In Defence of Johann Hari

“Freedom of thought,” says the philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville, “is the only good more important than peace. Without it, peace would be another word for servility.” This is the basis for the first amendment in the American constitution; itself formulated from the thoughts from the man who perhaps coined the term “United States of America”, namely the great Thomas Paine.

As Paine wrote in Common Sense:

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.

Those last words are resounding and might be the distant echo to the so-called Rushdie Affair. The “defense of custom” seems to have become the staple diet for the majority. We have fought so long and so hard for tolerance that we tolerate the intolerant; We defend their customs and their ideas which themselves are based on bullying strategies that renders a cloud of protection on “men of faith”. When someone who is not of the cloth utters that the 2007 floods in Northern Yorkshire are a deity’s judgments on homosexuality, as the then Archbishop of Carlyle, Graham Dow, did, we would think them insane. But because he has archbishop next to his name we are meant to “respect” such barbaric, backward and unhelpful thoughts.

Recently, my friend the great Johann Hari has faced a horrible string of threats, underpinned by death, fear and Islam. He alerted his faithful readership to the horrid poison, weaving a noose within the veins of equality in the UN. Islamic countries are demanding that we respect their hideous misogynist notions of shari’ah, to steer clear of criticising an illiterate pedophile who flew on horses to heaven, and to never raise reason as an ecumenical notion for everyone.

They are demanding this because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stresses the right to free-speech, free-thought. This logically means the ability to criticise openly any and all ideas. The only thing that the UDHR even alludes to being “sacred”, in the normative sense of the word, is the unified human spirit to unite without superstitious, overzealous boundaries. Muslims fear this, as Hari correctly highlight, because it would mean that young people would do the one thing all religions fear: THINK FOR THEMSELVES.

Sapere Aude (Dare to know)!” says Kant in his essay on the Enlightenment. ” ‘Have courage to use your own understanding’ – that is the motto for the Enlightenment.” Islam – and all religions – would quiver under such scrutiny. The use of intellect is hardly encouraged unless it is in accordance with Allah’s will. Everything is supposed to be through Allah; but everything includes good and bad, right and wrong, evil and misconceptions. So wouldn’t this religion, which is mistakenly called a “religion of peace” by many world leaders, cherish such open-mindedness? Why then the fear of Enlightenment values?

Because then the foundations would fail, it would flounder and like a hydra dying and frothing red beneath the sea, it would sink into the bottom depths of our history. Muslims realise this. They realise their grips would falter on the minds of their flock; so much so that they are willing to arrest the Indian editors of Hari’s article.

How could Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha be arrested for publishing Hari’s article? Because hurting religious feelings is part of the Indian penal code. Under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code it forbids “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”. The irony rests in the double-standards. And what religions are included in section 295A? Why some religions, Islam, but not others, Norse or Roman? And, of course, what about those who are outraged but are not religious? Why do we never get any “special treatment” for our “feelings”?

Boo-hoo, my childish Islamic friends. Your feelings were hurt? Shame. I can tell you exactly why those of us without religion neither have any law against offending us, in India (and most places), and more importantly, why we usually don’t fight for one: Because we believe in the freedom of open criticism. We believe in the right to express any ideas, in a rational, open way.

This means I do not care whether you worship Zeus, Allah, or Yahweh: If it makes you happy, go ahead. If it consoles, by all means do it. But you can not demand me to respect such ideas and to not criticise them. I am open to you criticising my ideas, any of them. I will not be privy to respecting any ideas just to make the faithful happy. To quote Hari:

[A] free society cannot be structured to soothe the hardcore faithful. It is based on a deal. You have an absolute right to voice your beliefs – but the price is that I too have a right to respond as I wish. Neither of us can set aside the rules and demand to be protected from offence.

Whilst we writers against religion limit ourselves to words, our antagonists would find vent in bullets. Whilst we would change and let the plateau of equality be the ground on which we all walk, Muslims would have the high-ground to censure equal human rights. They would rather we shut up and step away from hurting their poor feelings.

I support Hari in his criticisms, as is apparent. Hari had every right to write what he liked, as did people in my country’s past. Consider that Steve Biko’s book is entitled I Write What I Like. I even support the freedom to write tripe like creationist or Holocaust-denial literature. Because scientists and historians can then openly criticise and point out the flaws in the creationist and “revisionist” literature. I don’t believe in banning books or writers or the stultification – in fact, my life is dedicated to fighting for anyone to say anything, in an open minded, discursive way.

Not so for the religious, as this reaction to Hari’s article displays. If that is not a sign of backward thinking, pointing away from the path of reason into the dark woods of dogma, then I am not sure what is. Perhaps the Quran and its horrible statements of death to infidels (“Kill them where ye find them!”)? Perhaps the terror Muslims invoke, when we draw cartoons of their Prophet, or the death-threats when a Teddy-bear is named after him?

I want us all to be amenable to change, criticism and open to ideas. This is a grownup way to look at the world. But the neotony inherent in our species finds vent in that which is itself a product of our mind’s infancy. Consider this bounder, called Abdus Subhan, who “[was] prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet [against Hari]” and Hari should be sent “to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol … He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech.”

But why not? We need to all grow up and face the fact that many things will “offend” us. We are diverse and diversity inculcates a sense of realisation of many different things.  So, using “that offends me” as a reason and argument to cease that which causes offence, is no grounds at all for it to cease. Before you think me venturing into the territory of cultural relativism, I mean it simply according with what we understand to be human rights, personal autonomy, the right to liberty, freedom of thought, and so on.

I stand by what I write here as I stand by Johann Hari. Muslims should be more horrified at me, someone who was once Muslim, now admonishing them; I deserve their scorn and outrage more than someone who won the Amnesty International Newspaper Journalist of the Year (2007). Please let us all grow up, face the beauty of the world and time we have. Muslims must realise that we are fighting for them and their freedom as much as anyone else. The ones who suffer the most from the dogmatic assertions of clerical bullying are other Muslims.

We want everyone to be free, we want everyone to have the right to liberty and freedom. Let the ashes of dogma settle to allow some growth of a newfound liberation and reasoned tolerance. If we hurt each others feelings so be it. But that does not mean we are allowed to kill, arrest or maim each other. Growing up and opening our eyes means we see and experience more, which means more opportunity for pain. But it also means more opportunity for growth. Like trees entwined at the roots, our growth rests in each other. The faster we all severe our ties from celestial propitiation, the faster our own lives can be rendered to soar with freedom and openness

I know this will do nothing to stop or cease Muslim’s anger. It might incite more. But, I will quote Paine again to finish. Immediately after the first line I quoted above, he says:

But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.

Let it be so.

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5 thoughts on “In Defence of Johann Hari

  1. Well done, good sir.

    One issue I had, though, was the statement about the religious not being for open discussion and such. Obviously not all religious people are of this position. Well, actually if you take it far enough, even most moderates are probably against a full openness because most would view treating religion – even their moderate religion – as being ideas on par with any other as offensive. But even given this, I think it’d be a good idea to differentiate a bit more between fundies and liberal religionists.

  2. Pingback: In Defence of Johann Hari | Edger

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