Debate, Dissent, and Blasphemy

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The Trial of God

As a prisoner in Auschwitz, where some of the worst atrocities in Nazi camps took place, 15-year-old Elie Wiesel watched as three pious Jewish scholars put God on trial for the suffering of his people. After a lengthy debate and trial, they concluded with their verdict: God was guilty. They fell silent, and then sat down to pray. This story, told by Wiesel in his play, The Trial of God (which is set in Eastern Europe in 1649 after pogroms), powerfully conveys troubling questions of suffering and faith: how can God allow such horrific human suffering? If God exists, then what kind of God is this? Wiesel later said that although he has many arguments against God, it has not caused him to leave his faith. In fact, this is not unique to Wiesel, although his personal suffering and philosophical and literary talent make his story particularly impactful. The question of theodicy is one aspect of this story. The one that concerns me here, however, has to do with debate.

Debate in various forms – asking challenging questions, scrutinizing evidence available, struggling to reach a better understanding – is part of many religious traditions. The Jewish tradition is full of examples, chief of which in the Hebrew Bible is the book of Job, a confrontational critique and dialogue first between Job and his friends and then between God and Job. The Talmud – a religious text that contains hundreds of years of religious learning and discussion, written in marginalia – is another excellent case in point. The Talmud reveals that learning is never complete: to learn about Judaism, one has to participate in dialogue, debate, and to continually seek deeper understanding. Islam has a somewhat similar tradition, found in the concept of ijtihad, which involves struggling with available sources to determine the best solution to a problem. The development of the four Sunni madhhabs, or schools of law within jurisprudence, demonstrates the value placed on honoring different opinions, and over the years scholars from different schools have engaged in debate concerning legal matters. More recently, (some) jurists have asserted independence from the madhhabs in their ruling, and the roles of madhhabs vary by region according to whether local laws have codified certain Islamic rulings. Among Muslims, there are conflicting opinions about whether the gate of ijtihad is closed, and I won’t concern myself with that question.

South Asia also has ample evidence that debate, critique, and the search for knowledge are valued by numerous traditions. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, religious scholars debate the nature of ultimate reality with the sage Yajnavalkya. The Upanishads (roughly 800-500 BCE) are full of such debates and teachings. Later important Vedanta philosophers and religious thinkers followed in their tradition: Sankara (8th c CE), Ramanuja (11-12h c CE), Madhva (13-14thc CE), to name but a few. Moreover, although orthodoxy and orthopraxy have also always existed in South Asia, there is a strong emphasis on the attainment of knowledge and realization through individual effort rather than by hearsay.

In the Bengali-speaking regions of Bangladesh and West Bengal (India), various other traditions exist that emphasize debate for the sake of growth and spiritual development. Jarigan, for instance, is a musical genre in which singers challenge each other regarding their knowledge about Muhammad, the Qur’an, and Sufi concepts. Bauls also debate spiritual knowledge through, for example, performances of deha-tattva songs (about knowledge of the body) and discussions about the nature of Muhammad or Bhagavan or Radha, as well as knowledge of the Qur’an and Bhagavad Gita.  Historically, especially prior to Partition of 1947, Bauls regularly drew on Hindu and Muslim concepts and religious texts in order to seek and debate truth. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that adda, although primarily about political topics, is good evidence that Bengalis and Bangladeshis thrive on intellectual debate.

The search for truth and knowledge has always been important to humans, whether religious or not. Debate exists within religious traditions because it encourages growth, knowledge, and responsibility. Simply memorizing edicts or following rules handed down by religious leaders doesn’t make one responsible for one’s own actions.  It just makes blind followers.

As humans, we also struggle with the world as we see it, especially as we try to make sense of suffering. Of course, it goes without saying that the witnessing of atrocious human suffering at the hands of others has motivated some to leave religion behind. But questioning and doubting God or being angry at God for human suffering – is not blasphemous. It’s human. We are presented with considerable evidence of misery, pain, and injustice. And we struggle with it.

My point here is that the idea that there is a radical split between religion and reason is problematic. The religious are capable of intellectual debate and critique, of struggling with the material and evidence at hand, and this is evident and practiced in past and present traditions. It is also clear that doubt and questioning do not necessarily lead to a loss of faith. Sometimes it strengthens faith. This was apparently the case with Elie Wiesel who stated, “No faith is as pure as a wounded faith because it is faith with an open eye. I know all the elements of the situation; I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t have faith. I have better arguments against faith than for faith. Sure, it’s a choice. And I choose faith.”

Binaries such as reason and religion (and secularism and Islam) are harmful. To accuse religious people of being irrational is no better than religious people accusing the irreligious of being blasphemous. These accusations prevent people from seeing the humanity – their struggles, their conclusions – in others. Furthermore, if one accepts the view that speech has effects on the world, then both accusations cause harm.

