Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Answer is Gandhi

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: The Answer is Gandhi

Sequence and consequence do not always follow the same logic: the publication of the gratuitously offensive cartoons against the Prophet of Islam (you can translate that, literally, to the Prophet of Peace for Islam means peace) has already resonated through contemporary events. It will also echo far into the future. Any single day’s newspaper was sufficient to indicate that simmering resentment against the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, for instance, found a reason to escalate into anger. There are too many questions around this conscious provocation by an irresponsible Danish newspaper, fuelled by a less than comprehensible Danish government, and not enough answers.

The first question must surely be the simplest one: Why? More than one answer has been offered. One editor of the paper appeared on European television and said, so primly that he was on the verge of sounding pompous, that the cartoons were not meant to hurt Muslims but only to represent, through an image, that a number of Muslims had become terrorists. This is the sort of argument that sounds reasonable to a neutral mind until you pare open the first layer of deception. If that was the purpose, why not use an image of Osama bin Laden? Why use the image of the Prophet, which by itself is offensive to a faith that rejects, very strongly, any iconography or deification? We have published cartoons on Osama fairly regularly in our papers without anyone raising any objection.

This is buttressed by the "freedom of press" argument, a view endorsed so strongly by the media of continental Europe (but not, repeat not, by British media) that sensible publications like Le Monde have reprinted the cartoons twice. Far be it for me to decry press freedom. It is my bread and butter. But I have yet to come across a nation or society that offers freedom of expression without the qualification of libel or similar safeguards. One of our editors asked the Danish embassy in Delhi to let us know if they had any libel laws. They promised to get back to us. We are still waiting. But text is not difficult to find in the age of Internet. I quote from Section 266B of the Danish penal code: "Any person who publicly or with the intention of dissemination to a wide circle of people makes a statement or imparts other information threatening, insulting or degrading a group of persons on account of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin, belief or sexual orientation, shall be liable to a fine, simple detention or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years." Section 140 adds, "Those who publicly mock or insult the doctrines or worship of any religious community that is legal in this country, will be punished by a fine or incarceration for up to four months."

This is as civilised as it gets. The reason for such legislation is not a history of abuse against Islam, but a history of virulent anti-Semitism, for which Europe holds some kind of pernicious record. I warmly applaud such laws which protect Jews from verbal and image-barbarism. There are laws in Europe by which anyone denying the Holocaust can end up in jail, and a poor British historian is in an Austrian jail at the moment for doing so. Excellent. Then why is the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, pleading helplessness? He did not have to convict anyone himself, for the very good reason that he cannot. But he could have easily referred the matter to his own country’s judiciary and awaited their decision. During the long months when nothing happened over the cartoons this would have been sufficient to calm Muslim unease over the insults. The cartoons appeared on 30 September. There was no public reaction in October, November, December and most of January. But there was official reaction. The Saudi and Libyan governments withdrew their ambassadors. The Danish Prime Minister, who is desperate for a peaceful dialogue now, held no press conferences then. Eleven ambassadors of Muslim countries wanted to talk to him. They got a polite letter which they construed as a snub.

One reason for the anger is the conviction of gratuitous bias against Muslims. It has now emerged, thanks to a story in the Guardian, that the same Danish newspaper rejected a series of cartoons against Jesus some three years ago because they were deemed to be offensive. It was the correct decision. Journalists like the editor of the German publication Die Welt, who has gone on record to say that the publication of the cartoons is "at the core of our culture" would not find enough freedom in his press to publish a cartoon (produced in a British newspaper, the Independent, in January 2003) showing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dining off Palestinian babies. I am a journalist too, and would not publish it either. But the editors of continental Europe have suddenly broken into paroxysms of moral indignation at any attempt to question their right to publish offensive cartoons against Islam. Freedom of press was not trotted out to defend nastiness against Jesus or indeed Israel’s Prime Minister. To do so now is mendacity.

The International Herald Tribune of 9 February reported that Fleming Rose, cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten (the Danish newspaper that started the controversy) told CNN that his paper was ready to publish cartoons of the Holocaust that were being encouraged by an irresponsible Iranian newspaper, as if two wrongs added up to a right. His newspaper, however, quickly denied any such intentions.

I was in Britain last weekend when this storm was raging. I don’t think that British newspapers have any less desire for a free press than their Continental counterparts. And yet, none of them published the cartoons, although there was doubtless pressure to do so. The BBC (more accurately known as the British Boredcasting Corporation) did a typical weaselly sort of fudge, showing a bit and then removing the image so that it could claim to have it both ways, but no one was very impressed. Instead, newspapers from across the ideological spectrum, from the Observer on the left to the Sunday Telegraph on the right, published powerful and moving accounts of what it meant to respect the faith of the other. The British media, which is not wimpish and which can be the most aggressive in the world, can today claim the respect of Muslims because of its restraint. British Muslims today feel closer to their country.

Hindus and Muslims have lived with one another as long as Muslims and Christians have. You can go through the literature, popular songs or journalism of India and you will not come across a Hindu writer insulting the Prophet of Islam or a Muslim writer insulting a Hindu God. This does not mean that either has changed his faith. It merely means that in India we have a culture that respects the right of another to believe in a different creed, and values a neighbour’s sentiment as much as his own.

The Danish Prime Minister began to perspire only when Muslims across the world started to boycott Danish products. His God is commerce, so the only retribution he understands is an insult to that commerce. Muslims who think that violence is the answer, have got it wrong. Violence is wrong in itself, and counterproductive. A boycott of Danish products is far more productive.

Who did we Indians learn this from? Mahatma Gandhi, of course. His challenge to the British empire began with a boycott of British goods. It was only when he made a bonfire of the coloniser’s cloth did the world’s mightiest empire begin to shiver. It is not too difficult to live without Danish cheese, or even Bang and Olufsen. One would, in fact, like to extend the logic. If you have to buy a European product, buy British. That would be a nice way of saying thank you.

The Danish Prime Minister is searching for answers. But in order to get the right answers you have to ask the right questions. Here is a suggestion, Mr Prime Minister. Do not worry about the enemies Denmark has made. Worry instead about the friends Denmark has lost.

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