Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Price of Globalization

Free Trade or Free Speech?

by Niranjan Ramakrishnan

"How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries...wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live... The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities - but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith...and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome."

—Winston Churchill, from The River War, first edition, Vol. II, pages 248-50 (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1899).

I was watching an episode of the Simpsons last night, enjoying their brilliant mockery of Catholicism, Mormonism, and other Christian faiths. Even as I doubled over in mirth, there lurked in some corner of my mind a nagging question whether they would dare do the same with Islam or Sikhism , Hinduism or Judaism. Few politicians or journalists speak or write their minds in our day as Churchill did in his, or Marx or Mohammed or Gandhi in theirs. Political correctness has sapped the ability to, in Mencken's words (full quote later), "utter what seems at the moment to be the truth".

A vestigial self-assurance may still remain. On ABC's Nightline many years ago. Ted Koppel was interviewing a Soviet dignitary visiting Washington. Accompanying him was a junior functionary from the Embassy who spoke fluent English. In the middle of the program the young man protested to Koppel, "You are being unfair, you are not giving us equal time". Saying, "I'll worry about it when we get equal time on Moscow Television!", Koppel continued on without skipping a beat.

The incident came to mind when I saw reports of protests, among other countries in Saudi Arabia (where one cannot possess a copy of the Bible or the Gita, and the only public worship allowed is that of Islam), and Pakistan (where there are recent reports of young women being forcibly converted to Islam, and people of the "wrong" religions being on death row for blasphemy). Angry young men were up in arms against cartoons making fun of the Prophet in a Danish newspaper. In Gaza, Fatah activists (eager to make up for their recent electoral loss, perhaps) were seen bustling about carrying shoulder fired missiles, reading out warnings to people from certain countries to leave in 10 hours, failing which their lives would be in jeopardy.

Of course, one can be sure none of these same protesters have any complaint with western personages Carlyle, Bernard Shaw or Goethe for praising Prophet Mohammed. Like the rest of us, they are happy when they or theirs is praised, unhappy when criticized or satirized.

Except, however, most of us don't threaten to kidnap and kill people who have criticized us, nor write specious screeds pointing out the difference between freedom and license. We shrug and move along, knowing that not everyone needs to accept our beliefs for us to be secure in ours. It is as simple as that.

And as vital. The question is whether the West will defend the central pillar of the Enlightenment, or will it abandon it to the new faith of 'getting along at any price' mealy-mouthed obeisance to self-censorship in the name of multiculturalism. Will it protect the one thing that has distinguished life in the West from life elsewhere on the planet -- the protected freedom of expression? Or will it surrender before the threat of Danish biscuits vanishing from Arab store shelves?

For in this crisis is laid bare the real cost of globalization -- Western ideals in hock to the formula of free trade. Notice how the same people who are willing to start wars eight thousand miles away in the name of Democracy are ready to water it down at home at the first sign of economic disruption emanating from far-away lands. The global chickens have come home to roost.

After the principled stand by the Danish prime minister, who politely told critics that the government in Denmark could not order the press, some EU high-up issued a disingenuous statement about the need to be sensitive to religion and culture. Following bravely was that unctuous hypocrite, Kofi Annan -- a man who sullied his post by watching mutely when a UN member nation was savaged in a pre-meditated war -- now expostulating on the need for freedom of the press to be tempered by respect for religion.

Weighing in the following day was Condoleezza Rice's Department of State, whose spokeswoman blasted the Danish and other European papers for publishing the cartoons, stressing the need for press responsibility. Perhaps for once they were sincere -- no one loves a "responsible" press more than this administration!

The assault on free speech has been happening on a smaller scale for some time. I recall some company in the US that had used a picture of Gandhi in some unflattering fashion. A howl of protest went up on the Internet, and the company folded with the usual noises of forced apology and assurances of how much they respected the great man, etc. etc. About a year back, a play had to be canceled in the UK because members of the Sikh faith felt it offended them. The British state was nowhere about to protect the right of the organizers (in fact, the playwright, I recall reading, had to hide in fear of death threats. Not all are as prominent as Salman Rushdie).

Where is the State when it has a real role, to preserve and protect everybody's right of free _expression? President Bush speaks often about the threat to our way of life. If there is anything worth preserving in our way of life, the freedom of speech is first on that list. HL Mencken wrote, "[I] know of no human right that is one-tenth as valuable as the simple right to utter what seems (at the moment) to be the truth." Thomas Jefferson went further, " "...truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them."

The president needs to speak out on this matter and defend free speech in clear terms. As does every Democrat and Republican, every organization, including the ACLU, and indeed, every individual.

There has been criticism of the unwritten and the written laws of censorship, which European and American media meekly follow, notably in the matter of criticizing Israel, for fear of being tagged 'anti-Semitic'. This is real enough. And the meekness of the media around the Bush Administration is there for all to see. But just as a person protesting a speed limit of 60 mph would drive at the maximum speed allowed even while campaigning for its raising, instead of driving at 40 mph in protest, expanding the right of _expression, not its curtailment, should be the goal.
"We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us", went the joke in the Old Soviet Union. Similar is the demand by protesters that Denmark, France, Norway and Germany apologize. Such is the nature of both apology and the demand for it in these cases. Galileo recanted, but did he stop believing the Earth went round the Sun? Compliance may be enforced, but respect is earned.

The editor of the Jyllands-Posten, accused of not 'respecting' Islam, said that what was being demanded was not 'respect', but 'submission'. When told that Danish law allowed the newspaper to publish what it saw fit, the imam of the largest Muslim congregation in Denmark declared, "If this is Democracy, we want no part of it!"

I doubt if the imam had read Ved Mehta's autobiography. Before Mehta left India for America for his studies, while not yet out of his teens, his father took him to meet Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru wished the young man well, adding, "Remember that when abroad, you are always an ambassador of your country." In the chorus of outrage from Muslim lands, Ayatollah Al Sistani in Iraq alone seemed to have grasped the wisdom of Nehru's words. While protesting the cartoons, he also criticized Muslims for bringing a bad name to their religion by postures of intolerance and threats of violence.

As the late Nirad Chaudhuri admonished his fellow Indians, "A tree is known by its fruits."

Related Readings
1. The Trouble with Infallibility by Niranjan Ramakrishnan
2. Newsweek: A Contest of Hypocrisies by Niranjan Ramakrishnan
3. Danes Apologize (finally, but for the wrong reasons) by Rachard Itani
4. A Mountain out of a Molehill by Mona Eltawahy

An earlier version of this article also appeared on Counterpunch on Feb 4/5, 2006.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at


Anonymous said...

B'ranjan, It will be interesting to see what comes out of this 'talent search'

and if the west will be receptive to this.

Anonymous said...

YOu can see how much regard bush and co. have for free speech. Exactly the same point is made by Bill Maher on his blog today.