Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Letter to the organizers of the India Ideas Conclave

To the organizers of the India Ideas Conclave, Goa, 19-21 December 2014 (Mortsel, 23 Dec.):

Dear friends,

It seems the reaction of two foreign Muslims in my audience last Saturday to my critical scholarly remarks on Islamic doctrine and on the person of Mohammed has provoked quite a debate. It involved serious principles of free speech and the curbs on it by Indian laws instituted by the British rulers who, to prevent riots, wanted to protect Islam from scrutiny by a Hindu writer. Which reminds me that even after the publication of SR Goel's book Freedom of Expression, to which I contributed, the organized Hindu movement has failed to take a clear stand against these laws. If not abolished, they should at any rate be rewritten so that they can not be used as de facto blasphemy laws, which is how they are used against me. At the time of the Wendy Doniger affair, where Hindus have dishonourably used these same anti-freedom laws to pressurize her publisher to pulp her book, I have signed a petition for abolishing these laws (for the occasion even laying aside my differences with Romila Thapar). In fact, these laws affecting everyone who presents truly original ideas to the world would have been a truly worthy topic for an India Ideas Conference. 

An interesting detail: someone sitting behind the Jordanian protester heard him fumble that I had called Mohammed "a rapist" and "a pedophile". Such things were on his mind when he filed a complaint against me. The truth is that I have called the Prophet neither. The topic of pedophilia and Mohammed's oft-discussed marriage to 6-year-old Aisha didn't come up at all. If it had, I still would have refrained from calling it pedophilia, as in this case I want to make allowances for cultural differences, even if I still don't think that ancient Arab society fully condoned (as opposed to tolerated) marriage to pre-pubescent girls. I didn't call Mohammed in person a "rapist", although his forcing a Jewish woman into concubinage with him hours after killing her husband and male relatives would informally qualify as rape. Mohammed was too well endowed with wives and concubines to need rape, but on repeated occasions he condoned the rape of his hostages by his men, on one occasion stipulating that they should do it with coitus interruptus (even a hostage-taking mafia don has a sense of honour and doesn't want the goods he returns in exchange of ransom money to be damaged), on another that they needn't bother as God makes pregnant or not whomever he wants. That he condoned rape, I did indeed mention, viz. as juridically fully valid explanation for the Caliphate warriors' practice of rape.

It is a prime illustration of the Caliphate's self-justification by Mohammed's precedent, hence of my position that the Caliphate is but an application and vivid illustration of true Islam. No Islamic Judge or jurisconsult can condemn an act that is but an re-application of the Prophet's precedent, which itself is that basis of Islamic law. Else they would have to imply or say that "Mohammed was a bad Muslim" (or after David Cameron's exegetic wisdom: he was "a monster, not a Muslim"). Nor will any Islamic judge or jurisconsult deny the episodes of Mohammed condoning rape, which are the topic of well-known Ahadith (Prophetic traditions, a fully valid source of Islamic law). But no, I did not call Mohammed a rapist and certainly not a pedophile.

Explanation: the Jordanian reacted not to my exact position, but to the "Islamophobes" in general, of whom he assumes I am one. (Islamophobia is a nonsense term launched ca. 2005 by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and designates all active or outspoken non-believers. The Turkish participant, apparently an OIC veteran, used this term against me.) Among Islam critics, it is indeed common to call Mohammed a "pedophile". Like many non-specialized Muslims, he also had only a hazy knowledge of Mohammed's actual words and acts. Since childhood, Muslims are fed a very idealized view of Mohammed, a hagiography. This explains why they develop such an attachment to their saintly Prophet, reason why in lectures before mixed audiences I postpone an irreverent treatment of the Prophet as long as possible. In this case, he only came up in question time. But to be sure, I stand by each of my statements and can justify with full reference to Islam's most authoritative texts every claim I made, both about the Prophet and about the Caliphate. Anything I said can safely be quoted against me, I will not wimp out with special pleading to distance myself from my own statements.     

Abstraction made of high principles like freedom of expression, let us now focus on the meaning of the India Ideas Conclave for its organizers. A friend who was there sent me this comment:

