The Jewish Case
In the beginning, before ‘Judaism’ divides into different kinds and denominations and roams across the face of the earth, is the text: the Hebrew scripture and the story it tells. I use the present tense since the story, in one retelling or another, endures. And I put ‘Judaism’ in quotes because I am not at all sure that the word fits the thing that it names. Judaism: what is it?
I start with this question because it is fundamental for the remit of this essay. On the one hand, there is nothing that non-Jews can do that is more likely to cause Jews to take offence than misunderstanding or misrepresenting Judaism—if only because Jews generally regard this as their prerogative.
On the other hand, giving offence is virtually a Jewish way of life. This might sound like a throwaway line but it will turn out to be the thought that anchors the whole of the argument. You can call it a claim about Judaism, but it’s not: it’s a way of laying claim to the tradition that goes by that name, which is a rather different matter. But this must keep. First things first. Aside from this introduction, the essay falls into three parts. In Part One, I examine the standard dictionary definition of Judaism. Calling Judaism a religion turns out to be problematic; even calling it Judaism can be misleading. The upshot is that the familiar distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ is not adequate to the Jewish case.
Some readers, at this point, will object on the grounds that there is a larger context that I am ignoring: the resurgence of faith in the twenty-first century. This, they will say, poses a threat to the modern world and gives rise to a ‘battle for the Enlightenment’. Judaism, on this view, comes into the picture only insofar as it is, precisely, a religion. My reply, which occupies Part Two of the essay, offers a critique of ‘Enlightenment piety’ and recalls a ‘dark side’ of Enlightenment thought: the dominant perception of Judaism and Jews. Having cleared the ground, in Part Three, I bring the argument of the essay to bear on the Jewish case today. I home-in on the debate over Israel, since this is the arena that is most conspicuous. With the earlier discussion of identity in mind, I explore the complex sensibility that leads many Jews to create ‘no go’ areas of debate. But Judaism in its depths cries out for outspokenness; or such is the tradition to which I lay claim at the end. There is a battle among Jews over the limits of free speech about Israel: this is the context I see for the essay. Call it a battle for Judaism.
The Christian Case
The primmest communities are, reputedly, the most sensitive to irreverence. Middle- class post-War Britain, with its china teacups and doilies; marginalized, puritan, rural United States; Stalinist Russia, with its hushed voices and lace curtains; the veiled Iran of the Ayatollahs. In societies boundup with displays of conventional order, propriety, stability and integration, disparaging, offensive or ‘blasphemous’ expressions are very readily perceived as acts of defamation. The affront can be personal or collective. Either way, it is usually retrospective because offence is a slight remembered. Memory, cultural anthropologists tell us, is social. The things we recall merge with the things we have been told. Images from the past slip into stories we have heard and narratives that we have created. The content and uses of memory are determined by our relationships, by language, by communication and by emotional ties. Remembering is a descent into intimacy with the self, mediated by the shape and order of our outer lives—we associate freely only in our dreams.
And, strangely, experience re-moulded through the prism of memory, imagination and feeling, also seems to galvanize; it encourages reformation, restructuring and mobilization. But that is in the aftermath. If identity has been slighted, there is, initially, only the dismay of shattered structure, the pain of incertitude and a lost self. After that comes the story (‘she did it’), then the ideology (‘she is mean’) and, finally, the act (‘let her have it!’).
Thirty years ago, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard argued in The Postmodern Condition(1979) that highly developed societies resist the notion of the story or the narrative as knowledge. Post-modernism is marked by ‘an incredulity towards meta-narratives’, those opinion forming, legitimizing stories that shape cultures and lives, tell of beginnings and ends, of morals, gods, demons, selves and identities. So, have modern, developed societies overcome their limiting sense of self? No, they have not. Today, Lyotard’s theory about the crisis and collapse of the meta-narrative has to be viewed in the light of polls that show 59 per cent of North Americans as believing in the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, along with the willingness of Muslim fundamentalists to kill themselves and others for their interpretation of the Quran. The mega-stories that have held communities for millennia live on irrespective of economic development. How far they have been modernized, revised, reinterpreted, localized and rewritten has to be considered in the light of opposing religious and secular narratives that have arisen, and are constantly arising, to challenge, undermine and offend them. Lyotard’s theory may be one; Richard Dawkins’ call to secularism another. Multiple and multicultural communities adapt their stories to reflect a changing sense of self. In the UK today, for example, a fiction about the particular vulnerability of cultural sensibilities is especially prevalent. Kenan Malik has called it a ‘theology of respect’. This neo-religious stance, Malik argues, has been built around three principles: not offending other cultures; respecting all beliefs; and censoring one’s own views in the name of tolerance. ‘It seems that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views,’ Malik writes, while ‘it is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the greatest freedom to express our opinions, even if others find it offensive.’ Instead, it seems that expression must remain subservient to religious and cultural sensibility. Pluralism and the right to offend are two sides of the same coin. Clashes are unavoidable and have to be dealt with because, as George Orwell wrote: ‘If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
The Hindu Case
Officially, by 1996, Bombay had already ceased to be Bombay: a regional political party, the Shiv Sena, had campaigned for years to change its name to Mumbai, arguing for its ‘real’ name derived from Mumba devi, a local goddess. In 1995, the federal government obliged. There has been some argument that Bombay owes its origin to the Portuguese phrase, Bom Bahia, or ‘a good bay’, but the Shiv Sena is not a party to welcome an academic discourse, as many artists, academics and dissenters have found out over the years, many preferring silence and acquiescence. The process of attacking and renaming what they do not approve of in the name of Hindu religion has been the way of Shiv Sena activists for some time now.
