Good Tolerance, Bad Tolerance

satanic verses

Salman Rushdie, the well-known author of the controversial book ‘The Satanic Verses’ has recently been knighted, which has again sparked some controversy with both the Iranian and Pakistani governments issuing statements condemning his knighthood.

Disturbing religious sentiments, as the Danish cartoonists found out, is tricky business. Simply because for most people, whole of their spiritual existence is derived from religion and any upset to those sentiments can result in aggressive reaction, which can effectively be harnessed by extremist elements for agendas of their own.

As historical evidence would suggest, the type of religion, in this situation doesn’t really matter. In fact even an Atheist – a believer in the absence of god – would react aggressively if his or her fundamental beliefs are challenged. It is therefore very human and very natural for a Muslim to react strongly against ‘Satanic Verses’ or the Danish Cartoons, and for a catholic to resent the ‘ the Da Vinci Code’ or for a Buddhist to take offense at the movie ‘Hollywood Buddha.’

So far the simple solution to these types of situations seems to be simply banning the book or the offensive material. But greater analysis of the economics of prohibitions would suggest that banning things is a poor solution.

The Blog IndianMuslims explains further:

It is a famous saying in marketing that there is no such thing as bad PR. By The Satanic Verses banning a book, the government is unintentionally providing a big fillip to what might have been a totally worthless piece of literature. Taslima Nasreen is a case in point. I have asked many of my Bengali friends about their opinion of Nasreen as a writer and most of them have been pretty disappointed by her literary skills. By banning her books, the Bangladeshi government made her a martyr to the cause of freedom of expression. Her books have now been read by millions of people world-wide and are now available in over 20 languages. Nothing guides a man like curiosity does. Not many people would have cared for The Satanic Verses but for the reactionary fatwa of Khomeini. When I couldn’t find the book in India, I looked for it in Korea just to figure out what the whole fuss was about. To be very true, I found it to be profoundly boring and couldn’t get beyond a few pages. May be it would have remained such but the whole controversy gave it a cult status. [link]

Respect for religious sentiment is of course good, but spirit of tolerance cannot be enforced by an authority. It’s a personal trait, not something which can be regulated.

I realize that the circumstances are such that often, governments find it pragmatic to make this sort of decision to pacify a potentially explosive situation. But when one such situation occurs certain people expect the practice to repeat itself, and before you know it freedom to express ourselves is slowly eroded to the extent that it would be all too natural to prohibit anything the minute someone claims to be ‘offended’ by it.

The Blog web-alochana in a post titled “Baroda, Kelaniya and fundamentalism around world” (in Sinhalese) relates a story in the University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka where an ‘installation art’ based on commonly used items by a Buddhist monk was ordered to be removed from an art exhibition because a special-interest group from the Kelaniya campus thought it was incompatible with ‘Buddhist culture’.

One of the reasons which lead to these types of pathetic incidents is that those who defend such things as ‘Freedom of Expression’ have been selective in their defense. Voltaire once said that ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it’. That should be the abiding principle. The same people who, very rightly, defend the Boroda student, or M.F Hussein for their right to paint whatever they want should also come to the defense of the Salman Rushdie’s right to publish satanic verses regardless of whether or not they agree with the content of the work.

But of course it’s easy to be idealistic, but what does one expect a government or an authority to do when faced with for example a situation like the ‘Danish cartoons incident’? I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. I’d vote for pragmatism, but people have to just stop tolerating suppression of expression as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. That’s a weird type of tolerance, not of differences of opinion but of authority and the ‘moral police’ who tells us what’s good and what’s not.

That type of ‘tolerance’ should not be tolerated.

Deane J

Deane is a Core Group member of Beyond Borders Sri Lanka, and an undergraduate student of computing (and many other things) who rarely attends his lectures. He maintains an oddly named blog which he updates with varying frequency.

Disclaimer : opinions expressed here are those  of the writer and may not necessarily coincide with the opinions of Beyond Borders or its partner organisations.


Posted on 06/21/2007, in Bangladesh, India, Opinions, Pakistan, Peace-Conflict-Governance, Sri Lanka, UK. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. “In fact even an Atheist – a believer in the absence of god – would react aggressively if his or her fundamental beliefs are challenged”

    Loved it.

  2. Deane:

    Perhaps a more pertinent example in this regard is the blocking of access to Tamilnet.

    It appears that the great crusaders for freedom of speech/expression have flown the coop just for this instance. Unless steps are taken immediately by such “concerned individuals” the idea that SL consists entirely of majoritarian chauvanists will continue.

    Liked the article though… One other thought though – is Rushdie selling out to a post colonial mentality something he supposedly opposes. Or maybe that’s just me.


  3. Quite right. wrote it before the TN incident.. didnt want to include since it sort of didnt fit in well with the context.. its shocking that i didn’t read a single article in the papers about it.

    Rushdie selling out? well, i think its the queen (plus whatever goes under the cover) who decides these things.. no idea.

  4. Nitish Kaul

    Hey Deane,
    first of all, great work. The text invokes a lot of spirits within, good and bad both. Well, i think the problem is more basic and prevalant in our daily lives than the examples cited. I, being an Indian, having seen the Indian society to an extent, if not too closely, can say that the “Freedom to express” is taken away from the child at a very young age. Most of the engineers and doctors, are into their respective professions, because their parents wanted them to be there. A child being told that he must have his milk or else the Ghost who lives on the terrace will come to him at night, what will you call this? Is’nt this breach of “Freedom of Expression”? Isnt this showing no tolerance to what the child thinks is right for him?
    Someday, i hope we find the answer, atleast at our indivdual levels.

  5. Interesting point you make, Nitish. about kids not being able to make choices for themselves, the point is of course that many would not consider them ‘mature’ enough to make these kinds of decisions. of course in our south-Asian societies we will never be ‘mature’ enough for our parents..

    btw, ‘Doctor-Engineer-lawyer’ thing is very much practiced here as well..

  6. Well he wasn’t going to win any awards for attractiveness, that’s for sure.

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