"I don't effin' understand why they gave you that topic on the panel in that forum. They know what you think of Islam and they kind of set you up. Why in the hell, I wondered then and I wonder now, why they put you on a panel to speak about Islam at a Hindu Conclave??? You have not written about Islam for years. You are sort of like the Calcutta Quran Petition personified. You're rather a reverse authority on Islam. Everybody knew that. What about a panel on Hindutva? That's what you've been harping about for quite a while. Sorry to use such harsh phrasing, but sometimes I shudder when I read your critiques of Hinduism and Hindutva.  I think, is that me???!!  You could have had a far more effective use or placement for the purpose of this conclave. What was the point of rehashing your decades old cliques in that particular forum and no less on the same stage as a Bishop and a Muslim?"
To start with the last point: why this choice of the other panelists? The Norwegian bishop seemed alright, a harmless do-gooder until he was confronted with a question from the audience: "Do Hindus go to heaven?" He refused to say yes. It surprised me that as a seasoned interreligiousdialoguer, he would antagonize his audience so pointedly. Nowadays plenty of soft-brained Christians could be found willing to concede that non-Christians also go to heaven. Silly Hindus would then deduce that Christianity has changed and now allows non-Christians their non-Christian religion, even after death. In fact, these soft-Christians don't represent their Church and official Christian teachings, which haven't changed: outside Jesus no Salvation. But still, if your purpose was to have some interreligious chumminess (as, post factum, you apparently wanted from me), you could easily have found some Christians willing to say that even Hindus go to heaven. If necessary, knowledgeable people including myself could have informed you about how to deal with the Christian world. But then, you did not see the need to take advice since, as SR Goel observed, "Hindus always think they know everything about everything".
The other panelist was Sultan Shahin, a well-known activist for a moderate Islam. I am glad I had a chance to discuss Islam with him, and far was it from him to make a scene about our differences of opinion. His views are certainly worth discussing, and Hindus could well provide a forum for that. But even in his case, I wonder why he had to speak at an "India Ideas Conclave". The problem is that Hindus don't know themselves or their religion enough (let alone the other religions they engage) to confront third parties meaningfully. I am privy to interreligious dialogue episodes where Hindus gave a really embarrassing performance, not agreeing among themselves even about the fundamentals ("Hinduism is polytheist" -- "At heart, Hinduism is monotheïst"). It would be very useful to have a brainstorming conference where these fundamentals are discussed in a frank and truly progress-oriented manner, an "ideas conclave". But this very expensive conference was not it.
Then, you placed me in a panel on Islam. If you have followed my work, you should know that save for some opinion pieces, I haven't researched this topic for years (instead focusing e.g. on the Hindu-Buddhist relation, on the history of yoga, the Aryan debate etc., enough to choose from for an "Ideas" paper). The reason is that it simply holds no intellectual challenge for me anymore: Islam is a simple and straightforward topic, not worth a lifetime of research, and it is now capably handled by others, including ex-Muslims. Their websites give all the relevant information to Muslims and indeed to you. It was also a bit bizarre that I wasn't asked for a topic or title. Anyway, I had "ideas" on Islam which I did not expect anyone else to present, so I nonetheless accepted.
But as the conclave started, I saw that it was not at all a brainstorm session but a diplomatic exercise. Still, it was well-organized and interesting. I quickly wrote an alternative paper (at least, I jotted down some bullet points for it), less controversial but, I dare say, very appropriate and timely: the Hindu agenda and its implementation, yes or no, by the Narendra Modi government. I proposed it to moderator Sadanand Dhume, but he insisted that I talk about Islam. Well, he got what he asked for. Moral of the incident: be careful what you ask for, you might get it.   
More to follow, but this is already enough for now to ponder.
Kind regards,


Mayur Punekar said...

Sadanand Dhume is a secular aulad, who had sparred with Rajiv Malhotra on twitter on several occasions. What he did seems to be his ploy : He insisted that you speak on some contentious points so that it creates "embarrassment" for BJP and you would be asked to leave the conference, that would in turn neutralize your efforts to insert some brain into BJP govt. by talking on relevant points.

If the current BJP govt. can't understand who is their and enemy and who is their friend, then these guys are ought to be ousted sooner rather than latter.

Jithu said...

Sir, that Hindus have dismal performance record in conducting such events is a Truth beyond any doubt. They try very hard to be someone else. As you have rightly pointed out: Diplomacy, hearing their points of view is all good, but they don't choose the right forums to do so. One of the reasons for the great success of Western discourse, both rightist & liberal, is their amazing consistency in choosing the right people in the right forums, be it in educational or other public forums, to drive home their agenda. But all that Hindus ever want seem to be to hear good things about Hinduism from people who don't believe so and always act with the fear of hurting other religions at the cost of telling the truth. Its a highly defensive strategy and a very ineffective one which is not going to lead them anywhere.

Infinite Wisdom said...

Obviously you understand that it is not easy to be politically incorrect and there is a price to be paid. I hope you will continue to speak the truth as you see it. Many, perhaps millions, believe as you do, and you give voice to this large group, that wants the world to recognize the cancer, and acknowledge it, and then only there is hope for some treatment. Right now the world is ignoring the problem as it did the rise of Hitler and many other monstrous ideas and people, and humanity had to pay a heavy price.

varun reddy said...

If Sita Ram Goel were to be alive and he and Koenraad Elst were made to sit on the same panel on Hindutva,they would have ripped apart the 'secular' masks these BJP leaders has put on them to appear acceptable to the 'secular' media.

Barry Nirmal said...

All glory to Elst

Prashant Jha said...

Waiting for the videos but I can surely understand the unease among some of the ultra seculars of India. At a time when we need to address the real issue of fundamentalist behavior among Muslims these so called liberals/seculars fail us by playing double game.
I hope you know that there are thousands of people who have agenda to counter you or anyone who deviates from their "idea of India". We are grateful for your contribution to India and we will always be there to support you.
Thank you.