Two weeks ago, an 18-year-old Chechen beheaded a teacher in Paris for having shown to his students caricatures of Prophet Mohammad. He was taking a class on freedom of expression. Just days ago, a knife attack inside a church in the French city of Nice by a 21-year-old Tunisian, brutally killed three people and injured several more. The gruesome attacks rightly created worldwide outrage. French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to fight this mindless terrorism. India did the right thing in supporting his stand. Ruthlessly violent organisations like the Al Qaeda and the ISIS, which misuse religious sentiment to justify the worst form of violence, are a scourge that the world must defeat. Terrorism in any form is unacceptable, and must be unambivalently condemned.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Pakistan PM Imran Khan, and Malaysia’s former PM, Mahathir Mohamad, however, attacked Macron for unleashing ‘Islamophobia’. Erdogan is seeking to wrench the leadership of the Islamic world by adopting radical Islam. Imran Khan, facing rising unpopularity within Pakistan, is falling back on the old card of catering to the conservative domestic mullah lobby. And, Mahathir, is somehow trying to keep himself relevant. Nothing can justify their failure to categorically denounce such violent cruelty in the name of religion. Not Macron, but the fundamentalist Islamic elements that plan and execute such despicable crimes, should have been decried by them.
France has the largest number of Muslims in Europe. They constitute the ‘ethnic debris’ that floated over the years to French shores from the countries they had earlier colonised and subjugated. The French colonial empire included many Muslim countries, especially in Northern Africa. Many European countries, who had once enslaved large parts of the world, now have to face the challenge of adopting a multiculturalism that assimilates different ethnic, religious and cultural groups from their colonies.
Different countries have adopted different strategies to deal with this task, but it is not an easy one, and religious fealty is an emotive issue for people of all faiths. The West was right in opposing — in the name of freedom of expression — the ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and India was wrong in imposing the ban. But, many Western countries have showed great intolerance to the derogatory display of Jesus. Filmmaker Scorcese’s irreverent The Last Temptation of Christ provoked public outrage unprecedented in the history of religious films. Militant Christians castigated Universal Pictures, abused Lee Wasserman, chairman of the company, and forced movie chains not to show the film. Similarly, they took to the streets when Christ was portrayed as a charlatan in The Passover Plot. The film was hounded out of cinema halls and never seen again. It is also perhaps less known that while the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in 2005, its editor had earlier turned down cartoons of Jesus as too offensive.
The French president Nicolas Sarkozy actually took up with then PM Manmohan Singh, when the latter was on an official visit to France in October 2008, his “anguish” about the “massacre of Christians in India”. Over 40 Indians of the Christian faith had been killed when suspected Hindu extremists resorted to violence in the states of Odisha and Karnataka, ostensibly to protest against perceived missionary activism in converting Hindus to Christianity. The reprehensible killings were condemned by every political party, including the BJP. Police reinforcements were sent to the disturbed areas; the chief ministers of both states, as well as national leaders, personally met with the heads of the Church to reassure them about their safety and that of their flock. And yet, Sarkozy, the head of a country that prides itself in keeping matters of religion out of matters of state, considered it fit to take up an aberrational incident about the well-being of Christians in India during a summit political meeting. On its part, France does not allow the wearing of turbans by Sikh children and headscarves by Muslim girls. However, there is no ban on the wearing of the Christian cross.
For India, both as a Republic where the Constitution expressly espouses religious harmony, and as a civilization that has completely rejected violence on religious grounds, radical and violent Islam is abhorrent. In fact, India’s civilisational history presents the best example of a plural society. Hinduism was never a proselytising religion; it did not conduct crusades. In ancient times, Hindu kings patronised both their own temples and Buddhist viharas. The Jews lived peaceably in India before they did anywhere else. Muslim traders from the Arab countries practiced their faith undisturbed in Kerala more than a thousand years ago. The Parsis came in the seventh century and the Christians in the fourth to harmoniously become a part of the national fabric.
While supporting President Macron in his stand against the savage bigotry of certain fundamentalist Islamic groups, and renewing its commitment against all kinds of terrorism, India can and should strive to present to the world its own civilisational legacy of respect for all religions, and the ability of people of different faiths to live in harmony and peace. Our condemnation of what happened in France recently will resound even more globally when we ourselves reiterate and demonstrate afresh that India is the best example of a plural and tolerant society.