Offended mobs are not as spontaneous as they look
Growing up in an extended joint family comprising several uncles, aunts, grandparents, one great grandparent and hordes of cousins, in small-town India in the early Eighties, demanded innovation for entertainment. With no television, computers or video games, summer afternoons during vacations tended to get dull and long.
Hence, we the children, had to regularly come up with new ideas to amuse ourselves; and given the attention span of children, the games used to get tiresome very fast and new ones had to be thought of.
However, there was one game which nobody tired of and it became a sort of the last resort, whenever the afternoons stretched unbearably. Borne out of boredom, there was nothing brilliant about the game, yet it saw us through several tedious afternoons for a couple of years. The beginning was completely unexpected. One afternoon, my younger brother, all of six then, returned from school livid with a girl, let’s say Tina, in his class. They had fought about something that even he didn’t remember, but he declared that Tina’s name was anathema to him and if anybody ever took her name in his presence he would beat that person up. None of us were even aware of the existence of such a girl, but once her name became a taboo, it was only right that not only us but the neighbourhood kids also know it.
That evening we decided to test the sincerity of his intent. While playing on the terrace, one of us yelled out her name and my younger brother forgetting all about the game we were playing, ran after the offender to fulfil his side of the threat. Even before he could reach him, another cousin from a different direction screamed, ‘Tina’ and my brother ran in his direction. This was great fun. The moment he would reach close to one offender somebody else would call out her name and he would start chasing him. Finally, smeared in tears and dirt, he called it quits and went down to complain to my parents about the harassment he had been put through. A tearful toddler is a heart-breaking sight. All of us were lined up for a general dose of scolding and the matter was forgotten.
A couple of days later, somebody else yelled ‘Tina’ and my brother went after him hammer and tongs. It no longer mattered whether he was on talking terms with the girl in question or not. His argument was that if he has said that the name bothered him it should not be said at all. Being the youngest he found support in the grown-ups who reckoned that it was not such an unreasonable demand. They had no clue that they were rearing a monster. Over the next few years, my brother and following his example, another younger cousin, started coming up with different taboo words every couple of weeks, giving us a minefield of opportunity for fun. Now instead of saying the name out loud, we started surreptitiously scribbling it over his canvas school bag with chalk, or write it on his text-book covers or in play-acting assign the taboo word to one of the characters.
I don’t think my younger brother or cousin’s memories of growing up in a joint family are as pleasant as mine are. The two formed a clique who was constantly harassed by the rest of us. They felt ostracised and misunderstood most of the time and we found them stupid and petulant. Only in their adolescent years could they look back and laugh at their juvenility and our cruelty.
As the number of protesting Muslims in Afro-Asian countries surged earlier this month against the ridiculous film Innocence of Muslim, these childhood pranks came back to me because of their shocking similarity. Is it possible for so many Muslims to be stuck in the pre-pubescent age group? Why is it so difficult for them to see that they see offense at every turn primarily because they set themselves up to be offended? No wonder, every few months there is one offended Muslim in some part of the world, either accusing somebody of committing blasphemy or making fun of their faith.
How can faith be so fickle that anyone can trample over it? Specific to the film, I saw the film much after the violence in Libya and Egypt. Forget about the quality of the movie or its intellectual merit, at no stage I felt that the idiotic sex maniac on the screen had anything to do with Prophet Mohammed. My image of the Prophet is sacred and cannot be tarnished by extraneous factors. If it could be, then clearly it cannot be sacred. Nor is my faith touched by what the world says or thinks about it. Why must I aspire for global approval of what I believe in? Why do I need the whole world to be sanctimonious about what is sacred to me?
If only this was as simple as the outraged Muslims and the wicked world. The trouble is that this outrage is often manipulated and manufactured for diabolical power or destabilisation games. This vulnerability of a large section of the world population, already at the receiving end of religious and community profiling (among other things), is dangerous as it keeps feeding into the sentiment that nurtures extremism, often violent extremism.
While the worldwide Muslim rage against the film passed India by, we had a minor incident of outrage in early September in a village near Delhi. A torn copy of Quran was found on the railway tracks with a mobile number scribbled on it. For some this was offensive enough to give one’s life up. A crowd of offended Muslims converged on the local police station. The situation went out of control. The police lost its nerves and opened fire. As smoke lifted, six Muslims lay dead; three of them teenagers. Apparently, one of the boys, an aspiring sportsperson, was returning from the neighbourhood gymnasium and was caught in the melee.
