Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Islam and free speech

Cartooning is not the way to change minds

From The Statesman

By ND Batra

The Danish cartoons and their subsequent recrudescence in several newspapers, television, and the Internet about Prophet Mohammad might have been a fundamental right to exercise freedom of speech; but they have turned out to be a premeditated insult to the religious sensibilities of global Muslims. Most Muslims have taken the cartoons as a deliberate assault on their collective psyche, a crude attempt to deconstruct their culture and destruct their sacred narrative. Humans live by their stories. Some would die for them.

In many ways we see ourselves and know the physical world through our stories. Our nervous system and our personal and historical memories define our ability, our sense and sensibility, to describe and capture reality. Millions of words, for instance, have been written about Islamic jihad and yet it’s doubtful if the truth about this notoriously complex concept, evil to some and yet sacred to others, has been completely captured.

If somehow we could know a way of tuning up and enhancing the nervous system to a higher level, the linguistic description and hence the reality would change. Pardon the digression but think of the time when zero was discovered, presumably by the ancient Hindus; and the subsequent development of decimal system; and how that must have changed the perception of reality by subjecting physical phenomena to measurement. Measurement is a form of description of reality; so is cartooning, lampooning and parodying.

But as TS Eliot said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” When Galileo’s telescope was latched to the human nervous system, the linguistic description of the firmament changed and the earth, as it were, ceased to be a stationary planet, though the Church refused to accept it.Or consider some modern political events. Had satellite pictures not revealed the existence of the Soviet’s missiles in Cuba in the 1960s, Americans and the rest of the world would not have perceived the seriousness of the threat to the United States.

If the remote-sensing technology could pick up sights and sounds of human sufferings, it would become possible to know how the Chinese have been decimating the Tibetans and their culture. The Tibetan genocide, like the Holocaust, would find full linguistic description. Description either leads to action or generates guilt. Guilt too motivates action. Through communications technology, the human nervous system extends itself and gives a better or a fuller account of reality, and a feeling of liberation from the constraints of earlier description of reality. New reality demands new laws, ethics and social relations, and creates new life styles, as one can see happening in the burgeoning economy of China, where communism is dead as the dodo.

Communications technology—television antennas, faxes, tape recorders, the Internet—which made free flow of information possible, has killed communism. Was this the assumption of the European media that free flow of information in the form of crude satirical cartoons might debase and eventually dissipate Islamic religious fundamentalism?

History teaches a lesson that it is through the control of linguistic descriptions, narratives and stories that the powerful, the ruling classes, exercise their hegemony. I have always wondered how Britain ruled so successfully over India for about two hundred years. To a great extent the British succeeded in the exercise of their soft cultural power by supplanting the native stories and narrative descriptions with their own literature and legends, so that appreciating Chaucer was deemed more civilized than discovering the beauty of Kalidasa.

China has begun to transplant its stories and historical descriptions upon the young Tibetans, and by the time they grow up into adulthood, their reality will clash with the truth held by their parents—unless modern communications technology, including wireless Internet, short-wave radio and miniature antenna dishes, keeps them alive as Tibetans. By denying them the Tibetan language and access to communications technology, that’s, by controlling their collective nervous system, China might do worse damage than Hitler did to the Jews.

There is something remarkable about the Jewish people, in the sense that from the Old Testament through Steven Spielberg, they have been natural born storytellers. Because of the faithful anecdotal and photographic accounts of the concentration camps, and documentaries and movies like “Shoah” and “Schindler’s List,” it is impossible to deny the truth of the Holocaust, in spite of what Iran’s President Ahmedinijad might have said recently. Most of us feel guilty for not having stopped the Holocaust. The Tibetans have no great filmmakers, no storytellers, and no access to communications technology. They don’t believe in Jihad. They might perish in the silence of the Himalayas. Storytelling is a form of Darwinian survival.

If the recipe for cultural domination and power is through the control of narrative and communications technology, which are in essence the collective nervous system of a society, then it becomes important to find ways of creating resistance movement within threatened cultures. We must “understand, and expose the dynamics of myth-making in society,” said Professor Herbert Schiller, a distinguished scholar of information, and “discover what happens when that process touches the lives of millions of people.” When mythmakers of today have the reach of satellite technology and the Internet, consequences for ancient cultures and human rights can be devastating.

The violent reaction against the Prophet Mohammad cartoons is in reality a form of cultural resistance against global homogenization, cultural hegemony masquerading as free speech.

No comments:

Post a Comment