By Praveen Swami
Aug 1, 2013
Early this week, a Shari’a committee in the rebel-held Syrian city of Aleppo issued an edict banning a certain crusty delicacy that’s seduced millions across the world with its frankly vampish texture and fragrance.
No, the enemy isn’t pork chops—it’s the croissant. The pious and wise of Aleppo, the newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat reports, believe the crescent-shaped bread celebrates a Christian triumph over Islam and is thus forbidden to True Believers.
There’s no more ironclad axiom of human behaviour than this: never underestimate the stupidity of True Believers, whatever their True Belief might be. There’s one a well-tested corollary to this: never underestimate the cowardice of rational people.
It’s this fear that’s helping India take giant strides towards becoming Aleppo.
Earlier this week, Madras University’s Centre for Islamic Studies cancelled a talk by the American scholar of Islam and feminist Amina Wadud—the latest in a depressing series of confrontations between reason and the religious right, each of which has been won by the wrong side.
Wadud, waiting for a delayed flight in Calicut, says she was told at the last minute not to bother coming to Chennai. PK Abdul Rahiman, the centre’s head, says he received a text message from local police, warning him of threats of violence if the talk went ahead. Moosa Raza, the director of another institute where Wadud was scheduled to speak, says he received no such warning. Islamist groups have said they did intend to protest, but deny violent intent. The Hindu records Chennai police authorities as denying they have anything at all to do with the scandal.
It’s anyone’s guess who is telling the truth—but that’s not the point. Unless speech incites violence, democracies ought be protecting it. Bar a handful of Chennai intellectuals, though, no-one has spoken out.
Not one single political or religious leader seems to think this is important.
It bears mention that Wadud isn’t—at least to sane minds—a contentious figure. She attracted some ire in 2005, when she bucked tradition by leading prayers in New York. Her work has focussed on what she describes as “gender jihad”, using interpretative theology to give legitimacy to a recasting of patriarchal practices in actually-existing Islam. In a 2010 tribute, fellow scholars discussed her intellectual legacy in terms which make clear that Wadud is a respectful believer seeking to reform Islam from within, not a radical seeking to dismantle its pillars.
Her silencing, though is part of a depressing pattern.
In April, Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia cancelled an speaking invitation to the Canadian anti-Islamist activist Tarek Fateh, after some students voiced anger. Fatah—whose fine scholarship is matched by a certain inclination to the theatrical—later warned of “a mini-Pakistan growing in Delhi itself, at Jamia. That drew ire from Jamia’s student newspaper, which wrote that a small “bunch of students managed to frighten the university administration into submission”.
Yet, the fact is the silent majority stayed silent.
Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise: it wasn’t that long ago, after all, that Rajasthan’s government used conveniently-timed intelligence warnings—involving colourfully-named but imaginary Dawood Ibrahim henchmen called “Altaf Balti” and “Aslam Kongo”—to keep Salman Rushdie away from the Jaipur Literary Festival. The idea was to placate the Jama’at-e-Islami, which had mobilised against Rushdie’s visit; doubtless coincidentally, the reactionary religious party is important to the Congress government’s electoral prospects in Rajasthan.
Like the universities now embroiled in contention, the organisers of the Jaipur Literary Festival collaborated with the government decision—and even slammed authors who read from Rushdie’s novel.
Freedom of expression, you see, just wasn’t worth compromising a gravy-train for—and so, it goes on.
Last year, the holy-fraud busting campaigner Sanal Edamaruku was charged with blasphemy by Mumbai church-goers, after committing the sin of pointing out that the little drops of water dripping off a statue of Jesus on Irla Road weren’t holy tears, but leaking plumbing with dangerous bacteria.
Gujarat fashion designers Gayatri Mantra and Navkar Mantra were prosecuted for using Hindu scripture on their dresses; a Hyderabad trader for having Quranic inscription on clothing—both art forms, parenthetically, with venerable roots in antiquity.
Indian law is being used against bloggers who happened not to think Bal Thackeray was wonderful; to end broadcasts of television programmes offensive to some Sikhs. There are loons who want a law permitting heretics to be prosecuted for murder.
I’m not even counting the great body of internationally-reputed books removed from our intellectual life for one reason or the other. Delhi University’s disgraceful decision to remove AK Ramanujam’s stellar essays on variant readings of the Ramayana; the ban on James Laine’s Shivaji; the still-in-force prohibition of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses: the list goes on, and on and on.
For the most part, these kinds of bans pander to small minorities. In astellar article, the journalist Anuj Kumar noted that Muslim audiences were supremely un-provoked even by uncensored versions of Vishwaroopam, despite the exhortations of fanatics and the efforts of politicians. Each time we fail to stand up to these small minorities of bigots, though, they emerge empowered.
Aleppo’s croissant helps understand how half-truths and blinkers build True Believer’s world-view. The idea that the croissant celebrates Austria’s victory over Turkey at the gates of Vienna in 1683 is a popular one—repeated ad-nauseam online. Had the pious of Aleppo spent a little more time reading before they outraged they’d have learned that this story is of nineteenth century origin; another version says it celebrates of the pagan moon goddess Astarte. They’d have learned that the very first croissant, actually, wasn’t actually made until 1839.
The wise and pious might also have stopped to wonder if it’s actually true that all croissants are crescent shaped.
There was this philosopher who was born in a very different Aleppo back in 973CE, the wise and rational Abul ‘Ala al-Marri. He wrote, Kenan Malik records:
Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
One, man intelligent without religion,
The second, religious without intellect.