14 February 2009

God and man (and woman) in India

Cowardice in the face of Islamic thuggery, it seems, is not confined to Europe.

British journalist Johann Hari recently penned this sensible essay observing how religious obscurantists' demands for "respect" are threatening to erode the fundamental right of free expression. That right, of course, means nothing if it does not include the right to challenge sacred cows, but the religious have lately taken to claiming that any criticism of their inane dogmas is somehow a violation of their human rights. Hari sums up the issue:

But when the religious are challenged, there is no evidence for them to consult. By definition, if you have faith, you are choosing to believe in the absence of evidence. Nobody has "faith" that fire hurts, or Australia exists; they know it, based on proof. But it is psychologically painful to be confronted with the fact that your core beliefs are based on thin air, or on the empty shells of reve-lation or contorted parodies of reason. It's easier to demand the source of the pesky doubt be silenced.

But a free society cannot be structured to soothe the hardcore faithful. It is based on a deal. You have an absolute right to voice your beliefs – but the price is that I too have a right to respond as I wish. Neither of us can set aside the rules and demand to be protected from offence.

Hari's writings are (thank goodness) widely published, and one newspaper which printed this essay was the New Statesman, based in Calcutta, India. That very night, 4,000 infuriated Muslims rioted outside the newspaper's offices (India, though predominantly Hindu, has a large Muslim minority), demanding that its editors and Hari himself be arrested. Astonishingly, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested and charged with "deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings". Seldom has the reaction to an essay so clearly affirmed its truth. Hari's response is here:

You do not have a right to be ring-fenced from offence. Every day, I am offended – not least by ancient religious texts filled with hate-speech. But I am glad, because I know that the price of taking offence is that I can give it too, if that is where the facts lead me. But again, the protestors propose a lop-sided world. They do not propose to stop voicing their own heinously offen-sive views about women's rights or homosexuality, but we have to shut up and take it – or we are the ones being "insulting".

India's democracy and secularism have made it an island of pluralism and tolerance in the midst of Islamic failed states and one-party thugocracies. But there, as everywhere, freedom must be defended against the intimidation of mobs, or it will erode. Be very glad, American readers, that you live in a country with a written Constitution including the First Amendment, and with judges who (mostly) actually understand what it means.

Where the authorities are too cowardly to stand up, sometimes ordinary people are not. Another blight on the face of India is a Hindu militant group, Sri Ram Sena, which opposes the increasing social independence of women and preaches that they should be pushed back into traditional roles. In January some members of the group attacked women in a bar in the city of Mangalore, an incident which gained nationwide attention. In response to the group's militancy, a self-declared "consortium of pub-going, loose and forward women" across India, organized via the internet, has settled on Valentine's Day to launch a "pink panty protest" against the moralizing killjoys:

The women said their mission was to go bar-hopping on Febru-ary 14 and send hundreds of pink knickers to Sri Ram Sena, the militant Hindu group that has said pubs are for men, and that women should stay at home and cook for their husbands.

"Girl power! Go girls, go. Show Ram Sena... who's the boss," reads one post on Facebook from Larkins Dsouza.

Growing numbers of young and independent urban women have become an easy target for religious fundamentalists and aging politicians trying to force traditional mores on an increasingly liberal, Western outlook.

Speaking of Valentine's Day, Muslim cleric Hazem Shuman gives the Islamic view here; it's a Zionist conspiracy to promote the evil of romance, apparently.

Where politicians and judges are cowards, perhaps it's women who will save secular democracy? Arguably they have the most to lose if the totalitarian theocrats win.

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