Wednesday, February 01, 2006

On the cafuffle regarding the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)

It may be instructive to recollect the history of the relationship between blasphemy (lack of religious "correctness") and state power in the West, something that most Westerners forget, having been secularised for two or three generations.

Representations of God are forbidden in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. However, the Christian West, from the time of the adoption of Christianity as the state religion by the Emperor Constantine in the 3rd/4th Century, started accepting representations of God and of Jesus, though various reformers tried to get the churches to go back to the original ban, with some success from the time of the Reformation (sixteenth century) onwards. One of the main differences between the Reformed (Protestant) churches and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox ones (with Anglican/Episcopal ones falling somewhere in the middle as they are not "properly Reformed" but only "half-Reformed") is that the Radically Reformed ones do not accept representations of God.

It is necessary to make a distinction between, on the one hand, the Magisterial Reformation of reformers such as Luther, which entered into collaboration with state power and do accept representations of God and, on the other hand, the Radical Reformation which does not accept representations of God, and moreover drew a sharp separation between religion and state e.g. in the USA.

Since the Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans were integrally connected to state power, they were more interested in the concept of blasphemy, so that blasphemy laws were put in place more in such countries than in Protestant ones, which pioneered religious liberty, and were therefore more open to discussion of religion from all sorts of perspectives, including attitudes ranging from "merely negative" to that of scoffing and ridicule.

Not only were and are the Protestant areas of the world more economically successful, they were responsible for all the developments that broke the mould of the pre-modern world and created the modern world. These developments include, inter alia, universal literacy, freedom to debate and therefore free thought, the birth of modern science and technology, economic progress and political liberty. It is no exaggeration to say that, in terms of the history of ideas, what we call globalisation is simply Protestant culture without any necessary allegiance to Protestantism (with a still unresolved battle between individualistic greed and communal/global responsibility). That is why the attitude of the Protestantism (lack of interest in the concept of blasphemy) has come to mark the modern world more than the attitude of the Orthodox/ Catholics/Anglicans (and Muslims).

Gradually, the Protestant attitude has come to erode, in this as in other areas, the attitudes of the Orthodox/Catholic/Anglicans, so that such countries have gradually relaxed their blasphemy laws till these are now a dead letter (though the space previously occupied by them is now sought to be filled by laws such as the recent Racial Hatred Bill passed last week in the UK).

India is a special case, where the ruling powers have only rarely (e.g. under the Emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century) attempted to use state power to enforce a particular religious line. That is, till recently, when the Hindu fascist parties, such as the BJP and its allies in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad) under the previous government of Mr Vajpayee tried to do so (and will no doubt do so again if they come back into power). A similar story could be told of Buddhist countries, where traditional tolerance has been replaced by militant Buddhism at the same time as the populations of the countries concerned have largely moved to modern tolerance or even indifference regarding such questions.

My own view is that one cannot have a progressive society, characterised by free markets in goods and services, without an equally free marketplace in religious ideas – because it is impossible to distinguish religious ideas from non-religious ones, or to distinguish ideologies from non-ideologies (the connection between "science" and state power has recently been documented by Philip Mirowski, _The Effortless Economy of Science?_ Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. v + 463 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8223-3322-8). Capitalism itself is an ideology after all and its religion-like qualities have been documented in a spate of books.

So what bearing does all this have on the matter in hand? Briefly, that in a free world, people have the right to express their opinions, including the right to make cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, of Jesus the Lord, of the Buddha, or of any other leader, religious or secular. Equally, individuals and groups (whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or owing allegiance to any other ideology/religion), have the right to be offended, to withdraw their custom/patronage and to express their outrage in any form – except violence.

Of course whenever one takes that view, one has to be aware that one is taking the view that was pioneered by the Radical Reformation and is what distinguishes the modern world from the Islamic world.

Islam has to decide whether it belongs in the modern world pioneered by Protestantism, or whether it will continue to belong to the mental world of the pre-Protestant (that is, pre-modern) parts of the world.

yours sincerely

Prabhu Guptara Sphere: Related Content

No comments: