Individual freedom and religion

06 Sep

The debate surrounding Ms. Taslima Nasreene and her books has opened a can of worms . The debate is interesting but splashed with morbidity. It refuses to go away quietly.

Everyone agrees that protecting freedom of expression and speech is absolutely critical for freedom in a democratic society. But at the same time should one be allowed to take his/her religion to task? Should criticizing religion be tolerated?

When this issue comes up as a subject for general debate . most people would say , “ Absolutely – religion and religious beliefs don’t merit special deference not accorded to others.”

But when it comes to specific religions , you will notice that some religions are more tolerant than the other. The recently published “Invading the sacred” by a team of scholars amply demonstrated how Hinduism has been abused and ill represented by the learned men and women in American universities. But these abuses and insults hardly caused a ripple in India .Not many did care. Further , when MF Hussein depicted Hindu goddesses in his own way , many Hindus defended him in the name of freedom of expression .That might both be the genius of Hinduism and its soft underbelly.

Islam on the other hand has been militant in more than one sense .The reaction to the cartoons and caricatures demonstrated that during 2006 and more recently the violence against Ms.Taslima overwhelmed her and its tide swept away the dignity of the Union and WB governments.

In the context of the cartoons controversy , The Economist of London , in 2006 explained:

Freedom of expression, including the freedom to poke fun at religion, is not just a hard-won human right but the defining freedom of liberal societies. When such a freedom comes under threat of violence, the job of governments should be to defend it without reservation.

Shouldn’t the right to free speech be tempered by a sense of responsibility? Of course. Most people do not go about insulting their fellows just because they have a right to. The media ought to show special sensitivity when the things they say might stir up hatred or hurt the feelings of vulnerable minorities. But sensitivity cannot always ordain silence. …The Muhammad cartoons may be such a case. 

But the question is how do we deal with it ; if such expressions hurt the feelings of individuals or groups and damages social harmony.

The Taslima writings bring to fore such issues. If anything, the writings of Taslima is made more important by reactions to it than by its own merit. The reactions demonstrate the existence of too much intolerance and violence within the Muslim community.

The reaction to Taslima , in a way , validates her writing , whatever be it. The reactions bring out the inclination among Muslims to censor criticisms and speech they don’t like, then resort to violence when censorship doesn’t occur or doesn’t work.

Professor Abdul-Aziz Sachedina , a Muslim scholar writing about “ Freedom of Religion and the Question of Apostasy in Islam” , explains this phenomenon :“The system based on the millet, which means a “religiously defined people”..did not recognize any principle of individual autonomy in matters of religion. In addition, the system allowed the enforcement of religious orthodoxy under the state patronage, leaving no scope for individual dissent, political or religious. “

It is precisely this intolerance that the Muslim reaction to Taslima , who criticizes the use of religion as an oppressive force, was about .

Some Muslims find all the hullabaloo distressing. “What it shows is that we lack confidence. If we were confident about our faith we wouldn’t have to react so hysterically.” But most Muslims hate Nasreen for saying Islam and other religions oppress women. ; and demand her submission to dogmas and her death.

The Muslim reaction is thus predictable . But what is not understandable is the reaction of the CPM and congress parties. The W Bengal government believes Taslima does not have a right to live in the state because its minority vote bank does not like her and their dislike can possibly affect CPMs survival.

The CPM which is a minority partner in the Union Government and is piggy riding  the majority party ,yet manages get its priorities done. It enjoys power without accountability. The parody is played out in reverse in W Bengal , where the minority community holds to ransom , rides the majority secular party and pushes it to the brink. Who is the ultimate Boss , then ? There seems to be no end to travesties and ironies in Indian politics.

Regardless of the brickbats thrown at me by a few on this forum for saying that , I believe ,a person is free to express no matter how many people approve his writings, works of art or expressions. The authors of Indian constitution fought for that right. Democracy , they thought , should be a system of government based on common agreement on issues that must be agreed upon, and tolerance—however grudging—on all other differences.

Taslima Nasreen for all purposes is no longer a person and is not an issue by herself. She is a test case for governments of India and WB. Having cried hoarse of “Freedom of Expression” over MF Hussein’s money spinner, the Congress and the CPM find themselves in a bind. Looking into the Taslima mirror India might find it is not the fairest of all.

When I last heard , the Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said that historically, India had never refused shelter to those who had sought the country’s protection. “This heritage, which is now government policy, will continue, and India will provide shelter to Ms. Nasreen,” he told parliament; “While guests are in India, the union and state governments provide them protection. This will also apply in Ms. Taslima Nasreen’s case.”

Taslima Nasreen in turn said that she was withdrawing some controversial lines from her autobiographical novel ‘Dwikhandita‘ as those evoked strong protests from “a section of people in India.”; and hoped that from now on there would be no controversy and “I’ll be able to live peacefully in this country.

”What then , was all the shouting  and screaming about ?”

Does this look like a happy Bollywood ending ? I am not so sure. This might be just the intermission. Her visa is due for review  and lot more to follow.


Protecting freedom of expression and speech is absolutely critical for freedom in a liberal democratic society. When freedom of expression is not protected, the result is oppression and tyranny. Should criticizing religion be allowed ? Absolutely – religion and religious beliefs don’t merit special deference not accorded to others.

Democracy deserves the best thinking possible. … The right of an individual to create new ideas and to expect a respectful, supportive climate for their expression is a human right too often ignored. The human right to think and be heard at higher, more complex and mutualistic levels is a necessary added freedom if diversity of religion or belief is to be guaranteed for the diverse human family.

No action must be deemed a crime but what the law has plainly determined to be such: No crime must be imputed to a man but from a legal proof before his judges; and even these judges must be his fellow-subjects, who are obliged, by their own interest, to have a watchful eye over the encroachments and violence of the ministers.

The Economist – London, 2006

Please also read:

Democracy , Individual freedom , Liberty and the rest.

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 6, 2012 in General Interest


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: