Monday, January 12, 2015

French Have My Condolences, Not My Apology

(Rana Ayyub is an award-winning investigative journalist and political writer. She is working on a book on Prime Minister Narendra Modi which will be published in 2015.)

This is not an angry letter, and if you insist it is, feel free to say that, for we seem to have a global consensus on free speech in a long time.

A  friend remarked in good humor hours after the firing at the French satirical newspaper "Why yaar, you Muslims kill all the time?" It was a remark made in good humour, she suggested, just as my friends in Class 5 would ask me, presumably in similar fun ribbing spirit, before an Indo- Pak cricket match "So Pakistan today, na?"

For the longest time, I have evaded questions on Islam on official fora.

My faith is a personal matter and sacrosanct. Having said that, I consider myself a proud Muslim. I have taken the most bigoted comments on my work in my stride though most of my investigations seen through the prism of religion, judging by the comments posted on my pieces and the reactions I provoke in person from people who discuss my work.

My reportage on fake encounters has been dissected with clinical precision, generating fury and an interrogation of my credentials, while my investigations on tribals and Dalits, for which I have received prestigious awards, have largely gone unnoticed by my critics and friends alike.

As and when ignorant assumptions about my faith have been raised, I have, with the little knowledge of Islam imparted to me, mostly by my father, tried to clarify the misconceptions.

My father belonged to the progressive writers' movement. While his Communist friends would cherish their whisky and cigar atmushairas or get-togethers in the 70s, he would sneak into a room with dimmed lights, offer hisnamaaz and then return to the soiree to exchange his qalaam(couplet).

For him, his namaaz was a private and personal affair, just like his decision to kindly refuse the alcohol served at such mehfils.

While he would never touch alcohol, there was never an attempt to influence his friends and seniors alike with his beliefs - the group included Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri and Ahmed Faraz amongst other liberal writers.

His Islam and Koran began with the word "iqra" (read/recite). It was for this reason that the son of azamindar chose to spend a good part of his career, till he retired, teaching at a government school in Mumbai, as opposed to reaping the profits of his family business. A majority of his students were non-Muslims.

We, a family of six, stayed in a one-room kitchen modest apartment in Mumbai, situated next to an RSSkaryalaya, whose members chose to spend most afternoons with myabba, their 'Masterji', discussing worldly affairs.

Abba was popular as the Masterjiwho would get students admitted to his school, give free tuitions and make frequent visits to the shakhadespite his ideological differences with the RSS. On Guru Poornima, his was the first wrist which had the red thread tied on it by the shakhahead.

Diagonally opposite to our housing society was an Ayyappa mandirloved by my siblings and me for the jaggery prasadam. On occasions that we didn't make it there, thepujaari would send it home on a banana leaf. During the annual Ayyappa pooja, all the plants from our garden would be packed off to the mandir, and mom would help them connect their water pipes to our kitchen.

Such was the joy of being a part of a cosmopolitan country like India.

When I write this today, every word seethes with frustration. Because, my identity today appears to have value only as a terror apologist, a Muslim who stands up to bigotry. I have to frame a politically-correct response post every terror attack, some allegedly by members of the Muslim community, and others where the perpetrators were clearly misguided Islamic fanatics who stand in absolute contradiction to everything believers like me have ever stood for.

It baffles me when I am singled out for an apology. I wonder if my Tamil friends have ever been asked to apologise for the terror acts of the LTTE, for the suicide bombings by the Tamil Tigers, including the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

It baffles me when Brahmins in the country are not singled out when a family of Dalit women is raped and murdered in broad daylight in Khairlanji, and when the upper caste commits atrocities on Dalits across the country in the name of faith.

It baffles me that never is a Christian looked at with suspicion or anger over the attacks on abortion clinics, or the seemingly placid acceptance of a white who goes on a shooting spree of innocent students, or a Jew asked to apologize over the carnage of Palestinians. Is an American asked to apologize for innocent Afghans and Iraqis killed by the US Army in collateral damage?

Why do you sit in assumption over my morals and my essential humanity when you call me and ask me, "So what do you think about that attack?"

Yes, I do not quite enjoy when a hundred school kids in Peshawar are brutally slaughtered in the name of faith. And, if you think Islam teaches this brutality, you are as misguided as them, perhaps why you and these terrorists could be in agreement over Islam.

I feel compelled - sometimes pressured - to tweet stories of the religious identity of the officer who died saving the lives of journalists in France. Why?

Why am I forced to let everyone know that the employee of a koshersupermarket, who risked his life to save the lives of Jews from a desperate gunman, was a Muslim?

Why am I forced to post pictures of Muslims in France offering namaazfor the slain journalists?

Why am I forced to reiterate to my friends, "Hey, listen, the commanding officer in the final raid on the assailants was a Muslim"?

I am tired and embarrassed at having to reassert that my faith has nothing to do with the lunacy of some misguided rascals who claim to be protectors of my faith. They are as misguided as the Buddhist monks in Myanmar who are targeting Muslims in riots, the very idea being contradictory to the Buddhist faith.

Yes, I have stood against anti-Muslim bigotry and will continue to do so in the light of the events in present times and that does not translate into being a terrorist sympathizer. No, I am not a "moderate Muslim" because the term is insulting to my faith just as it would be to a Hindu or a Jew or a Sikh - any faith demands honesty and not a quantitaive assessment or degree of your belief in it.

As I write this today, I am also assured that bigotry and this mindless Islamophobia will not be allowed a free rein, and the front-runners who will defend my faith and its followers from this mindless hate will be non-Muslims.

It is heartening to see that for every Rupert Murdoch who gives voice to this pandemic bigotry, there are a hundred other journalists, activists, humanists across the globe who are fighting an unpopular battle each day to defend Muslims from this rampant prejudice.

As fellow journalist Owen Jones, from The Independent, who I greatly admire for his unrelenting journalistic crusade against bigotry, once wrote, "Those few of us with a public voice who defend Muslims from bigoted generalisations are currently fighting an unpopular battle. But it is the right thing to do, and history will absolve us."

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Story First Published: January 11, 2015 17:45 IST

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The New York Times

The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Columnist

I Am Not Charlie Hebdo

JAN. 8, 2015
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The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.
Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.
Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions. The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality. The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A. Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.
Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.
So this might be a teachable moment. As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.
The first thing to say, I suppose, is that whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.
We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.
But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (Ridicule becomes less fun as you become more aware of your own frequent ridiculousness.) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.
Yet, at the same time, most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low. When they are effective they help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.
Moreover, provocateurs and ridiculers expose the stupidity of the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are people who take everything literally. They are incapable of multiple viewpoints. They are incapable of seeing that while their religion may be worthy of the deepest reverence, it is also true that most religions are kind of weird. Satirists expose those who are incapable of laughing at themselves and teach the rest of us that we probably should.
In short, in thinking about provocateurs and insulters, we want to maintain standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.
If you try to pull off this delicate balance with law, speech codes and banned speakers, you’ll end up with crude censorship and a strangled conversation. It’s almost always wrong to try to suppress speech, erect speech codes and disinvite speakers.
Fortunately, social manners are more malleable and supple than laws and codes. Most societies have successfully maintained standards of civility and respect while keeping open avenues for those who are funny, uncivil and offensive.
In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.
Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.
The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 9, 2015, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: I Am Not Charlie Hebdo.

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