Opium of the People

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Religion fulfils a much-cherished desire to be part of a community. But troubles ensue when religious belief starts dictating what can and cannot be said.



I’m not religious – in that, I don’t live by a certain set of rules and ways of living as set out in a scripture – and I am not an atheist – as in I neither confirm nor deny the existence of what may be called a divine being – call it what we will. (For the sake of this article. I’ll go with the terminology of God.) I’m a constant questioner, and doubt is the space where I thrive. While these are personal stances, any contribution I can make to a discussion about religion’s place in society will, to some degree, be shaped by personal views.

Furthermore, as a writer, a student of humanities and literature, and a professor, a substantial portion of my life and mind is spent with words and texts. Everything I read, write, and teach is subject to analysis – even when I’m reading “just for pleasure” – including religious words and texts. It is the only way religion, any religion, holds currency for me; the only way it holds meaning for me is as literature. Personally and professionally, the Mahabharat, the Ramayana, the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an live side-by-side with Shakespeare, Tagore, Tolstoy, and Toni Morrison. Religion has its place – or it ought to – and it is with the person who professes and worships as they choose.

Religion has no business in the affairs of government and the state. It has even less business meddling in the sphere of literature. The U.S. Constitution says outright that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” which, in fact, comes before the freedom of speech and opens the First Amendment. This is not by accident. The Constitution’s writers were White Christian Protestant men with firm and precise belief in their God, and they were, without compunction, establishing a Christian state.

Of course, they were doing so in the aftermath of a war of independence, which happened to have been against the same country from which, just a few generations before, their forebears were forced to take a flight to avoid religious persecution. Those men and women, for whom the Church of England couldn’t be purified enough of Roman Catholic practices, fanatics in their country, became religious refugees in someone else’s land without permission (or proper documentation), then established a colony that used its faith and God as deadly weapons.

America isn’t alone. Bangladesh’s Constitution sets down in writing what its U.S. counterpart leaves to intuition: an established state religion, which in Bangladesh is Islam. I find this deeply troubling as a Bangladeshi and, by accident of birth, a (non-observant) Muslim.

In April 1971, as the War of Independence gained momentum, the Interim First Constitution of the Provisional Government of Bangladesh declared “equality, human dignity, and social justice” as the fundamental principles of the republic. The preamble pledged that “the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in, the national liberation struggle, shall be the fundamental principles of the Constitution.”

Within a year, now independent, the amended Constitution of 1972 affirmed Bangladesh’s national faith while confirming that the “State shall ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions.” In 1977, under the dictatorship of Ziaur Rahman, a hero of the War of Independence, secularism was removed from the Constitution by a Martial Law directive, and in 1988, another army regime, this time under General H.M. Ershad, declared Islam as the religion of the state.

Since 1990, when the country returned to its version of democracy (compared to Martial Law, a very low bar), the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League retained Islam as the country’s state religion. In 2010, The Bangladesh Supreme Court declared the 1977 removal of secularism unconstitutional since it happened under a Martial Law regime. Secularism was reinstated and now coexists with the state religion statute.

I recently came across a copy of Taslima Nasrin’s novel  Shame at a bookstore and wondered when she’ll ever be allowed to return to Bangladesh again. In the three decades since the Council of Islamic Soldiers offered a bounty for her head, Nasrin has lived in exile in India, Sweden, other parts of Europe, and North America. Exile hasn’t stopped her pen or deterred her from criticizing Islamic religious law (Sharia) or fanaticism. As it happens, the depiction of Muslim fanatics attacking a Hindu family in her novel incensed the CIS and fueled the issuance of their (Sharia-sanctioned) fatwa.

As an edict or a ruling by a recognized religious authority on the point of Islamic law, a fatwa is not a call for someone’s death by default. But in 1989, the fatwa became synonymous with precisely that. The leader of one sovereign state put out a call for killing the citizen of another sovereign state. The intended victim was an Indian Muslim writer who now lived in England and had nothing to do with Iran or Khomeini.

His book, a marvelous origin tale of a businessman turned prophet, of transformation, of good and evil, and the trials of being brown in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, was branded as blasphemous to Islam and brought a bounty on his head by Iran’s Supreme Leader. What was more disturbing was the reach of Khomeini’s call beyond Iranian shores.

