27th September 2010
Given my penchant (a) to think for myself and not take others' words as the only basis for my opinions, and (b) to speak out what I think (always being work in progress), it is possible that I will be occasionally misunderstood. That is unavoidable. We cannot communicate perfectly with each other, nor understand each other perfectly.
That is yet another reason for advocating freedom of speech. Everyone should be able to speak out freely without fear of violent reprisal on account of other people's potential misunderstandings. There must be freedom to discuss, freedom to clarify and freedom to review one's opinions. These are the only tools at our disposal in search of the truth. Total openness and freedom.
Recently a Muslim friend (won't name him) found one of my statements in my recent Freedom First article on religious freedom exceptionable. Extracts from our correspondence are provided below, to clarify matters. I trust my friend will understand my perspectives better as a result, just I have understood his points better.
Correspondence from XX
Haven't really been a fan of TOI, but here's an article I found rather correct, particularly in the context of your write up on religious freedom. In fact, I have reservations on certain portions of your article, not least your insinuation that the Muslim community have themselves to blame for being discriminated against. Someone recently indicated that blaming the victim is a typical fascist argument, that has been used by everyone from Nazi supporter to white supremacists in South Africa and those who oposed the Civil rights movement in the US (the list goes on). I'll write in detail about this later: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/politically-incorrect/entry/two-years-on-mumbai-is-marginalizing-muslims
I don't know which article of mine you are referring to. As far as I know I have never made any insinuation that would even remotely imply such an implication simply because I don't think on those lines.
Response from XX
I was referring to your article 'Religious Freedom in the Free society' in the latest edition of the newsletter. I was referring to this statement "Therefore, even after living in India for nearly a thousand years, Muslims do not always feel welcome – which is not to say that they have always helped their own cause." To me, it did insinuate that Muslims were (even partly) responsible for being discriminated against.
It's not merely the statement, but the general tone of the article towards Islam and 'Muslims' that I found a little demeaning. When you say that the 'level of religious freedom declined precipitously with the advent of Islam, you subsequently referred to Aurangzeb. However, Islam came to India centuries before Aurangzeb (or even Babur or Lodhi for that matter). The first mosque in India was built in Kerala in the 7th Century AD (Around the year 629), during the lifetime of the Prophet. Incidentally, this is probably exactly a thousand years before Aurangzeb.
To call Islam intolerant, and to term its instances of tolerance as 'relative' would run contrary to historical facts. Jewish persecution throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, starting even before the crusades, is well documented. In fact Jews were barred from owning property and forced to live in ghettos with limited rights till as late as the 19th century – there were no such compulsions under Islamic rule. Islamic nations all over the mediterranean, Spain, and North Africa were looked upon as examples of tolerance when compared to Europe (I'm writing from memory here – I can quote examples but don't really have the time now). Incidentally, Akbar held his dialogue among world religions (a regular occurrence in his court) at around the same time Europe was still persecuting its minorities.
This is of course not to say that Islam hasn't shown its intolerant side at all. However, the criticism and diatribe against Islam fundamentally comes from people who have limited knowledge of world history (and indeed, contemporary history – the holocaust, for instance). For a better understanding of Hindu Muslim relations before the advent of the British, I recommend you read 'The Last Mughal' by William Darlymple. It is a refreshing change from the propaganda that Hindu-Muslim relations were hostile during Mughal rule (At least, immediately preceding British rule)
I have reservations about references to 'Muslims' as a whole. I find it rather odd that references to Muslims (usually negative, sometimes pejorative) come easily to many writers and newspapers, while they would normally exercise caution when it comes to referring to say, fanatics from other religions ('Hindutva' or 'The Saffron brigade' but not 'Hindus'). For a Muslim reading it, the message really doesn't smack of inclusiveness – it's almost like referring to aliens.
I would like to reiterate that I have tremendous respect for your views, your integrity and honesty, and will continue to do so. I for one do have never doubted your commitment to religious freedom, but I do feel that subtle prejudice has managed to somehow creep into the article, probably inadvertently. My criticism (if you can call it that) here is probably because I expected much higher standards when it came to an article on Religious Freedom, free of prejudice in any manner.
Thanks for your extensive clarification. I can now see where you are coming from and that the matter is quite subtle. I must note at the outset that it is very hard to summarise one's views in a few words, thus often leaving scope for misinterpretation. However, once you've gone through the context in which I speak and write, misunderstanings can be minimised.
First of all, I'm sure you know that there is quite a difference between a statement such as this: "the Muslim community have themselves to blame for being discriminated against" and "which is not to say that they have always helped their own cause". The latter statement (mine) is more subtle and does not generalise to the entire Muslim community.
