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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 24

A Difficult Question

Saturday 2 June 2007, by Mukul Dube


A politically active young woman told me of a question which she had faced but had been unable satisfactorily to answer. The question was: “Why do you object to the Hindu Right’s actions in Baroda in regard to the art student although you were silent when Muslims reacted vociferously and sometimes violently to the Danish cartoons?”

Unlike the young woman, I do not have to formulate a party position on the matter: but I have to search for an answer because the question may well be put to me. Questions which were identical—barring specific detail—have been put to me in the past, and I have fumbled for answers. I need to explain, at least to my own satisfaction, why I act at some times and fail to act at other times.

A historian I know, who is of the Left but is not aligned with any party, said that the difference was that while the visual depiction of gods and goddesses was traditional, there never had been such a thing in Islam, which indeed is widely held to forbid it.

This is not sufficient explanation, because the context is one of a putatively absolute freedom being given to artists to express themselves. Such freedom cannot be absolute, my historian friend pointed out, because artists too are creatures of society and can be expected to know what will grievously offend some of those who see, read or hear their work.

Writing about the issue, Vir Sanghvi (, May 19-20, 2007) speaks of the “distinction between private expression and public exhibition”. This is directly relevant, but his criticism that “No principles are ever discussed…. [and] when another such incident occurs, we have the same pointless debates all over again” is weakened by the fact that he himself does little by way of discussing principles.

I suggest that an explanation may be found in the power that social forces have over the thinking and action of individuals, in particular the unshakeable nature of identities.

THE most effective criticism of Islam has come from those whose names identify them as Muslims. The same is true of Hinduism and Hindus. Hindus are of course likely to know more about Hinduism than are others; but we must also reckon with the power of the mostly unspoken notion that only Muslims have the right to find fault with Islam. “Look in your own backyard before you point a finger at my house” is a defence and retort probably as ancient as the division of human societies into groups.

My name proclaims the religion and the caste into which I was born. That I may have tried to break away from both, and to oppose what underlines and is preached by both, is of no consequence. Most people who were born Muslims are likely to be Muslims culturally—in such things as everyday speech, food, dress, literature—never mind that they may not follow Islam and may speak against it. I am thus placed in the Hindu camp, and in certain ways I belong to it, even though I may do all I can to distance myself from it.

The result is pressure on me—some of it exerted by myself, some of it anticipated or feared from without—to speak up critically about the religion with which I am associated while remaining silent about other religions. I may think, or may be told, that criticism of those religions should come or will come from those who are associated with them.

Then there is the idea of giving the underdog not just a fair chance but a head start, essentially the reasoning which underpins protective discrimination. Individuals who are opposed to all religions but are “from the Hindu camp” tend not to speak up about even those things in Islam which they dislike, because they do not wish to add to the burden of a group of people whom they know to be discriminated against in several ways.

An explanation is not a justification, but sometimes it is the nearest thing to one that can be found.

In conclusion, a parenthetical note. Another historian I know told me that there is within Islam a long tradition of portraying Muhammad visually and that he has photocopies of many such portrayals. Muhammad is variously depicted as having anthropologically distinctive features: Semitic of course, but also Mongoloid and Negroid. There is, he said, a substantial collection of pictures at the university library in Edinburgh. The Iranian-born journalist and author, Amir Taheri, wrote in the Wall Street Journal of February 8, 2006: “The claim that the ban on depicting Muhamad and other prophets is an absolute principle of Islam is also refuted by history. Many portraits of Muhamad have been drawn by Muslim artists, often commissioned by Muslim rulers.”

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