Their most visible target that night in 1996 was Husain. Husain stayed away from the party—had he come, he would have been arrested. Bombay was no longer the warm welcoming hometown Husain knew; he could not live there safely, nor visit. That evening, at the Cowasji Jehangir Hall, a group of young artists unfurled a banner which read: ‘Husain, we miss you.’
As the night lengthened, getting chillier by Bombay’s warm standards, and women wrapped themselves in shawls and men who had worn jackets felt they had made a wise choice, the conversation grew heated. A well-known Western collector of Indian art was incensed that nobody had spoken out for Husain, and asked loudly why the city’s intellectuals were not defending Husain more passionately. An old friend, married to a painter, asked me in turn, ‘Why doesn’t he understand? This is like asking us to speak out in Berlin in 1936.’ In September 1996, an old sketch of Husain’s, of a nude Saraswati, Goddess of Learning, had surfaced when the Hindi magazine Vichar Mimansa (Discussion of Thoughts) published an article about this controversial work. The controversy spread across India, as eight individuals from different parts of the country filed criminal complaints against him, saying his art offended their religious sensibilities. Could you really show a goddess without clothes?
The Shiv Sena protested, as did the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the national opposition in parliament. The police immediately decided to arrest Husain for disturbing communal harmony. Neither lascivious nor derisive, Husain’s sketch of Saraswati had stirred admiration. But times had changed. A militant brand of Hinduism, Hindutva (Hindu-ness), had emerged, arguing that the government’s secular policies were an excuse to appease minorities and that Hindu identity was being insulted. Some Hindu activists asked: ‘Why does he paint only Hindu goddesses in the nude, and not Ayesha, Prophet Mohammed’s wife?’
Typical was an Internet post from a concerned Hindu-American: ‘Husain is a Muslim by faith. What on earth prompts him to choose onlyHindu Gods and Goddesses for such disgraceful and ridiculous portrayal? He has mistaken Hindus’ tolerance for their weaknesses.’ Acting on such sentiments, Hindu nationalists took the law into their hands. In October that year, a Hindu mob ransacked a private art gallery in Ahmedabad, where a major retrospective of Husain’s works was planned. Ironically, while the police in Bombay were prompt in issuing an arrest warrant against Husain, to this day nobody has been charged for destroying his work in Ahmedabad. For the first 40 years of India’s independence, Hindu nationalist voices were isolated and marginal in the Indian political spectrum. But, since the mid-1980s, for reasons we shall see later, they have grown more vocal and aggressive. By the mid-1990s, the single-largest political party in Parliament was the BJP, the latest incarnation of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization partly inspired by European fascism and Nazism. In 1996, following the Congress Party’s defeat in parliamentary elections, the BJP even led a coalition government that lasted 13 days, before making way for a short-lived left-leaning alliance. The BJP finally came to power as the head of the National Democratic Alliance and ruled India between 1998 and 2004. While the BJP professed to play by parliamentary rules, several of its allies—in particular the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra— often used force. The Shiv Sena had risen into prominence by targeting ‘outsiders’— those who came to Bombay and ostensibly took away jobs from the local, Marathi speaking population. Once it had secured in the state and decided to transfer its chauvinism from language to religion. Outside Bombay, Marathi was pretty much the lingua franca, and linguistic chauvinism, relevant to whip up support in Bombay, had little value in Maharashtra’s hinterland. By the mid-1990s, the Shiv Sena ran a coalition government with the BJP in the state. a footing in Bombay, it sought expansion in the state and decided to transfer its chauvinism from language to religion. Out- side Bombay, Marathi was pretty much the lingua franca, and linguistic chauvinism, relevant to whip up support in Bombay, had little value in Maharashtra’s hinterland. By the mid-1990s, the Shiv Sena ran a coalition government with the BJP in the state.
The Muslim Case
The only way out of this vicious circle of mutual suspicion is for both sides to take a closer look at each other. A closer look at the Muslims of the world reveals many different pieces in the Mosaic of the Offended Muslim. An even closer look reveals that the Mosaic of the Offended Muslim is only a small part of the larger Mosaic of Muslims. But there is no denying that for reasons to do with national and global politics, with the former being the more significant component, religious extremism is on the rise. In Pakistan, there was a time when the JI was the most extremist of politically significant organizations. Then the JUI came along and made the former seem moderate by comparison. But both the JUI and JI worked towards being part of the political set-up, with all the compromises and accommodations that politics makes necessary. Since Pakistan’s armed forces joined the ‘War on Terror’, there has been an increase response from armed militants – former jihadis who now feel betrayed by the Pakistan state that once thought it expedient to back them and train them-with no interest in the political process and whose sole desire is to extend their writ over sections of Pakistan through capturing territory rather than votes. They, in turn, have made the JUI seen centrist by comparison.
There is a deep crisis in Pakistan, its roots in provincial imbalance and the failure of the state to provide for its citizens, which creates a vacuum into which the religious parties have stepped with their free education in madrasas and other acts of civic responsibility. After the 2006 earthquake, for instance, the extremist organization Jamaat-e-Dawa was far more visible than any government agency on helping the wounded and the recovering bodies for burial. In addition, the political manipulation of religion by all parties and governments through Pakistan’s history, the use of jihadism as tool to increase regional power, the dependence on US military and financial aid, which ties national self-interest to US demands, the dependence on Saudi aid, which allows Wahabism to spread via mosques and madrasas in regions where Sufism has been the dominant expression of Islam for centuries, further aggravates the situation. That many of these issues find echoes or overlaps in other Muslim-majority postcolonial states creates an image of sameness across the Muslim world. But it isn’t so. To say otherwise would be to allow Pakistan’s politicians, its bureaucracy, its religious leaders, its intelligence agencies and its army off the hook for their successive and continuing failures.
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