Arundhati Roy is one of my heroes. Yet I’ve a problem with her stand on The Hindus: An Alternative History.
The icon of the progressive movement in India has blasted Penguin India for pulling out the book. It was written by Wendy Denier, a respected American Indologist. It’s a serious piece of work, which debunks some of Hindus’ cherished beliefs about their religious tradition. Not surprisingly, it has outraged a whole lot of Hindus in India. Many of them are Hindu nationalists and traditionalists. Roy has demanded to know why the publisher had “caved in [to] the fascists.”
It saddens me indeed to see that the junking of this scholarly work would deny millions of Hindus the opportunity to take a refreshing new look at their society and tradition. I’m persuaded, however, by the reason Penguin India has given for its decision to call off the publication and destroy the copies in its stock. It explained that being an Indian company, it had to abide by Indian laws, which make it a criminal offense to deliberately outrage or insult “religious feelings” by spoken or written words.
Roy and many other critics of the publishing company’s action have offered the typical Western liberal argument. They maintain, in effect, that withholding the publication of a work of art or literature under public pressure flouts what they consider publishers’ duty to defend the freedom of speech, as it’s understood in the West, everywhere in the world. Yes, Viking defied enormous pressure from the Muslim world to publish Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which maligns the Prophet of Islam. But Viking did so in the West, where the laws and social consensus support its action.
Freedom of expression, as many other Western values, stems from Enlightenment liberalism. Many liberal values have been emulated productively by Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, ex-Communist and other non-Western societies. Free and rational inquiry, pluralism and scientific investigation have enabled those societies to make remarkable intellectual, scientific and technological progress; speed their economic development; and greatly enhance the quality their citizens’ material life.
All the same, many of these societies, especially those with rich and enduring traditions, are adapting liberal ideas and institutions to their own social priorities, which lend most meaning to their lives. India has embraced democracy of the Westminster variety. It retains, however, many religious institutions in the public sphere, which Western democracies wouldn’t. It has banned cow slaughter, forbidden by Hindu scripture. The Indian state patronizes many religious shrines and projects, instead of relegating them to the private sphere. Indian voters have twice elected the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party governments and could do so again this May. The BJP espouses using laws and state institutions to Hinduize Indian society and culture.
The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his followers used state power to ban Islam from politics and Europeanize Turkish culture. The Turks, heirs to the Ottoman Islamic civilization, have subsequently cast off most of their Westernization projects and elected an Islam-oriented government thrice in a row.
Enlightenment liberalism, as all other ideologies, has emerged from a particular set of historical circumstances of particular societies. It came about mainly as a reaction to the omnipresent church’s rigorous rules suppressing the desires, expressions and creativity of everyday Christians. It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, that the ideologues and activists of the Enlightenment avenged the harsh religious repression by banishing religion from the public space.
Few non-Western societies faced religious persecution of that scale. Not certainly the Hindus, Muslims or non-Western Christians (Coptic, Maronite, Assyrian, etc.). They all cherish their traditions, founded mostly on religious values, while emulating many liberal political and social ideas and institutions.
This should help explain why Americans and Europeans cared less about Martin Scorsese’s movie “The Last Temptation of the Christ,” which portrayed Jesus as an imperfect, vulnerable man. Muslims around the world were, on the other hand, repelled by The Satanic Verses, as are many Indian Hindus by The Hindus.
The right to free speech can’t be absolute or universal. The free-speech doctrine notwithstanding, American society wouldn’t permit you to use the “n” word for African Americans or question the prevalent narrative about the Holocaust. Crying “Fire!” in a movie theater is a crime under American law. Because values and moral standards vary from civilization to civilization and often from society to society, so should the definition of rights and freedoms.
Luckily, progressive, far-sighted minds throughout history have spoken out and struggled against societal norms and taboos that they saw afflicting man and impeding human well-being. By so doing they’ve promoted needed social reforms and evolution.
Arundhati Roy is among Indian activists who would want Indians to be open to criticism and reevaluation of their religious institutions so Indian society can evolve and progress further. Yet I wouldn’t support her attack on Penguin India for refusing to violate a duly enacted Indian law under which publication of the book could be a crime. Penguin India needs to operate within India’s legal framework until India’s moral and legal system evolves, if it does, to alter that framework.
- Mustafa Malik, host of the blog Beyond Freedom, is traveling in the Indian subcontinent.