As police investigations got underway, it emerged that another defaced copy of the Quran was found on the railway tracks in the same area a few months ago. Fortunately, people susceptible to offence got to know of it much after the police who removed the offensive exhibit in time. It does not take genius to see that somebody was trying to take advantage of Muslim propensity for taking offence to create trouble probably of a communal nature without making too great an effort.
Earlier this year, mischief-makers tried to do the same in Kashmir. For consecutive weeks over a month at the onset of summer, burnt pages from the Quran were repeatedly discovered in disparate mosques and Darsgahs (Sufi prayer halls) in the Valley. Some of these mosques were frequented by the Shia Muslims. The intent was obvious. Given that Muslims are so quick to take offence, the miscreants knew that after finding burnt pages of the Quran some would come out on the streets to protest. And how difficult is it to ensure at least one casualty during a protest in Kashmir. The cycle of 2010 could have been repeated without anyone showing their hand. Fortunately, attempts at mounting protests were aborted quickly by the state government and the police. Despite repeated provocations, people didn’t bite the bait.
During one of my visits to Srinagar around that time, one superintendent of police (of J&K state cadre), who is also working on a thesis on Islamic radicalisation, said that attempts are being made to create a Pakistan-like situation in Kashmir. Shia-Sunni trouble, I asked him. “No,” he said. “A Sunni-Sunni trouble, between the Barelvis, Deobandis and the Ahle-Hadis.” He referred to what is now frequently bandied about in Kashmir as: battle of the pulpit. Various factions within Sunni Islam are trying to increase their tribe. Increased number means more mosques, hence, greater international funding and subsequently greater political influence. If radicalisation and intolerance grow as a result, it is nobody’s concern. Masses are meant to be fooled all the time; and used as fodder when required for the so-called greater cause.
The origin of the notorious blasphemy laws of Islam — the crucible of intolerance — lies somewhere here. Blasphemy and the harsh punishments prescribed for blasphemy entered the religion well after the death of the Prophet when the Islamic laws or Hadith were being tabulated. A lot of this came from the memories the jurors had of the Prophet, his conduct and sayings, but plenty came from what the learned jurors thought was essential to maintain the purity/exclusivity or whatever of Islam. Most Muslims worldwide know by heart innumerable examples of Prophet’s act of kindness, generosity, tolerance, equality and so on. What most don’t know are the intricacies of Islamic law or jurisprudence, which is where the importance of the Islamic scholars or ulemas comes in. In its simplest form, Islam envisaged a covenant between the faithful and his God, with no room for any mediator or a mullah. So, traditionally Islam has no clergy.
But can a religion be so simple? Clearly not. Not only were complicated laws introduced which required learned men to interpret them or pronounce justice, ulemas also vested powers in themselves to judge who is and who is not a Muslim. Blasphemy laws, inspired by the early years of Christianity when the church decided who was Christian and who was not (remember Inquisitions or burning on stake of thousands deemed as demons and witches), further strengthened their hold over the quivering masses.
While all religions shook off their inglorious pasts to enter the age of modernity and industrial development, Islam, unfortunately, has been incapable of cutting off the umbilical cord to the past. Illiteracy, lack of development and tyrannical leadership are the obvious factors why a lot of Muslims continue to live in the past; the less obvious (but probably the most important) factor is the all-pervasive nature of the religion itself, which dominates all aspects of a person’s life — personal, professional, social and even political. Combined with the insecurities of after-life heaped upon by the power-hungry clergy, an average person is never able to strike a balance between the temporal and the spiritual.
Not only do Muslims need less ambitious and big-hearted religious leadership, who can steer them through the labyrinth of fun and offence, they also need more sincere and sustained engagement with modernity. For this, it is necessary to minimise as many points of friction as possible. There will always be people or groups who will mock others, and today mockery can reach a wider audience in a short span, but States need to address such incidents with greater imagination instead of hiding behind the plea of freedom of expression. After all, despite all sorts of freedoms, certain form of speech and conduct are proscribed even in the most liberal societies. It will help everyone if moderate Muslims are nudged towards liberalism and the extremists towards moderation. Eventually, it will be these small steps that will go a long way in anchoring offended Muslims firmly in the current century.