The recent attacks at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine’s office and a Jewish store near Paris have sparked another round of explosive debate about Islam and Muslims. The actions of Cherif and Said Kouachi were condemned. How the two brothers born and raised in France became radicalised was discussed in newspapers and on airwaves. Their existence on the fringes of French society and previous encounters with the law, already on record, were highlighted. Belgian police subsequently carried out operations in Verviers and other parts of the country.
Competition among Western leaders to rush to Paris to mark the tragic events was intense. The British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu appeared particularly exercised. Stakes are high for Cameron and Netanyahu in coming elections in Britain and Israel respectively. The French presidency was not keen on Netanyahu visiting the country, but he turned up anyway.
Reminding the world of his Christian faith, David Cameron condemned the “fanatical death cult of Islamist extremism” and insisted: “You cannot appease them; they hate our democracy, our freedom, our freedom of expression, our way of life.” Netanyahu was not going to be left behind. Describing the attacks as brutal acts of savagery, he insisted that radical Islam knew “no boundaries” and the response had to be international.
Reminding his audience yet again that Israel had experienced similar attacks and that he knew the pain, Netanyahu said: “The terrorists want to destroy our freedoms and our civilization … we can defeat this tyranny that seeks to extinguish all our freedoms.”
Some commentators have pointed out the inherent bigotry and duplicity of this rhetoric. Chris Hedges, in a piece on Truthdig.com, said that the Charlie Hebdo shootings were neither about free speech nor radical Islam. Rather, the killings represented the fury of those hopeless, brutally controlled and mocked by the privileged.
The latest vilification of Muslims and their faith is the result of an old alliance of fundamentalist Christians and Jews for at least a century, certainly since the beginning of the Anglo-French project to create what became Israel in 1948. In the post-9/11 era, the trend to caricature Muslims has become more sweeping and venomous. Muslims all over the world are facing a sustained attack.
Had the Palestinian scholar Edward Said, author of the acclaimed book Orientalism been alive, he would have described it as a new form of Orientalism which imagines, emphasises, exaggerates and distorts, and is solely directed against Muslims everywhere. The rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP to power in India, a secular country of more than a billion people and nearly 150 million Muslims, represents the entry of a new player in this alarming reality. Not even a year in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has already started to fiddle with the Indian constitution.
The terms “secular” and “socialist” are being removed from the preamble in government publications, without the required legislative approval for which the BJP government does not have sufficient strength. Leading government ministers and party allies have begun to openly suggest that the plan is to do away with the term “secular” from the constitution altogether, some claiming that India was never a secular country. Paranoia and religious zealotry are on the ascendancy.
The leader of the self-styled World Hindu Organisation, Pravin Togadia, absurdly laments that the population of Hindus in India is only 82 per cent. Togadia says he would not let this number decline to 42 in a few years, because “then their property and women will not remain safe”. He is determined to push the Hindu population up to 100 per cent.
Hindu women married to Prominent Muslims are accused of committing “love jihad” and demands are being made that their husbands convert to Hinduism. Walking in the corridors of power, if not occupying seats, are people who would make India a monolithic Hindu theocracy, a distorted mirror image of Saudi Arabia.
India’s vice president Hamid Ansari, a career diplomat before taking up his current post in 2007, was recently hounded by right-wing supporters and sympathisers of Modi’s government. As President Pranab Mukherjee took the salute during India’s Republic Day parade on 26 January, Ansari and several ministers in Modi’s government stood at attention, as the protocol requires.
Only the vice president was singled out for “insulting the national flag” and attacked by chauvinist Hindus in vehemently abusive terms. This against someone who had served as India’s ambassador in countries including Australia, Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and at the United Nations and, from 1980 to 1985, was Chief of Protocol in the Indian foreign ministry.
As part of the concerted drive against Muslims, a number of myths are being perpetuated by chauvinists and should be critically examined. Two myths stand out in particular. One that only Muslims (the world over) are violent – all others are doves of peace. Second that India’s 82 per cent Hindus face a demographic threat from Muslims.
Now, let us look at some of the facts. Traders from what is Damascus today started visiting India in the eight century. Sufi pacifism came to India much before. Muslim invasions began in the early eleventh century. Muslims and Christians of modern India have descended from those who adopted other religions for a variety of reasons – love, allurements, coercion or oppression, no less under the brutal Hindu caste system for centuries.
First Christians were believed to have landed on the coast of southern India in the year 52 AD when St Thomas is said to arrived in Kerala. It has taken almost fifteen centuries for the Muslim population of India to reach 14 per cent. Any talk of Hindus declining by 20 per cent, and Muslims rising, is therefore disingenuous and anti-intellectual.
Let us also examine the claim that only Islam and its followers are violent; others are fountains of peace. The history of wars between Christians and Muslims from the late eleventh to the thirteenth century took numerous lives. Legend has it that Pope Urban II told his followers it was right to kill non-Christians in defence of Christianity and those who die for their faith would occupy a chosen place in heaven.
Christian crusades were extraordinarily brutal and led to Muslim wars. In his war against the United States, Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric was strikingly similar, as is the rhetoric on the extremes of other religions in modern times. Conflicts in the Balkans and the Greater Middle East are as much local as led by Western military powers. One only has to look at those extremes with sincerity.
Let us see examples of some more fallacies, perpetuated by the appeal to popular opinion, ignorance or blind religious chauvinism. One is that Hinduism is a religion of peace. Not always. Those who killed thousands of Sikhs in India after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two Sikh bodyguards in 1984 were not Muslims, but Hindus. And at the time of partition of British India in 1947, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs committed unspeakable atrocities on each other, killing more than a million and displacing many more.
Wars in Indo-China and elsewhere in southeast Asia involved Buddhists and Christian colonial powers – French, British and Dutch. Let us ask ourselves who continues to persecute Rohingya Muslims in Burma (Myanmar) which is 80 per cent Buddhist? And where does the responsibility lie for the civil war in Sri Lanka following decades of discrimination of Hindu and Muslim Tamils by the Buddhist Sinhala majority that led to the Tamil rebellion and the rise of Tamil militant groups after the 1983 anti-Tamil riots?
When the fog of hatred is thick and the lust to have it all becomes uncontrollable, it is difficult to recognize that humans throughout history have shown extraordinary capacity to harm fellow humans. No one comes out better in this.