I agree with your notes on history. While I haven't read Darlymple (I generally don't read fiction), I've done a fair bit of reading and arrived at views which are expressed in chapter 8 of DOF (draft). Please do read it. In that chapter I have unambiguously shown that Islam was among the most tolerant religions in the medieval era. Also read my extensive discussion of Islam as a preserver of Greek thought, in an earlier chapter.
However, I rarely mince my words, being pretty much plain spoken. There is no doubt (as you agree: "this is of course not to say that Islam hasn't shown its intolerant side at all") that some elements of Islam have become extremely fanatic particularly over the past few decades, demanding that the world obey their dictates, or else they will kill. They might well have some rationalisations for this approach but if X commits a crime, then let a proper judicial process be followed to hold X to account. It makes no sense to kill Y for the alleged crime of X, or to short-circuit due process.
Thus, it is not just a few isolated madmen like Osama bin Laden but some Islamic leaders (like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who issued a fatwa against Salman Rusdhie) as well who have been extreme in their expressions. India's memories of extensive temple destructions still haunt quite a few people (Hinduism was not sheltered by the tolerance Islam gave to the people of the book), leading to extremist Hindu movements in retaliation. The partition was similarly precipitated not merely by extremists like Savarkar but by Muslim leaders as well. In DOF, therefore, I apportion the blame at the appropriate doorstep. None is spared, not Tilak, Gandhi, Nehru, Savarkar, or Jinnah. All of them could have done things differently to minimise the influence of religion on politics. They did not do as much as they could have done.
I have extensively praised Akbar in DOF, but decried people like Aurangzeb. I have no doubt whatsoever that the tolerant character typical of India was adversely impacted by at least some Islamic rulers who periodically used violent destruction of others' temples as a method to persuade. I do not believe I'm being inaccurate when I note that " 'level of religious freedom declined precipitously with the advent of Islam". That is the truth. I'm no one's friend, but the friend only of the truth.I have no intention of distorting history by suggesting that the entire Islam treated Hindus with particularly great tolerance. Yes, there were people like Akbar, and I deeply admire them, but as you might also be aware, Akbar was considered an outcaste by most chaste Muslims. His attempt to resolve differences amongst religions was abandoned the instant he died.
I will continue to speak the truth as I see it just like I have continued to criticise extremist Hindus, and the internecine violence within the Christian Church.
Only for Muslims who took their religious beliefs to the extreme (and continue to do so) is intended my qualifier: "which is not to say that they have always helped their own cause". I trust that is a reasonable depiction of the truth.
Extremist Hindus have been the subject of a significant share of my criticism over the years. It is intolerable that anyone would go about destroying buildings in modern India (Babri Masjid) or killing others on religious grounds. I have been a vocal critic of all Hindutva-motivated extremism and have NEVER condoned it. I'm comfortable with its charitable forms, but dead against its violent expression. Please read my blog post on the RSS, for instance.
In summary, as I've outlined in DOF, no religion can completely escape from the charge of intolerance. Currently Islam is displaying more intolerance, on average, than any other religon. That is a fact. Much of this extremism in India is motivated by extremist Saudi Islam, and I have written how and why this should be stopped. So also foreign influence by foreign Hindus (or others) must be stopped. Mixing of religion with politics is ALWAYS dangerous, even in the hands of Gandhi.
I therefore continue to oppose organised religion which has a tendency to become political or commercial: a corrupt power source without any internal checks and balances.
Yet most religions also display positive characteristics – which is why so many people are religious. There is this constant tension between extremists and the good people. Let's encourage the good people and pinpoint and ostracise extremists.
I always continue to look for opportunities to promote a better understanding of Hinduism (e.g. Vivekananda, Suddhananda), Islam (e.g. my promotion of a few articles from these blogs e.g this, or this on my Facebook profile), and Christianity (e.g in the same article you refer to – through citing sensible things that the Pope has said). But I also without fear or favour pin down all evil – whosoever is its source. I'm pretty even-handed in doling out praise and criticism.
I trust you'll agree that we ought to have the liberty to speak the truth as we see it.
I urge ALL religions to excommunicate those who misuse the tenets of their religion to harm innocents. I think Islam has a major challenge before it, as the author of this post has discussed. It is important for people like you to speak out at EVERY opportunity against those who kill innocents. Rehabilitating the image of Islam won't be easy, but it can't be done by being super-sensitive to criticism. Take the criticism on the chin and fight those against whom the criticism is addressed: being those who are intolerant, those who deny freedom of speech and other freedoms, those who, like Iranian leaders, use brutal punishments for minor crimes.
The image of Islam has taken a GREAT HIT over the past decade. I'm happy to work with people like you to rehabilitate the good Islam. But all evil that parades in the name of Islam must be blacklisted.