Power of Speech

Many scholars, like J. L. Austin (How to Do Things with Words), Judith Butler (Excitable Speech), and several linguists, have argued – not without controversy – that speech does things. Saying something – good or ill – produces effects on the world. When we name things (a purple elephant), an image comes to mind; when we blame someone, the accused experiences a reaction; when a jury declares a verdict of “guilty,” a series of punishments typically follow. Not all speech is tied to a direct consequence, such as a jury’s verdict. Many times, the effects appear indirect or delayed. This is often the case with hate speech. In fact, the criminalization of hate speech in several nations is further evidence that speech does have a real impact on lives.

We’re talking, in a simplistic sense, about two forms of speech that have effects: one is the speech that is allegedly blasphemous, and the other is the accusation of blasphemy. (A point that secular nations often ignore is that the religious also offend the irreligious; they are also guilty of hate crimes, although less often framed as such.) There can be a variety of outcomes of such speech acts, but what concerns us here are acts that cause offense to be experienced, and acts that result in physical harm.  We are not automatons. Acts don’t simply cause effects. Not only do we have a choice about how to feel about something, we also have a choice about how we respond to those feeling. Both of those things – our emotional responses and our outward actions – are learned. We’re not born with these responses wired in us; these emotional responses are learned and cultivated through social interactions with teachers, mentors, family, and social groups. If taking offence and being outraged at blasphemy are learned responses, then converse emotional responses – tolerance, indifference, patience – can also be learned.

Perhaps even more importantly, not only are emotions learned, but what we do with them are as well. Having taken offense, we have a variety of options available to us, one of which is to do nothing – or at least to do no harm.

Blasphemy in South Asia

Although European countries have also had blasphemy laws, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for alleged blasphemous statements in his novel Satanic Verses was a turning point in the European and American consciousness because of its transnational reach. The UK writer was condemned in India, after which a fatwa demanding his death was issued in Iran. A Japanese publisher was killed after publishing a translation of Satanic Verses; William Nygaard, a Norwegian publisher who promoted the translation of Satanic Verses into Norwegian, was shot and left for dead outside his home. The fatwa caused significant harm, as was its intention.

In South Asian countries, laws that covered blasphemy have their roots in British colonial rule with the India Penal Code of 1860s and 1927. In 1927, the government proposed Section 295a as a “Religious Insults Bill,” resulting in one of the most stringent regulations about religious offence. Protections against religious offense extended to published works, including satires, and symbols like mosques, cows, the Prophet, and Hindu deities. After colonial rule ended, these laws persisted in the legal framework of the new nations of India and Pakistan and then later in Bangladesh. Section 295a has given legal recourse for people whose religious feelings have been hurt, but the accusations tread murky waters indeed. Their social and political consequences on communities and individuals have been addressed well by other authors, some of whom have contributed to this current issue. It’s worth noting that monotheistic religions have developed the most stringent blasphemy laws – as if the singularity of god necessitates a singularity of mind.

But while the original alleged (and very debatable) intent of Section 295a, as crafted during the British Raj, was to calm people and protect communities (as if Indians were too prone to volatile emotions and unable to control themselves), it is now used as a dangerous political weapon in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The blasphemy laws tend to inflame animosity, increase communalism, and form civil subjects into defenders of religion. Stoking anger in the name of religious devotion, everyday people learn to be outraged and respond with violence.

We saw this with the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid in India (see Richard Eaton for an excellent analysis of the use of religious symbols in this movement) when Hindu nationalists mobilized everyday people to “protect” Hinduism from “invaders” and reclaim their homeland through violence if necessary.

We saw it in 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when Islamists mobilized everyday Muslims, many of whom had been moderate, to defend Islam against the “atheist” organizers of the Shahbag movement. In 2015 erupted a spate of violence that has changed not only individual lives but also broader social and political life in Bangladesh. Unlike violence inflicted in a crowd when anger targets those in close proximity, these acts were planned and carefully executed. The government was content to let Islamists do the dirty work of getting rid of bloggers, dissidents, LGBTQI+, Bauls, religious minorities, and secular intellectuals. In this unholy alliance, dissidents were written out of Bangladesh. The debate of ideas has been squashed. Co-existence, diversity, and pluralism are maligned.

Blasphemy laws are used these days to defend majoritarian religions rather than minority groups or individuals, including secularists and atheists. Moreover, they are tools for silencing dissent.

Dissent and Debate

In the political-religious landscape of Bangladesh, and bolstered with the far-reaching Digital Security Act, there are various frames of “illegality” – atheism, homosexuality, or critique of the government, the Father of Bangladesh, the sacred story of 1971, or Islam – that intersect with blasphemy. These injunctions have made social, religious, and political dissent dangerous. They have rendered open debate nearly impossible. Tragically, they are repressive of the traditions that contributed to the momentum behind the 1971 war of independence. For example, in a recent affront to Bangladesh’s regional traditions of debate, the Baul singer Shariyat Sarkar Bayati was arrested (January 2020) after he challenged listeners to find in the Qur’an an injunction against music. Since when was the search for answers a criticism of religion? Why is the seeker condemned?  If a religion is strong, then it would be open to debate and criticism rather resort to condemning individuals. Sarkar was participating in a long local tradition of debate, formalized through a performance with an engaged participants and audience.

