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Myth called secularism

Publication Date : 17-09-2012


The past week has been an excellent reminder of the fragile relationship that art and culture shares with its larger, more socio-political cousin: religion. Those who defend the arts suddenly find themselves on thin ice, confronted by this beast around whom one must, supposedly, tread carefully. It must rest on artists, writers, filmmakers — “creative folks”, in short — to prove their case, again, while the defenders of the faith rest easy knowing none can go up against their beliefs. Of course, it’s easier defending an idea like god: an omniscient entity that provides its followers adequate moral authority to threaten, maim, riot, burn and kill.

Religious bigots come in many different shapes and forms — depending on whose divine authority they presume to possess — but a common ideology that binds them across the world is stupidity. From the Coptic Christian (who first pretended to be a Jew, just to make matters worse) who made a bigoted film on Islam, to the rioters in Benghazi who killed the US ambassador and three others, to the World Hindu Federation goons who presume their critical analysis of art remains the only interpretation of artist Manish Harijan’s works — a common thread is to be found: that of ignorance, of willful blindness. They will continue to flourish as long as religion continues to exist; and their actions will continue to be a mirror of the faith they pretend to uphold.

How does one argue against an invisible judge, jury and executioner? How does one present opposing views to a people who pretend to speak for the gods (or god, if you swing that way)?

Capitulation, it seems, is not sufficient.  An example here would suffice. After the Iranian mullah’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie, he brought out a statement meant to placate the hungry wolves: “Living as we do in a world of many faiths this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.” But no, the Ayatollah wasn’t satisfied; the fatwa stayed. An excerpt from his upcoming memoir, Joseph Anton, reveals the distress he felt: “When he was first accused of being offensive, he was truly perplexed. He thought he had made an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of revelation — an engagement from the point of view of an unbeliever, certainly, but a genuine one nonetheless. How could that be thought offensive?"

It’s difficult to create, to imagine, with a lingering doubt in the back of one’s mind: will this be regarded as offensive to someone? I don’t personally know Manish, but I imagine he must have had similar thoughts as Rushdie. How did a work that is meant to presuppose how the gods would react to popular culture’s gods — superheroes — offend someone? How did a “tolerant” thread of Hinduism — as we’ve always liked to label Nepal’s religiosity at INGO sessions — become intolerant overnight?

The worst offender in this episode has been the Nepal Police, our guardians of law and order. Public hooliganism in the name of political violence has always been tolerated by them, but if they are now tilting towards behaving like the Gujarat Police did in 2002, it’s a worrying thought. Capitulating to the possible political fallout of an insignificant bunch of Hindu fanatics will only make the police lose its face — as it already has — while giving teeth to the bigots. Today, it was Manish Harijan. Tomorrow, it will be a mosque, or a church. The day after, it will be state capture. The old adage, nip the evil in the bud, has never been more relevant.

Perhaps, there’s a lesson here from Uncle Sam. They’ve lost an ambassador to a people whom they helped, they’ve once again been labelled Satan, and their hopes on the Arab Spring’s end results have been dashed. But not for once — no, not even once — have they said they will prosecute the hateful filmmaker.  "The film is not representative of who we are and our values,” Obama said. Indeed, the film is not. It is made by another one of the bigots who think they are doing god’s work, and has succeeded in provoking another bunch of bigots. Despite this, the US government will not prosecute the filmmaker; instead, it is looking to provide him security if necessary.

A lot of debate in Nepal since the 2006 agreement and the 2008 CA elections has gone into what the nature of the new state should be like. Our lawmakers have inserted the term “secularism” into our preamble, but there has been very little debate on what secularism really means. The US reaction should provide ample evidence as to what it should mean: an undying commitment to the freedom of religion, not a shameful support to a fringe group of haters who’d hungrily take an arm for every finger they were offered.

Appeasing religious fascists is not the job of the state; its duty is to protect its citizens, no matter how important or unimportant they are. Our “New Nepal”, unfortunately, believes otherwise: religious hordes must be placated, else “communal harmony” will be disturbed. Rubbish. If communal harmony is to be founded on as thin a pillar as an invisible, non-existent entity, I’d rather we believed in Superman than god. Like Christopher Hitchens once wrote: “(Religious belief) is a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep… every waking and sleeping minute of your life…before you’re born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you’re dead. A celestial North Korea.”


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