Although Wahhabism claims to be the “purest” form of Islam, in reality it has little in common with a faith which has mercy, compassion and beneficence at its core, qualities repeated over and over in the Quran, so that each believer will understand and absorb the attributes that are likely to lead him to a pleasant afterlife. Wahhabism is based on religious supremacy, a philosophy which posits a particular set of beliefs as being superior to all others. The corollary is that those professing a different set of beliefs are considered inferior, “Untermensch”, the term used to describe the so-called “non-Aryans” in Hitlerite Germany. Dialogue, much less debate, is discouraged except on its terms, which is that there ought to be zero questioning of the postulates of Wahhabism by the other. Unfortunately for the Muslim community, because of the tens of billions of dollars spent on its propagation by HNIs in the GCC countries, many regard Wahhabism as identical to Islam, when in fact the two differ substantially. Because India is a multi-religious society, where, unlike Pakistan, the number of individuals belonging to so-called “minority” faiths has grown over the years and now has reached close to 200 million, it was expected that Wahhabism would be in retreat in this country, giving way to the more moderate schools of thought enunciated in prominent seminaries in the country. Rather than this happening, it is the Wahhabi impulse that seems to have seeped into other faiths, thereby making a growing section of practitioners almost as immoderate and intolerant of differences as the Wahhabis are.
The United States of America is among the countries where Christians are in an overwhelming majority, with the three major ethnic groups — Caucasians, Latinos and African-Americans — all professing different schools of the faith based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. A few days ago, this columnist sat through a Broadway show, The Book of Mormon, in the Eugene O’Neill theatre, a still impressive structure that has aged gracefully rather than in bits and pieces of falling plaster. The play itself was a spoof on the Book of Mormon, which is regarded by the Mormon community as having been handed down to human beings from a divine source. The actors played out a parody of Mormon missionaries, and included in the repertoire an actor whose role was that of Christ himself, sometimes using language that would be considered about as far from saintly as Pluto is from Earth. Had such a performance taken place anywhere in India, protests by the community would have resulted in the performance being shut down and the actors arrested for “inciting communal tensions”. So brittle is the protection given to speech in India that to cross a red line is a simple matter of having some individual register a case against anyone who utters something deemed to be offensive to him or her. In New York, however, there was no dismay but laughter at the sallies directed against the actors acting the part of Mormon missionaries. There was no rush to file FIRs, no cries that the US is an “anti-Christian” state for permitting such a parody of one of the subsidiary faiths of the Christian religion to be played before full houses in the theatre. Instead of Christianity, were it another religion that was being lampooned, it is very likely that a campaign would have been launched by practitioners of that faith to either sanitise the show through censorship or to ban it altogether. Those who died at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo became the victims of those for whom freedom of expression means the “freedom” to follow or to praise what the fanatics wish to propagate.
The Christian-majority countries have long been sanctuaries for those of other faiths, with even Wahhabism getting a friendly reception in most of them, although these days, the spread of ultra-Wahhabi groups such as ISIS is visibly diminishing that welcome, especially after the flood of reports showing the discrimination faced by Christians in countries within West Asia and North Africa. Those who are confident of their worth will not get hysterical about even a slur, for the reason that such lack of respect by the uninformed does not in the slightest take away the worth of a faith. Hopefully a time will come when Muslims or Hindus laugh at certain depictions of their faiths rather than seek to shut down such shows, the way it has been attempted — often with success — in the case of film after film, book after book.
Watching the Mormons in the audience laugh at the irreverent manner in which their core teachings had been lampooned by the actors in The Book of Mormon, a question surged up. When would it be before every community in India showed tolerance to those depicting the faith of their birth in a less than awestruck way? When would they stop going to courts to get arrest warrants issued, and stop importuning television anchors to join with them in spewing venom against those who refuse to abide by the views and attitudes of the apex leadership of a particular faith? Development is not merely a matter of steel and glass, but retaining the qualities of tolerance and compassion when confronted with those whose views are distasteful to others. If India is to become a knowledge superpower, ensuring freedom of speech would be a good way to start.