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The Left's Championing Of 'Free Speech' Is A Wordy Sham

Censorship of a different kind.

18/04/2017 4:09 PM IST | Updated 20/04/2017 1:32 PM IST
Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

May 2014 for India marked the beginning of a tectonic shift in dominant political ideology. The proudly Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party—socially conservative and ideologically saffron—has, unsurprisingly, raised questions over its "sabka vikas" claims through campaigns like ghar-wapsi, and by elevating those advocating such campaigns to positions of power.

Gau rakshak lynch mobs are no longer a fringe phenomenon; chants of "mandir wahin banayenge" are no longer an eerie memory of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. Overall, the BJP regime is not the best time to be a religious minority in India.

Equating the criticism of Islam (an ideology) to the bigotry against Muslims (a people) is the working of a weak mind.

In resisting the emergence of a Right-wing ideology, one is tempted to borrow from the lexicon of the Left. The scope of this article limits this discussion to one particular word—"Islamophobia"; defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force."

A cursory look into the origins of the word reveals it as a highly contested academic term. Johannes Kandel, a German historian and political scientist, in the introduction to his paper "Islamophobia – On the Career of a Controversial Term" (2006), raises the concern about its "misuse to prevent legitimate criticism of the religion, culture and civilisation of Islam, not just of Islamism and Jihadism."

"For some time now I have observed, not just in Germany, that even the attempt to analyse links between certain interpretations of Islam and Islamism or Jihadi terrorism is denounced with the allegation of 'Islamophobia'," he writes.

Further, in spite of widespread usage in international politics, "Islamophobia" does not find international legal recognition, and is excluded wholly from statutes across the world (viz. a viz. "prohibition of religious discrimination" or "protection of minorities"—which apply more generally to all faiths).

This, however, hasn't restrained sections of liberals and leftists from using the term to characterise atheists, rationalists, right-wingers—and the latest—fellow liberals who attempt to criticise Islam.

In October 2016, when I questioned JNU professor Nivedita Menon at The Bridge event in New Delhi on dismissing criticism of Islam by the term "Islamophobia", she subjected it to the rider of "the politics of location." To a Kashmiri woman's point about articulating patriarchy within Kashmiri community, Menon said that it was difficult, "when her state is facing military occupation by the Indian state."

Both these positions are flawed. The question of Kashmiri "occupation"—popularised also by the 2016 JNU "azadi" controversy –is a largely settled issue in Indian independence history.

Her "politics of location", loosely synonymous with the politics of identity—one of the Left's pet projects—viciously excludes non-members from contributing to constructive discourse and fuels alienation and hostility within marginalised communities.

The dominant strand of feminism today—borrowing largely from the Left's politics of identity—aggressively silences criticism of misogyny in Islamic scripture and culture by non-Muslims.

In a recent Facebook post, when JNU student and AISA member Aman Sinha attempted to question the oxymoron of "Islamic feminism", cultural relativists and self-proclaimed champions of minority identity descended upon him with full vigour. Many discredited his opinion based on his identity – by virtue of being a Hindu man commenting on Islamic feminism. Soon after, he was disowned by AISA.

In an apparent response to Sinha's post, sedition-accused Umar Khalid made a fallacious appeal-to-emotion, positing that in the given scenario of a Hindu nationalist government, any "attack (on) their (Muslims') religious beliefs in the garb of 'rationalism' is nothing but inflicting further suffering and pain." Khalid, with unflinching audacity, went on to allege that all institutions of the state have "failed" Muslims and routinely mocked and killed them.

Furthering a similar position, two JNU students alleged "rampant Islamophobia" among Left-wing students; a view that has since been countered squarely.

Allegations of "Islamophobia" are strongest from among those who conflate the belief system with its followers. While discrimination against Muslims is a real problem that points to larger issues of racism and xenophobia, equating the criticism of Islam (an ideology) to the bigotry against Muslims (a people) is the working of a weak mind.

"Islamic feminism" is as much an oxymoron as "Hindu feminism" is. Like Hindu family laws (for example those pertaining to inheritance and succession), Muslim personal laws remain discriminatory against women. Laws on polygamy and divorce, for example, are direct lift-offs from the Quran and skewed strongly in favour of men.

Quranic verses on menstruation (2:222), consent (2:223), treatment for "lewd" women (4:15), "slave" women (4:24) and "disobedient" women (4:34) are prime examples of vile misogyny—but a rare concern for most liberal feminists. And the dominant strand of feminism today—borrowing largely from the Left's politics of identity—aggressively silences criticism of misogyny in Islamic scripture and culture by non-Muslims.

In 2016, Huffpost Blogger Zubin Madon had debunked the Liberal-Left's most clichéd defences of Islamic dogma—from "context" to "Western foreign policy." His careful criticism of religious patriarchy across the board routinely earns him the tag of an "atheist mansplainer"—a voice to be silenced, by virtue of his atheist male identity.

In spite of such outright regressive positions on key issues, the Left and its contributions to liberal discourse enjoy the support of a sizeable majority of the opposition. While it may not be the best political strategy to engage in further "dividing" the opposition, I believe that an opposition can only sustain if it is rational.

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