Monday, 30th October 2017

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OLD QUESTIONS, NEW ANSWERS - A manifesto of freedoms

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By The thin edge Ruchir Joshi
  • Published 6.01.08

Here is a Counter-fatwa Manifesto for the new year.

Every citizen has the right and freedom to challenge, satirize and otherwise make fun of the beliefs of any other citizen, be those beliefs pertaining to religion, notions of morality, or politics. These challenges may come in the form of words, written, printed or spoken, and in any audio-visual form as well.

No citizen has a right to take recourse to violence using offence taken at such challenges as an excuse. The right to freedom of speech is an inalienable fundamental right and it becomes meaningless if it does not include the right to offend others.

The right to challenge and criticize is to be clearly differentiated from incitement to violence and murder. No individual or group has the right to call for physical harm to be caused to another person or group.

And here is an imaginary Q&A with a true believer, someone, say, who’s not a cynical user of religion.

Does this mean you can criticize or create offensive stories about revered figures of my religion?

Yes, absolutely, so long as they are not alive. If they are alive, the criticism or satire may fall into the area of libel and that’s a different area of contention. If the satirized figures are not with us in any corporeal sense then they belong, as it were, to everybody, and anybody can therefore say what they like about them, paint them in any way they choose. And, yes, that means I can make fun of any figure of reverence, real or fictional, mythical or historical.

But that’s like saying I’m supposed to keep quiet while you insult my mother and father!

Yes and no. No, you don’t need to keep quiet: if I insult your mother and father you can insult mine in return. Yes, we can both insult each others’ near and dear ones but that doesn’t give either of us the right to physically attack the other. Also, I can insult my own mother and father and that doesn’t give my ‘siblings’ the right to attack me.

But god is the reason we are alive! How can I let you criticize god?

Yes? Okay, if god is criticized let god handle it. You, as a human being, cannot take on the job of being god’s policeman or god’s protector. It’s like saying I’m going to kill you for spitting at the sun. Or for throwing a stone at the Himalayas. You can’t have it both ways: either god doesn’t exist or god is all-seeing and almighty and can therefore take care of himself or herself.

But my holy book says I have to protect my religion!

Your holy book is actually not a book but a later transcription of an oral tract. Neither you nor I, nor any priest alive today was around when the book was first written. The word of god was exactly that — word. People heard; others remembered what others said they heard and passed it down to yet other people who wrote it down; what they wrote has survived in incomplete, unreliable bits, other important bits were eaten by goats and camels or used by uncaring people as fuel for their fires; or there were fifteen or fifty writers all vying to write the same story in fifteen or fifty different ways. What you call your holy book, immutable and immovable, is actually a remnant of a remnant of a remnant which has been re-written and re-worked many, many times by the imagination of fallible humans. What you call your holy book has actually been debated and argued over for hundreds of years, the text and meaning changing with time like the shifting geological plates of the earth itself. It’s not a good or moral idea to attack and kill people on the basis of an old and shifting text. Or even a new and verifiably unshifting one, because, if it’s a text, then time will shift it and change it.

So, you are saying I can take nothing of value from my holiest of holy books?

No, that’s not what I am saying. What I’m saying is that you and your holy book have to live with others and their holy books, and yet others who don’t believe in holy books at all. So, the only things you can and should take from your holy book are the bits that talk about love, about getting along with others, about finding your own, individual, personal way to god and salvation. Any bits about killing others and how that is your duty, any bits about suspending your conscience in favour of your religion’s ‘law’, are, frankly, suspect bits and you should only read them for entertainment. Because, if everyone takes the murder-orders in their holy books seriously, we won’t survive as a species.

Survival of this earthly species is of no consequence, it’s the after-life that matters. If I don’t do my duty I will be punished by god.

Maybe, but you can’t make that decision for others. Maybe god will punish you, but if you believe in a just god that’s a risk you have to take — that you might burn in hell for eternity or be endlessly reborn as a tortured insect or animal. Your fear for your own after-life cannot be a justification for you to send others to theirs.

But my priest says I have to do my duty.

Ah, yes, the priest. Always ask yourself: where does the priest come from and what does he want? Has the priest met god personally? Were you there when they met? If not, then check the following: if the priest who sends you out to kill blasphemers doesn’t want money, if he doesn’t want political power, if he doesn’t want glory, then he wants only one thing: to secure his after-life on the back of others’ now-life, those others including you. And that’s not worthy of a priest, that’s a worse sin than mere blasphemy.

But people like you are in a minority! You are not mainstream!

Yup. And what about you? Somewhere or the other on this planet you and your religion are also in a minority. Somewhere on this planet, the fact that you believe in the god you believe in is actually blasphemous to others — it challenges their god. Does that mean they have a right to kill you or silence you?