Hype, cant, and humbug

religious sentiments too often get hijacked by opportunists 
Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed

It is usually sensible not to take the hyperbole of politicians at face value.

The statement made by Narayanganj 3 MP Liyakot Hossain Khoka this week about the debate on free speech and religion kicked off by French President Emmanuel Macron last month arguably falls into this category: “I want to tell this to the president of France — if you were in front of me today, I would have killed you and walked to the gallows with a smile on my face.”

As undiplomatic and unbecoming as this statement clearly is with its glorification of threats of violence, its almost self-satirizing exaggeration and blatant posturing puts it in the realm of hyperbole. Best taken with more than a spoonful of salt.

Personally, the most regrettable aspect of the MP’s statement is the fact he assumes his audience either does not know or care France has not enacted executions since 1977 and EU law is firm about rejecting the death penalty.

It is a sad fact of life that the attitude displayed by the MP’s statement, an assumption that being offended by a perceived slight on one’s religion gives the party taking offense a right to take action — including violence — against those accused of giving offence, is widely prevalent.

In this context, it is worth noting that Bangladeshi law starting with the 1860 Penal Code institutionalizes the colonial era notion that the state should have draconian powers to intervene in and punish cases of allegedly “hurting religious sentiments,” and this is re-iterated within some of the more controversial parts of Bangladesh’s various ICT laws.

The presumption that such laws are upholding social norms worth enforcing is undermined somewhat by the fact that most ordinary people are far too busy working hard to make a living to be much interested in them, although clearly some pay lip service when they hear religious fundamentalists demanding them.

In practice, it is clear from the arbitrary way in which such laws are often applied, that they can easily be abused and serve no positive purpose in upholding the dignity of the faithful.

It cannot be said often enough that laws against blasphemy are pointless in principle, as well as dubious in practice, because the sacred and divine cannot be damaged by hostile words or mere humans alone.

And yet here we are again with another global media debate reinforcing narratives and stereotypes about “free speech v Muslims” which have prevailed ever since the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for the murder of Salman Rushdie.

Not a clash of civilizations

With such debates typically taking a life of their own and generating more heat than light, it is worth taking a step back to recall the timeline of last month’s spat between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Emmanuel Macron.

It was over a month ago on October 2 while introducing plans to present a bill in December to deepen the separation of church and state in France, that Macron spoke against Islamic radicalism and promised to extend France’s ban on the hijab in schools to “outward displays of religious affiliation in schools and the public service.”

While his espousal of secularism as a state creed and condemnations of violence were not in themselves new or controversial, his avowed aim to nurture a “French Islam” and clear focus upon France’s large Muslim community sounded at best impractical and irrelevant.

The complex issues affecting or involving France’s diverse Muslim communities, especially many in alienated suburban banlieues, require rather more in the way of practical action to open opportunities and fight inequality than any quixotic top-down “crusade” can deliver. No wonder the speech struck many who might have otherwise agreed with its intentions, as aping the talking points of the racist Front Nationale.

Horrifyingly, it was in the midst of the subsequent national debate that Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old teacher, was beheaded by an 18-year-old pupil (shot dead by police at the scene) on October 16, who objected to the teacher displaying images of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons during a classroom discussion on free speech.

Not surprisingly, this act of terror was widely condemned around the world, including by some Muslim countries and organizations.

Among the countries issuing condolences at the time was Turkey. Hence, the furore started soon afterwards when President Erdogan commenting on Macron’s original speech and defense of the right to discuss and publish the Hebdo cartoons, queried the French leader’s “mental state,” deserves to be seen more as playing to domestic politics and populism and less as a major new “clash of civilisations.”

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the more interesting and electorally consistent leader but like Macron he too is presently not as popular as he once was and provides an apt contrast.

In his early years of rule, Erdogan liked to portray his Justice and Development Party as an Islamic party mainly in the same sense that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is a Christian party in Germany. Much was made of his party’s pro-Western and pro-EU credentials; Islamic ideals could manifest themselves in more egalitarianism, less nationalist hostility to Kurdish aspirations for self-rule, and amending Ataturk’s partly French-inspired constitution to allow Turkish women to wear headscarves in universities in 2008.

In some ways this still holds true; it’s the economy stupid, after all, and no amount of diplomatic disputes stops Turkey being a member of Nato or continuing military co-operation with Israel. Much of the pro-Western rhetoric has disappeared over the years however, and paranoia about Kurdish separatism has grown in tandem with a taste for a more assertive, neo-Ottoman foreign policy, aspects of which, in the Mediterranean and Syria no doubt, have amplified recent differences between France and Turkey.

Macho head games

Political grandstanding, macho head games, and domestic agendas, not secularist principles or appeals to religious piety, offer plausible explanations for the recent pronouncements of the presidents of these two officially secular republics.

What excuse do other people have then?

It is self-evident that would-be terrorists and mobs are fully capable of inciting themselves to acts of violence without any rational reason or excuse. The fact that they may adopt or leapfrog on the cheap talk of rabble rousers, as a pretext for their violent actions, does not diminish their own culpability.

Equally self-evident is the fact that the more violent their actions the more likely they are to repel rather than attract those in whose name they purport to act.

And it is sadly all too simple to observe that when given the opportunity, such groups seem to enjoy most indulging in persecuting or killing other Muslims.

Yet despite all this, it remains easier and more commonplace for calls for censorship in the name of protecting Muslims from offense to go globally viral than it is for the ummah to work co-operatively and effectively on real world issues.

State-sponsored ethnic cleansing of Rohingya and Uighur minorities in their national homelands come to mind in the present day. But even if such genocidal policies did not exist, or if Islamophobia and accompanying forms of racism were less prevalent, it seems that relatively few are willing to state what should be most self-evident of all; namely that the knee-jerk ease with which many people go along with calls for death as punishment for blasphemy, does not actually help Muslims.

While such furore tends to fizzle out sooner rather than later, the damage done can stick. Instead of hearing about spirituality or Islam as a religion of peace, what people tend to remember from such debates is the attitude and language of gangsters and fascists making threats. The fact that most of the world’s Muslims and non-Muslims alike prefer to live quiet lives without harming or threatening their neighbours all too readily gets overlooked.

This is far from a healthy situation, made worse in countries like Bangladesh by such debates sometimes being left to an unholy mix of political opportunists and religious extremists.

Voices of principle in defense of moderation are rarely heard even when that is how most ordinary people instinctively live. And the colonialist’s assumption that allegations of “hurting religious sentiments” should be policed by draconian state powers lives on, rarely if ever to be challenged.

It would be good to hear more open discussion on such matters. And a lot less humbug.