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The Rushdie Affair: India, Europe and Multiculturalism

Is Europe doing any better than India in balancing religious belief and the secular right of free speech?

February 11, 2012

Is Europe doing any better than India in balancing religious belief and the secular right of free speech?

Twenty-three years after his book was banned in India for offending Islam (and the object of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death), Salman Rushdie recently found himself unable to participate in India’s premier literary festival. Threats of violence by various Muslim groups led the government to declare its inability to guarantee the safety of either the writer or his audience at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January.

An explosion of soul searching has ensued as the lofty idea of India increasingly clashes with the ground-level reality of the country. This is the idea of an India with equal space and respect for every religion, ethnicity and language. And an India where a multiplicity of identities is celebrated and a propensity to spirited argument and debate is considered a cherished hallmark of the people.

The latest Rushdie affair has revealed an India in start contrast to these ideas — where mob action and intimidation trumps discussion and where pandering to religious votes by political parties means an ever-declining space for liberal, secular ideas.

The Rushdie incident is certainly not a one-off. Books and movies are regularly banned in the country for offending the sentiments of Hindus, Muslims and other groups. Maqbool Fida Husain, one of modern India’s greatest painters, was hounded out of the country because the government could not guarantee his safety from right-wing Hindu groups that criticized his depictions of Hindu goddesses.

Recently, the Indian government attempted (without success) to persuade Google and Facebook to prescreen content posted on social networking sites for materials considered offensive to religious or political sentiments.

Freedom of speech has never been an absolute in India. The constitution guarantees free speech only within prescribed limits. Inciting hatred between communities is precluded. The penchant for censorship and bans of artistic works is often explained by the notion that India is a “special” case: a country whose ethos, mores and the resulting challenges of governance are too different from those of the West for “western” liberal freedoms to be applied here.

Unlike Europe, the argument goes, India’s is not a secular society in the sense of promoting public spaces bleached of religion. It is, rather, a deeply religious country where equal respect for different beliefs forms the bedrock of societal cohesion. Some reason that the right to free speech — including the right to offend — cannot have primacy in a country like India, where the vast majority of the population is poor (and poorly educated) and deeply devout (but with differing religious loyalties).

India may not be as special a case as is often asserted. “Secular,” liberal Europe is, in fact, the site of precisely the same kinds of battles between the respect for religious beliefs and the right to free speech. Mass immigration over the last few decades has meant the reemergence of religion as a social and political force in Europe, unsettling accepted notions of “European” values has created a dissonance between the beliefs and practices of many of the region’s new citizens and the constitutional laws that govern them.

The Enlightenment and its secular, rational values may have originated in Europe, but the emergence of liberalism and individualism as dominant ideologies took centuries to take true hold. In many European countries, the grasp of the Catholic Church on society was only truly broken in the 1960s. No sooner had this happened than large-scale migration began to overturn the secular applecart again.

Net migration into Europe has averaged about 1.7 million per year in recent years. Many of these immigrants are devout. In the middle of the 20th century, there were virtually no Muslims in Western Europe. By the turn of the 21st century, there were between 15 and 17 million Muslims in the region.

In cities like Brussels, home to the headquarters of the European Union, almost a quarter of the population (or some 250,000 people) are immigrants from Muslim countries, of which 50% self-identify as religious. The anxieties generated by their presence, and the balancing act they require between liberal and religious impulses, are perhaps even more challenging for Europe than India.

In India, one is used to public spaces as arenas for extreme, visible eclecticism. In cities like Mumbai, mini skirts and burqas, camel carts and BMWs, ash-smeared ascetics and multinational executives bob along beside each other. They form part of the polyphonic cacophony of modern India. Almost nothing looks out of place here.

But Europe is different. The creation of the modern nation state, predicated on the idea of a “nation” comprising one ethnicity and one language blanched the diversity out of most European countries long ago.

The retreat of overt religiosity to the private sphere — coupled with the spread of homogenized, mass-produced goods for consumption — only added to the relative uniformity that Europeans have come to associate with themselves. As a result, the visible otherness of minarets and hijabs is harder to accommodate in Europe than in a country like India.

But adjust it must and at manifold levels — from the daily demands of religious groups for prayer rooms in offices and factories to precisely the kind of restrictions on free speech on the grounds of hurt religious sentiments that are so common in India. Violence and its threat are familiar tools to coerce institutions into acquiescing to these demands in Europe as well, although with less success.

The publication of 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper in 2005 resulted in violent demonstrations around the world, attacks on Danish embassies, and the deaths of about a hundred people. The cartoonists (like Salman Rushdie in 1989) went into hiding after death threats were made against them.

The Danish newspaper Politiken later issued a public apology to those offended by the cartoons for having reprinted them. In 2009, Yale University Press decided to expunge reproductions of the cartoons from a scholarly book about the incident on the grounds(familiar in India) that it feared inciting violence if the images were published.

In both India and Europe, the power of governments to act flows from the democratic will of the people. But the “people” in both cases are not a homogenous, consonant entity. In post-colonial India, a liberal constitution was grafted onto a country where large parts of the social fabric remained dominated by conservative, traditional beliefs at variance with the values espoused by the newly independent state.

In post-colonial Europe, immigration has created substantial new pockets of traditionally minded, conservative citizenry at variance with the liberal constitutional values and social fabric that preceded their arrival. Politicians in both India and Europe are attacked by “liberals” for pandering to “extremists” either for narrow political gain (as in India) or out of wrongheaded colonial guilt and political correctness (as in Europe).

At the core of these debates is the collision between two competing sets of values — both of which are important to liberal, democratic societies. This is the clash between cultural relativism and the value placed on diversity with the concept of universal human rights and the value placed on principles like free speech.

The idea of “tolerance” emerges as a vexed one. In liberal societies one is expected to be tolerant of different ideas and cultures. But what if those cultures are intolerant of others? How much tolerance of intolerance is justified by liberal principles?

Neither India nor Europe has provided any definitive answers to these questions. As a consequence, neither can serve as model to the other. India bans books, yet many European countries ban the wearing of burqas in public or headscarves to school. Banning is an illiberal act. But both types of bans are carried out in the name of preserving certain liberties.

It should be kept in mind that the battle between individual and community rights, universalism and relativism, and the secular and religious also often mask other divisions — such as between the entitled and excluded, the privileged and marginalized. It is usually the more vulnerable in any society that cling to and need the protection of collective identity.

In India, “liberals” often ask why the offence taken by “illiberal” groups at, say, a book that offends their sensibilities is seemingly prioritized by politicians over their own right to take offence at the illiberalism of those who would ban said book.

What is missed here is that the offence taken by a community over a book or movie, the anxiety that is generated regarding the manner in which it is perceived and represented, is sometimes as much about exclusion as it is about the words or content of the work. And exclusion is not part of the lived experience of the country’s liberal elite

Ultimately, in both India and Europe, the manner in which the strains engendered by the conflict between secular rights and religious beliefs are accommodated will depend in substantial measure on how these societies redress issues of inequality and marginalization. Bans of whatever variety will at best serve as Band-Aids on a broken arm.


The grasp of the Church on much of Europe was only truly broken in the 1960s. Then large-scale migration began to overturn the secular applecart again.

In post-colonial India, a liberal constitution was grafted onto a country dominated by conservative, traditional beliefs at odds with the values espoused by the newly independent state.

Politicians in both India and Europe are attacked by "liberals" for pandering to "extremists" for narrow political gain (in India) or out of colonial guilt (in Europe).

India bans books, yet many European countries ban the wearing of burqas in public or headscarves to school.