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Growing Up Plural In A Singular World

In response to Johann Hari’s article We need to stop being such cowards about Islam from the Independent, August 14th 2008, Manjula Padmanabhan mailed CfP a thoughtful rejoinder, which she then expanded into an essay, which we are publishing here, with her permission.

 

By Manjula Padmanabhan

The question that began to appear in my head as I read his piece was: How long did it take before Christianity turned the corner that led away from witch-burning and towards enlightened rationalism? Seventeen centuries? Eighteen? Whatever the actual numbers, the point is, it surely took a long time and the changes that took place were wrought largely by thinkers and believers within the religion. That’s a very different situation to the one in which the Islamic world finds itself today, in which profound transformations are being forced upon it by external forces, political as well as cultural.

So what I’m saying here is that we — by which I am claiming membership to a global community of people who believe themselves to be enlightened rationalists — need to refrain from piling on to Muslims and from making statements about their faith that they find hurtful or disrespectful. If that means we need to rein in some of our cherished freedoms of speech, then yes, so be it. We should do it cautiously, thoughtfully and with a view to creating greater freedoms in the long run.

What is being asked of Muslims by non-Muslims is that the Islamic world make an extreme turnaround without the benefit of a centuries-long process of introspection and carefully reasoned doubt. Yet even moderates and non-fanatics will pull back from the brink when their core beliefs are questioned or ridiculed by outsiders. In the arena of sports, for instance, it’s a rare day when fans of one team will cross the floor to root for an opposing team — and that’s just sports, not god-and-cosmic-destiny. How much more must this be true in a world where faith is frequently tested at the point of a gun, or when small ethnic communities are pledged to maintain their customs and practices despite being surrounded by the beliefs of hostile neighbours?

I believe deeply in the principle of freedom of thought and speech. Nevertheless, I recognise that it is no longer possible to uphold those freedoms in a rigid, unidimensional way. We live in a world where monotheists must share space with other monotheists as well as polytheists, atheists, animists and perhaps various -ists who resist definition altogether. Maybe the price we pay for pluralism is having to redefine some core freedoms, having to be a little more inclusive about what each society considers “free” and having to wage painstaking battles over each redefinition. Making the effort might result in important insights being gained about the nature of pluralism and about what new elements might need to be packed into the small word “we” versus that bigger word, “they.”

Take the issue of women wearing the veil (meaning the burkha). Belonging as I do to the veil-free segment of the world’s communities, I admit that I find it really unacceptable for women to be obliged to wear a garment that looks like a black bedsheet. However, over the course of many years of attempting to think cross-culturally, I have also come to think that the way women are manipulated by the fashion industry in Western countries is equally unpleasant. In fact, I have come around to thinking of the heavy make-up that (for instance) actresses and TV newsreaders wear as entirely analogous to the veil.

Think about it — a fully made-up woman can no more give her face a good wipe-down with a hankie on a hot day than a woman with her face covered in a burkha. Make-up conceals faces while pretending to reveal them — and many women who dress formally for their work-place joke about feeling “naked” without their lipstick and foundation cream. Being made up is supposed to be a choice that women make, but there’s hardly much choice involved when, for many women, choosing not to meet cultural standards of personal grooming can result in losing jobs and career advancements.

But moderating attitudes to feminine dress codes to be inclusive of other cultures is just the front doorstep of adjusting to the realities of a culturally plural world. There are so many other levels. How do we train ourselves to be inclusive without becoming numbed to cultural signage? How do we let diversity in while leaving prejudice out?

Ever since the Dutch cartoons that inflamed Islamic sentiments around the world, I have been thinking through some of my beliefs, trying to understand the type of fanaticism that leads to violent confrontations. I am opposed to organised religion and have no faith in any gods. Even so, I realize that it’s possible to sympathise with the profound discomfort that is caused when a cherished belief or beloved icon is treated disrespectfully by others. I have discovered that this is true even when there’s no overt intention to be disrespectful and even when there is no faith or deep conviction involved.

Here is an anecdote: I can remember feeling unhappy when I was introduced to the much beloved family cat of well-travelled American friends. Out of genuine affection for their pet and for the pleasant memories of their visit to India, they had called their cat … Shiva.

Believe me when I repeat myself — I am not religious and I am very fond of cats. I even acknowledge that this cat was a creature of tremendous dignity and philosophical depth. Yet the sadness was real, and it came as a surprise to me. It forced me to understand that culture is a very complex phenomenon. That for my friends to name their cat Shiva was no different to my naming one of my pets Odin or Pluto. That this kind of affectionate naming is not really any different to bringing home a tribal artefact from some other part of the world, only to use it as a lamp-stand or soap-dish in my house.

At what point does the inappropriate cross-cultural use of an artefact become disrespectful? Only when a member of the tribe to which a totem-figure is significant crosses the doorstep of a home that uses that item as a soap-dish? Or when the tribe-member is considered a social equal to the extent that his/her cultural sensitivities will be respected?

To return to the specifics of the freedom-of-speech issues in our globalised world, yes, of course it’s true that many of the more extreme responses to Western media are motivated by cynical power-mongers, people who are only too eager to fix upon transgressions that can be squeezed for political advantage.

At the same time, I think we all need to remind ourselves continuously and consciously that every culture has its tender spots in which, if that culture is poked, it will react with “unreasonable” anger.

In the West today, perhaps the icons of Christianity no longer have the significance that, say, references to the Prophet have for Muslims. Perhaps Christian icons have become invulnerable to attack — we know that there have been very many instances of desecrations by Westerners of various icons of Christianity in the name of Art without grand general meltdowns. Then again, it’s possible that Western Christians have become invulnerable to assaults on their religion because they are feeling invulnerable in general. It isn’t difficult for a culture to feel invulnerable when it continues to be besieged by would-be immigrants, when its currency is considered highly desirable even by its enemies and when its products and inventions continue to define the standards of inventiveness in our world.

I wonder though, if the relatively mild response to desecrations involving Christianity in the West might be linked to the fact that the desecrators are, typically, people making statements about themselves and their own culture? Would the response be different if the desecration originated not just from another culture, but from one that was regarded as a threat? If that were ever to be the case, would the response turn towards violence? Would the violence become increasingly desperate as the gulf between the two groups grew in depth and distance?

And does the level of violence indicate the level of commitment to a particular tradition — or only to the level of insecurity of the group that wants to cling to that tradition in the face of opposition?

Returning to the theme of freedoms, I believe that one of the most direct examples of constraints that nevertheless result in greater freedoms is to be found in traffic regulation: when drivers observe the rules of the road, everyone gets around faster and with fewer accidents. The effects of the opposite approach are clear for all to see. In New Delhi for instance, where every driver applies his/her own definition of freedom on the road, we experience continuous mayhem, extreme traffic delays and daily fatalities.

It will of course be enormously difficult to attempt to create a system of “traffic regulation” which can apply to the world’s cultures and to the way in which the international news media report on all our individual selves in all our plural situations.

But that shouldn’t stop us from trying.


Manjula Padmanabhan

 

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