These days, again, deliberate blasphemy is becoming a hotly debated topic on social media. This new wave of interest in blasphemy started after slaying of the French teacher Samuel Paty for showing Muhammad cartoons. This act of mindless bigotry invited President Emmanuel Macron’s tough stand against Islamic terrorism, which, in turn, provoked further Islamic violence in Europe and threatening protest in many parts of the Islamic world. Many Islamic clerics and Muslim politicians supported by large numbers of believers in Islam seem to hold the view that the only punishment for insulting Muhammad is beheading. The underlying message of this attitude is that ‘in expressing your views publicly and debating in your own countries you will have to behave according to standards dictated by us, or we will kill you’. A completely unjustifiable supremacist stand on part of Islam. This is a successfully practiced centuries old, though crude, method of controlling peoples thinking. Limiting discourse is a sure way of controlling thinking, as thoughts develop in conversation in societies.
This tendency, though most pronounced and most violently practiced in Islam, is by no means unique to Islam. All religions and all believers in religious precepts do have this tendency, even if not always practiced so violently. As a reaction another section of people is resorting to mindless blasphemy. I came across some examples on a twitter handle depicting Rama and Muhammad in a homosexual embrace and a similar depiction of Sita and Kali.
The twitter handle announces more ‘art’ like this, involving Hindu Goddess Kali and Muhammad. The person(s) seems to be mainly interested in Islamic religious figures and Hindu gods/goddesses. In my view this is precisely the kind of blasphemy that needs to be avoided and discouraged. By discouraging, however, I most certainly do not mean beheading, trolling, banning or any kind of forcible restriction. All I mean is expressing opinion against such art.
To my mind this expresses only filth of mind. Why do I say that?
When blasphemy is used as a tool against curbing of freedom of expression and action it serves a purpose of widening discourse and making an important point to protect freedom. But when it is indulged in only to test the limits of tolerance of real or pretending believers it creates undue reaction which will eventually harm the openness of discourse.
To use it as a tool against imposition of undue restrictions on freedom of expression one has to make relevant points through it. For example if one makes cartoons of Rama to bring out or critique issues in his preaching, behaviour; or preaching and behaviour of his followers, believers and pretending believers; then it serves a point in the ongoing ideological struggle and discourse. There can be many issues in Ramayana of this nature, depending upon one’s interpretation. One can take Shanbuk’s killing, Rama’s and Lakshamana’s behaviour with Shurpanakha, Sita’s agni-pariksha, Sita’s banishment to forest, and so on.
Similarly, with Muhammad. One can take his bigotry, issues of child marriage, behaviour with his wives and slave girls, his preachings on war-booty, claims of revelation, claims of angels fighting alongside Muslims, necessity of fighting in jihad and so on. This kind of blasphemy will serve the purpose of bringing out issues in Quran and Muhammad’s own behaviour.
But making caricatures of sexual indulgence and imagining other kinds of deliberately insulting caricatures serves no purpose. Of course, one can stretch the point that Quran pronounces horrendous punishment for homosexuality, and therefore, showing Muhammad in homosexual relations is a comment on his preaching on the issue. But in my view, it should be done only if there are any indications of Muhammad himself being inclined to homosexuality, if there is reliable evidence of such acts on his part. Simply because he was against homosexuality does not justify, to my mind, such caricatures. Also, if there is any evidence in mythology (any version of Ramayana) of Rama being inclined to homosexuality it may bring out a point in the discourse.
What I am trying to argue is that the blasphemy regarding religious figures and divinities (prophets, gods, sons and daughters of The God, etc.) should be around the historical or theological evidence. That will help in bringing out characteristics of those figures which arrest discourse and human freedom. And will weaken the arguments of their believers on the basis of authority of these figures. On the other hand mindless juvenile filth will discredit the attempts of useful and positive blasphemy, will create a reaction against it and destroy its power of pungent irony and deep cutting satire.
On the pain of repetition, I am not talking of banning blasphemy or killing for it. All I am arguing for is a thoughtful use that opens up minds and avoiding uses which will finally blunt the weapon itself.
16th November 2020