I realize that debate of ideas is exactly what religious fundamentalists and authoritarian rulers oppose, but as many educational systems have demonstrated, healthy debate and genuine efforts to see issues from various perspectives are exactly what drives innovation to solve human and world problems. A diversity of perspectives forces people to learn and think beyond assumptions unquestionably accepted as truths. Similarly, in the heat of online debate, it was shortsighted on the part of bloggers to condemn Islam; they should know that Muslims are a diverse group and include a range of practitioners and believers who are not (or were not) hostile toward non-Muslims. Furthermore, good critical thinkers do not just accept values – like atheism or secularism or religion – “uncritically.” As a practice, critical thinking requires self-reflection and a genuine effort to understand things from different perspectives. It requires empathy and bridges as much as it requires intellectual debate.

A final comment about Islamism, Hindutva, and Secularism in South Asia

One of the many intriguing paradoxes concerns the argument often made by Hindu nationalists and Islamists that “secularism” is a Western concept that devalues the inherent dignity of India and Bangladesh. In fact, “India” is a western construct; “nation” is a western construct; “Hinduism” is a western construct. None of these existed prior to the British Raj in the way that they did during or after colonialism. Obviously, today, all of these concepts are infused with layers of meaning, much of which is contested. Islam was also an import, in this case from the Arabian Peninsula.

Ironically, perhaps, it’s against that backdrop of imported identities that Bangladesh was formed in 1971 as an independent nation rooted in the soil of Bengal – in a regional identity with regional language, music, dance, celebrations, and traditions (like adda). And yet after this founding, the argument about the nation’s “true” identity resumed as a struggle between a purist Islam (purportedly as found in the Arabian Peninsula) and secularism (in either its purportedly traditional Bengali form or its “progressive” western form – or, usually, a combination of the two). But instead of a constructive debate, it turned into a contest for supremacy. The role that the Awami League government of Bangladesh played in all this is of critical importance, but that needs to be analyzed more extensively elsewhere. The real loss in this contest for supremacy is the vibrant plurality of ideas that promotes critical thinking, creativity, and the possibility of solutions to world’s problems. This plurality of ideas, along with its constructive debates, were part of the very tradition that was so influential in the early history of these movements.


Selected Bibliography

Asad Ahmed Ali, “Specters of Macaulay: Blasphemy, the Indian Penal Code, and Pakistan’s Postcolonial Predicament,” in Censorship in South Asia, eds. Raminder Kaur and William Mazzarella. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 172-205

Asad, Talal, Wendy Brown, Judith P. Butler, and Saba Mahmood, Is critique secular?: blasphemy, injury, and free speech. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech. New York, NY: Routledge, 1997.

Eaton, Richard. “The Iconography of Rama’s Chariot,” in Contesting the Nation: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India, edited by David Ludden. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

“Elie Wiesel on ‘Wounded Faith’: ‘I cannot not believe.’” Accessed 21 April 2020.

Ganeri, Jonardon. “Intellectual India: Reason, Identity, Dissent.” New Literary History 40, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 247–63.

Nair, Neeti. “Rising Religious Intolerance in South Asia.” Current History 117, no. 798 (April 2018): 148–50.

Neeti Nair, “Beyond the ‘communal’ 1920s: the problem of intention, legislative pragmatism, and the making of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code,” The Indian Economic and Social History Review 50, no. 3 (September 2013): 317-340.

Rollier, Paul, Kathinka Frøystad, and Arild Engelsen Ruud. “Introduction: Researching the Rise of Religious Offence in South Asia.” In Outrage: The Rise of Religious Offence in Contemporary South Asia, edited by Rollier Paul, Frøystad Kathinka, and Ruud Arild Engelsen, 1-47. London: UCL Press, 2019.

Ruud, Arild Engelsen. “Religious Outrage as Spectacle: The Successful Protests against a ‘blasphemous’ Minister.” In Outrage: The Rise of Religious Offence in Contemporary South Asia, edited by Ruud Arild Engelsen, Rollier Paul, and Frøystad Kathinka, 103-22. London: UCL Press, 2019.

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, November 2018.  Accessed 19 April 2020.

Zaman, Fahmida. 2018. “Agencies of Social Movements: Experiences of Bangladesh’s Shahbag Movement and Hefazat-e-Islam.” Journal of Asian & African Studies (Sage Publications, Ltd.) 53 (3): 339–49.


Lisa Irene Knight is a cultural anthropologist, professor of religions of South Asia, and chair of the Department of Asian Studies at Furman University in South Carolina, USA.


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