Sunday, February 15, 2009

“The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars but in ourselves.”

When historians look back on our era and wonder how a relatively small group of Islamist radicals controlled the international agenda for great countries across the globe, they will ask why we failed to heed those words that William Shakespeare wrote four centuries earlier. Last week in Kolkata, India, police arrested the editor and publisher of the city’s most prestigious English-language daily for “hurting the religious feelings” of Muslims. That’s right, we now live in an age where the state can muzzle press freedom because the newspaper hurt someone’s feelings. Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha of The Statesman were hauled before a judge on February 11 and charged under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code which outlaws “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.” The law is unclear, as one might imagine when it comes to specific and objective criteria for determining one’s intentions. It appears that Section 295A trusts this Solomon-like task to whichever bureaucrat happens to take a fancy to pursuing a case.

The Statesman’s offending action took place on February 5 when it reprinted an article that began, “The right to criticise religion is being slowly doused in acid.” Its thesis is that criticizing religion is essentially different from criticizing other ideas because its evidence is faith, which is neither verifiable nor replicable; and religion gets special treatment that erodes essential and hard-won freedoms. He cites the changed role of the United Nations Rapporteur on Human Rights who “has always been tasked with exposing and shaming those who prevent free speech.” But the UN Human Rights Council has charged the role to identifying “‘abuses of free expression’ including ‘defamation of religions and prophets’….Instead of condemning the people who wanted to murder Salman Rushdie, they will be condemning Salman Rushdie himself.”

The article’s motley collection of ideas is within the tradition of the anti-religious European left. Were it not, action of the UN Human Rights Council would have come as no surprise. No doubt, the author was not one of those people outraged by the Jew-hating fest that was the Council’s Durban Conference. He offers ideas with which I agree and those with which I disagree. And that is his point: that our reaction to words should determine their legality. But it is not mine.

The Indian government did not act because these words were particularly heinous. It has remained passive in the face of far worse. For instance, it took no action against the Mumbai publisher of “The Jewish Fifth Column in India” or against those responsible for bringing India the anti-Jewish forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The government acted in this case because Muslims made it an issue and orchestrated several days of riots—which subsided as soon as Kumar and Sinha were arrested. It did the same thing during when a paper published the famous Mohammed cartoons. It is part of successive Indian governments’ policies of appeasement and what nationalists call pseudo secularism. That refers to the fact that India is supposed to be a secular nation but out of fear places Islam in a privileged position; hence, pseudo secularism.

India is not alone in stifling free expression for fear of upsetting Muslims. When Toronto demonstrators attacked Jewish students and yelled that “Hitler should have finished the job [and killed all the Jews],” police told the Jewish students to disperse, and Canada’s “Human Rights Commission” refused to entertain their complaints. Other, mostly leftist, governments, too, are undermining their principles of free expression to appease growing Islamic populations and their countries of origin. Moreover, they are taking these actions when these populations take to the streets because, they say, they are upset. That is the very moment when doing so is most dangerous; when appeasement in 2009 could have the same consequences it did in 1937. For if history has taught us anything, it is that rewarding bad behavior produces, not peace, but only more bad behavior.

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