did not witness any such initiative from the so-called Muslim leaders when the Bamiyan Buddhas were being blasted by the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan with great fanfare using explosives and tanks. In fact, if one witnessed anything, it was angry demonstrations in support of Saddam Hussein, Taliban and Osama bin Laden. They did not take out processions even in support of Christians when they were (and are) being persecuted in Dangs in Gujarat and elsewhere.

People are no longer amused to see that the Muslim masses are mobilised by their leaders exclusively on emotive, religious issues. They are also no longer amused to see that the Muslims want to enjoy the unfettered right to practice their religion in accordance with the Shariat as they understand it, but do no raise their voice to demand that similar rights be extended to non-Muslims in societies where Muslims happen to constitute a formidable majority. In Saudi Arabia, no non-Muslim can practice his faith publicly. Also, it strictly adheres to the Shariat laws, both civil as well as criminal. Indian Muslims, who can be so easily mobilised to protest any suggestion of a reform in Shariat laws, recently got a taste of it when one of their own was sentenced by a Saudi court. The accused had damaged one eye of his victim during a fight. So, the Saudi court ordered that one of his eye too should be gouged out in accordance with the Shariat laws. There was clamour for mercy from Indian Muslims as well as the government, and as the order came on the eve of the Saudi monarch’s New Delhi visit, he used his powers to pardon the man.

This incident made it clear that Shariat is invoked only to keep the womenfolk subjugated to male supremacy, to maintain the stranglehold of orthodox clergy, and to keep the Muslims away from social reform. In India, a demand is also raised periodically for establishing Sharia courts on the plea that Muslims should be judged not according to the laws of the land but according to Islamic laws. An example of how Sharia courts can function is provided by Irshad Manji in her thought-provoking book, The Trouble With Islam Today.

In 1999, the self-appointed Sharia Court of the UK issued a death warrant against playwright Terence McNally who had portrayed Jesus Christ as a gay man. Sheikh Omar bin Bakri Mohammad, a Sharia Court judge, signed a fatwa against him saying he should be executed in an Islamic state – a grim reminder of the Salman Rushdie episode. However, he gave him a choice: By converting to Islam, McNally could escape beheading!

If a person reads about another religion, observes its practice and becomes so impressed by it that he/she is willing to give up his present religion to embrace it, there can be no dispute with his/her decision. History offers us many such examples about genuine religious conversion. In the recent past, Raja Rammohun Roy and Pandita Ramabai embraced Christianity, Annie Beasant give up Christianity for Theosophy, and Lala Lajpat Rai’s father informally became a Muslim, observing all the Islamic rituals at home while not allowing his wife to observe her Hindu practices. Such religious conversions cannot be faulted because they are based on a person’s independent, rational decision. However, not many would feel happy with conversions based on allurement or physical or social coercion. It is often seen that, barring a few honourable exceptions, when a Muslim boy or girl marries a non-Muslim, conversion to Islam takes place.

Use of coercion continues to remain a legitimate means to convert non-Muslims into Islam. Those secular historians who push it under the carpet and place almost exclusive emphasis on the role of sufi saints in spreading the faith in India should read Iqbal’s Shiqwa (Complaint to the God) to see how much pride he displays in the Sword of Islam and how bitter he is about Allah rewarding the Kafirs instead of the Muslims, ignoring their services to the faith. The persecution complex so universally seen among the Muslims of today was even more pronounced in Iqbal nearly a century ago. All that he had was a hankering for the long past glory of Islam. Is it a mere coincidence that both Iqbal and Jinnah belonged to families which had given up Hinduism in favour of Islam in the not-too-distant past?

Since Prophet Muhammad was completely against idol worship and his followers greatly revered him, he feared that after his death his portraits or images might be worshiped by them. Therefore, he ordered them never to represent him in any form. This is the reason why Muslims consider drawing or painting a picture of the prophet as an act of blasphemy.

Non-Muslims have to live in Pakistan and several other Muslim countries in terror under the blasphemy laws. It is another matter that these laws are often invoked against Muslims too to settle personal or ideological scores. More often than not, besides non-Muslims, enlightened Muslims with liberal opinions are the ones who face the full fury of these laws. The punishment for blasphemy is nothing less than death.

No wonder the believers protesting against the Danish cartoons are displaying placards with slogans like ‘Slay the Enemies of Islam’ and ‘Death to Those Who Insult Islam’ written on them. They are torching embassies of Denmark, Norway and other western countries, killing innocents and themselves getting killed in the process. The cartoons are undoubtedly offensive and cannot be defended, but so are the violent attacks on embassies. Now even the Indian High Commission has become a target of protesters in Islamabad. Angry demonstrations are taking place everyday in Indian cities too.

If there is a conspiracy behind the publication of offensive cartoons by several European newspapers, its opponents too have entered into a conspiracy to foment trouble. They have added three cartoons, which are even more offensive, to the original ones. These were never published by European newspapers. So, the protesters themselves are guilty of the same crime, that is, drawing offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.

When nearly a decade ago, Bajrang Dal and VHP activists vandalised an exhibition of M.F. Husain’s paintings in Ahmedabad because it included works that depicted the Hindu goddess Saraswati in the nude, many secular individuals and organisations stood up in his defence in the name of freedom of artistic expression. However, after some time, the artist tendered a public apology, obliquely admitting that he had made a mistake. And there was egg on the face of secularists. Now again, the nonagenarian painter, whose hunger for publicity seems to be as insatiable as his self-advertised libido, has stirred up another controversy by painting Bharat Mata in the nude. Once again, he has apologised, thus giving rise to suspicion that he deliberately creates these controversies. One is tempted to ask him the same question that was once asked by his fellow painter Satish Gujral: Can Husain show the same courage and court controversy by playing with Islamic icons or symbols? Needless to say, Gujral had to face scathing criticism from secularists who accused him of communalising the issue and casting aspersions on Husain’s secular credentials.

