February 1, 2010

The Longitude of Liberty and Equality

I was pleased with the appearance of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an invited speaker at the recently held Jaipur Literature Festival in India. From the snippets of her speech quoted in the media and her interview with Tehelka, I gather that she has been as outspoken in Jaipur in her criticism of Islam and its ideas, as she has always been:

Unlike other religions that allowed for criticism, Islam brooks no questioning, Ali said. "In Islam you submit your will to a force outside yourself, to a collective will," she said. Describing the Koran as a book written within a certain cultural context in the 6th century, she said many values are outdated. For instance, she said, in Islam, men and women are not equal, homosexual relations are not tolerated, women found guilty of adultery are required to be stoned to death, and the list of obligations under Islam have led to an environment of bigotry where believers are obliged to distance themselves from non-Muslims...

"It is important to off-set Islamic values with Western values. In Islam, men and women are not equal, a woman's testimony is worth half of a man's, and homosexuality is not acceptable. Is there a way to have a discussion with Muslim fundamentalists about Islam without offending them? No," says Ali, who feels that Islam needs to go through the same "enlightenment" process that other religions have gone though.

That's a refreshing departure from the mostly left leaning intellectuals at the Festival, who, while blind, deaf, and mute to all evidence to the contrary, regard Islam as the egalitarian religion of peace and compassion. Nilanjana Roy, in her eyewitness account of Ayaan's talk, wrote, "Most of us can’t get into the auditorium for her talk; the press of the crowds is too great; so we see her as a remote figure on the giant screens outside the Durbar Hall." Now, that speaks volumes for the heterodoxy of the literate sections if not all of Indian society as I know it.

The organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival are to be admired for their courage and discretion. Gettin Ayaan to participate in a public event, while keeping her presence in Jaipur a secret from the scores of mad men itching to execute the fatwah on her head, is no mean achievement. It signals a respect for freedom of expression, not seen often in the citadels of academic freedom such as the Yale University and the Department of Gender & Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin.

It's also to the credit of the Government of India that they granted a visa to Ayaan without much fuss. Contrast it with the U.K. government's shameful attempt to bar another Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, from entering the country to show his 17-minute film, Fitna, which criticizes the Qur'an as a fascist book, at the House of Lords. It must be said that the Government of India has not always been a champion of free speech. Quite the contrary. In this instance, though, it was able to muster the courage to put its constitutional obligations above its political exigencies.

That Ayaan had to be accompanied by a burly bodyguard everywhere she went in Jaipur, does not diminish in anyway this singular accomplishment of the participants, the festival organizers and the Government of India. The mortal threat to Ayaan is neither imagined, nor is it local to Jaipur, India. Her friend, Theo Van Gogh, who was brutally murdered on the streets of the liberal capital of the world, Amsterdam, for speaking the truth in his short film Submission, is now a silent witness to the ubiquitous forces against freedom. It's doubtful if we'd ever be able to stop these forces entirely from reveling in the sacrifice of the living in the altar of the dead.

In the aftermath of her talk at the Jaipur Literature Festival, I have a question for Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Much as I appreciate your spirited rebellion against a fascist ideology masquerading as a religion, you are wrong to conflate a clash of ideas with a clash of lands and their people. As the author of Caged Virgin, you should have known better than to label freedom and equality as "Western" values. By attributing these essentially universal ideals to an arbitrary area of the globe, aren't you risking the alienation of billions of men and women from Iran to India to Mongolia, who value them as much as you and me?

Surely, as you must have realized in Jaipur, if not before, there is no geographical boundary in the world of ideas. Precisely at which longitude do you think that one ceases to value liberty and equality?

  1. Hi,

    Read your stuff all the while and felt too inferior to comment on various articles. BUt I couldn't stop this time, Though India surprises you a lot times,a lot of them being unpleasantry, this one was definitely pleasant. VIVA Democracy.


  2. Srikanth:
    You are welcome. Thank you for visiting and commenting here.

  3. a good review. the author’s opinions in-betwixt are both, refreshing, and at the same time, do not affect the article.


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