Bastion of Free Speech

Thursday, Sep 20, 2001

The Trouble with Infallibility
Niranjan Ramakrishnan

I recall a time not too long ago, when any criticism of wrongs in the Soviet Union would be answered, not by a shrug saying the place wasn't perfect, but by a long hectoring on how the USSR did not represent true Communism. And China and Eastern Europe? Neither did they. They had not followed the doctrinaire Marxist revolution - so! The point being that Marxism was a perfect theory and could not be possibly be wrong - it was all these examples which had failed. One finally realized there could be no discussion. As the saying goes, you can wake someone who is really asleep, but never someone pretending to sleep.

Is this true of Islam? For each terrorist act committed by Muslims, many Muslim leaders feel impelled to declare that the perpetrators were not True Muslims. They seem to be not in the least self-conscious about how utterly simplistic, if not fatuous, this answer sounds. Some even go to the trouble of explaining that the word Islam means peace. If one is a True Muslim (or Hindu, or Christian, or Sikh, or Jew, put True before your favorite religion) only when adhering to high standards of conduct, one can safely conclude that there are very few True followers of any faith. Such breezy disavowal is even more infuriating when you think what Salman Rushdie was threatened with when he wrote The Satanic Verses. When accused of apostasy, he said repeatedly he was not a practicing Muslim. Nonsense, said the mullahs - if you are born to the faith, there is no escape, no matter what you believe.

So here we have the ultimate irony: Rushdie was ordained to be a Muslim even though he cried himself hoarse saying he didn't want to be one. But anyone accused of terrorism is sought to be disowned even when he commits his very act in the name of Islam!

To be sure, hypocrisy is not the exclusive preserve of any single group. But the Muslim world would do well to examine what causes large numbers of Muslims to quote and interpret the teachings of their faith so frequently in sustaining and justifying violent action. The glib answer, that it is in response to Israeli, or Russian, or Serbian violence, is no longer enough. It may be that all these countries have provoked violence. But the question is not Why a violent response? Instead it is Why a response couched in terms of Islam? And then there is the other retort - often aired these days - that the 19 hijackers are no more representative of Islam than Timothy McVeigh was of Christianity. That statement is absurd on many counts, not least because McVeigh did nowhere say he had performed his act as his Christian duty. Public opinion has a shrewd way of assaying the babel and figuring out what is an aberration and what is not. With large numbers of people willing to believe there is something beyond a mere deviancy at work, Islam's spokesmen (there are few spokeswomen - and that may be part of the problem) have a daunting communication challenge, to say the least. Airy dismissals of anyone suggesting of a systemic problem are about as persuasive as Taliban disclaimers on bin Laden's whereabouts.

Take just once recent incident. A Muslim organization in Kashmir has issued a deadline warning Muslim women not to step out in public without the veil, failing which - and they made examples of a few women to show they meant business - they would mutilate their faces by throwing acid. This threat was issued in the name of Islam, and supported, ironically, by a couple of Muslim womens' organizations, among others. Aren't all these organizations not True Muslims per the Islamic spokesmen? Where is the fatwa asking them to cease and desist from this atrocity? Or does terrorism occur only when Americans die?

The antidote to the delusion of infallibility is democracy. It claims no certitude, but in the long run, is the only self-correcting system. As the writer Rajinder Puri once said, if only Marx had written about the Democracy of the Proletariat instead of Dictatorship, the 20th century might have had an easier time of it. Can Islam be democratized? Only upon the emergence of a strong human rights and free-speech movement in the Islamic world. There has to be a more convincing response to unfavorable publicity than today's all-season cry of, "Islam is in Danger". To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, every criticism of muslims is not a criticism of Islam. No Islamic Voltaire has yet emerged to say "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it." Instead the Islamic sky seems to be rent with cries of blasphemy, apostasy, idolatry, and the rest. Sorely needed instead are signs of a calm self-assurance. Islam has certainly had such days in its past. There is a famous report of a Christian traveler who, in Islam's heydey, ascended the tallest minaret in the Islamic world, and loudly denounced Islam and praised Christianity, without coming to any harm.

The story goes that an Indian religious leader was deported from a Greek island shortly after he arrived there on a brief tour. The Orthodox Church had lobbied and convinced the government that he was "threatening our religion by corrupting the morals of the youth". As he left, he had a message for the Church, "You have been here for 2000 years. You must have built a great religion if it can be threatened by a man on a 4-day visit."

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