Those who lament that all Muslims are being painted with the terrorism brush should reflect on the direction this community is heading towards. Deep faith in one’s religion is quite different from wearing religion on one’s sleeve. In an entry in his diary, Iqbal wrote: ‘All nations accuse us of fanaticism. I admit the charge. Fanaticism is patriotism for religion; patriotism, fanaticism for the country.’ Any takers?

Kuldeep Kumar


Towards knowledge societies

ARE we on the threshold of a new age – that of knowledge societies? The scientific upheavals of the 20th century have brought about a third industrial revolution, that of the new technologies, which are essentially intellectual technologies. This revolution, which has been accompanied by a further advance of globalization, has laid down the bases of a knowledge economy, placing knowledge at the heart of human activity, development and social change.

Yet information is not knowledge; and the incipient world information society, will only fulfil its potential if it facilitates the emergence of pluralistic and participative knowledge societies that include rather than exclude.

Does this mean that the 21st century will see the development of societies of shared knowledge? As underlined by the UNESCO World Report Towards Knowledge Societies, coordinated by Jérôme Bindé and just published in six languages, there should be no excluded individuals in learning societies: for knowledge is a public asset that should be accessible to all. Knowledge has two remarkable qualities: its non-rivality and, once the period of protection under intellectual property rights has lapsed, its non-exclusivity. The first illustrates a property of knowledge already highlighted in the observation of Jefferson: ‘He who receives an idea from me receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.’ The second signifies that anyone can make free use of knowledge belonging to the public domain.

There is a clear awareness today that the development of societies predicated on the sharing of knowledge is the best way of waging effective war on poverty and forestalling major health risks such as pandemics, of reducing the terrible loss of life caused by tsunamis and tropical storms, and of promoting sustainable human development. For new modes of development are today within our grasp: these are no longer based, as in the past, on ‘blood, sweat and tears’, but rather on intelligence, the scientific and technological capacity to address problems, intellectual added value, and the expansion of services in all sectors of the economy, which should be conducive to civic development and, in response to the risk society, the growth of a forward-looking democracy.

However, five obstacles stand in the way of the advent of societies of shared knowledge:

* The digital divide, no connection means no access. True, the number of Internet users is increasing all the time, having reached close on one billion. Yet two billion people are not connected to an electricity grid and three-quarters of the global population have little or no access to basic telecommunication facilities.

* The cognitive divide, even deeper and much older, constitutes a major rift between North and South, as it does within every society.

* The concentration of knowledge, particularly high-tech knowledge, as well as large-scale scientific and educational investment – on restricted geographical areas, reinforcing the brain drain from South to North as well as North-North and South-South directions.

* Knowledge exists to be shared, but once it is converted into information, it has a price. How is the necessary balance to be struck between the universality of knowledge, implying accessibility to all, and respect for intellectual property rights?

* The development of societies of shared knowledge is today hampered by the deepening social, national, urban, family, educational and cultural divides affecting many countries and by the persistent gender divide reflected in the fact that 29% of girls on the planet do not attend school and that women are under-represented in the sciences.

To overcome these obstacles, the nations of the world will have to invest massively in education, research, info-development and the promotion of learning societies. What is at stake is the destiny of every country, since nations that fail to invest sufficiently in knowledge and quality education and science jeopardize their own future, running the risk of finding themselves drained of vital brain power.

What are the practical solutions proposed in the report Towards Knowledge Societies? Here are some examples:

* Invest more in quality education for all to ensure equal opportunity. Countries should earmark a substantial share of their GNP for educational spending; donor countries should raise the percentage of development aid intended for education.

* Governments, the private sector and social partners should explore the possibility of introducing progressively, over the 21st century, a ‘study-time entitlement’ giving individuals the right to a number of years of education after the completion of compulsory schooling. In this way, everybody would have access to lifelong training and would be given a second chance in the case of having left school early.

* While increasing investment in scientific research and in quality research geared to future challenges, there is also a need to promote practical and innovative approaches to the sharing of knowledge, such as the collaboratory. This new virtual institution, telescoping laboratory and collaboration in one word, enables researchers to work together in crossfrontier scientific networks. This innovation, to which we owe the deciphering of the human genome, could change North-South relations in the scientific field and curb the brain drain.

* There’s also a need to promote linguistic diversity in the new knowledge societies and turn to account local and traditional knowledge.

But can the South afford knowledge societies? Are they not a luxury reserved for the North? One could of course reply by paraphrasing Lincoln: ‘If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance!’ Should we not draw the lesson from the success of many countries in the world? Some have invested massively over several decades in education and scientific research and have succeeded in substantially reducing absolute poverty. Certain have already overtaken many rich countries in terms of their per capita GDP. Others, which were already among the most advanced countries, have further boosted their chances globally, while continuing to raise their level of sustainable human development.

Can it be said that a world that now devotes a trillion dollars annually to military spending lacks the means to promote knowledge societies for all? Substantial funding for education and knowledge could also be released by bold reform policies aimed at reducing non-productive expenditure, improving the efficiency of public services, streamlining bureaucracies, eliminating ineffective grants and combating corruption.

To meet the challenge of a world deeply divided by disparities of all kinds, and to address the contradiction between the global nature of our problems and the partitioning of knowledge, there is no alternative to knowledge sharing. To paraphrase an African proverb, knowledge is like love – it is the only thing that grows by being shared.

Koïchiro Matsuura


© Unesco