No matter how much such people believe in freedom of speech and expression, all bets are off when it comes to religion. But this is assuming – from their perspective – that their religion has somehow been maligned by being questioned or, in the case of “The Satanic Verses book,” made the stuff of literature. The incredible double standard that is lost in the fray is religion being used as a tool to end a life, while a book engages peacefully with the story of a man and his life and threatens no one’s existence.

Muslim, albeit a tiny number, from Bradford, England to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, burned the writer’s effigy and chanted his demise. They carried placards with his drawings in which he resembled a horned version of himself and copies of the book were set on fire. None of them had read the book, and the writer lived a decade under constant police protection.

Last August, a twenty-four-year-old man – not even alive at the time the book was published – attacked the writer as he was about to speak about freedom of expression to an audience in New York, stabbing him multiple times before being subdued and arrested. The writer lost an eye and the use of a hand – though I recently watched an interview in which he showed the hand was back in use – and published a new novel six months later.

Unsurprisingly, the burners of the “the Satanic Verses book,” as Khomeini called it, didn’t take the pains to actually read it, or if they did they, did so with a complete lack of nuance. For those interested in looking further into what became known as “The Satanic Verses Affair,” there is much to be found with time, research, and an internet connection, including voices of scholarship, secular and religious, confirming there was nothing “blasphemous” or “offensive” in the book.

This is perhaps a good place to segue into the concept of belief, as its meaning is interchanged with religion.

My high school history teacher – I’ll call him Mr. David – had a saying (one among many): the truth is what we believe to be true. I haven’t seen or spoken with Mr. David since high school faded long into the past, and I wonder how he’d interpret that saying today, as the world dives deeper into “belief”-related madness, and not just in the realm of religion.

Whether it’s a twice-impeached, twice-indicted disgraced former U.S. president and his followers who believe he was cheated out of victory or conspiracy theorists – legions among them who’ve latched their support to him – who believe the so-called deep state is running the show, the truth is indeed, as per Mr. David, what one believes to be true. And when those truths, no matter how untrue, and detached from facts, are shouted loud enough and often enough, they start to become – to use a religious term – scripture for their adherents.

Among the believers that “The Satanic Verses book” was “offensive” were/are people in my circle I consider, if not secular, at least what can be called open-minded. As recently as within the last couple of years, mentioning the author of “The Satanic Verses book” turns them into messianic zealots. This isn’t a judgment; it’s a fact. I have proof. In response to a quote having nothing to do with “The Satanic Verses book” that I’d posted, an acquaintance, who some time ago told me in no uncertain terms that Islamic history and culture outside its religious bounds was, in a word, garbage, called everything by the author of “The Satanic Verses book” to be, in a word, garbage.

We got into a tense but respectful back-and-forth on the thread. Other people joined. Strong opinions flew. We solved nothing, and I came away rather shocked at how quickly people who professed a “worldly” and “educated” view could so swiftly put on blinders. They have a right to be offended. I’ll give them that, but using the talking points of bigots and fanatics to make their case makes me want to shut them down.

No matter how much such people believe in freedom of speech and expression, all bets are off when it comes to religion. But this is assuming – from their perspective – that their religion has somehow been maligned by being questioned or, in the case of “The Satanic Verses book,” made the stuff of literature. The incredible double standard that is lost in the fray is religion being used as a tool to end a life, while a book engages peacefully with the story of a man and his life and threatens no one’s existence.

I have no reason to think that my acquaintances agree with the fatwa – and I’ll go so far as to say that I know that they don’t – but I still bristle at the limits of their tolerance. The rise of an illiterate orphaned boy from businessman to prophet who founded and established a religion. Such a story, as it were, writes itself.

But no, according to the zealots – and the educated intolerant – such endeavors are off limits. It doesn’t have to be “The Satanic Verses book” or another book remotely in its rank –  much less, for example, the Charlie Hebdo fracas, which in and of itself requires a separate space – it could be anything that engages what’s considered holy text beyond the boundaries of its strict interpretation. As for Charlie Hebdo, satire was their reason for existing. I have no “feelings” about the cartoons they published of Muhammad.

I do have a problem with people being murdered because the “feelings” of zealots had supposedly been hurt. Between human life and a cartoon on a page that harmed no one, I will opt for human life every time. If I did have strong “feelings” about the cartoon, I would have engaged with its creators on the page. And I encourage such engagement. I will even use the example of my acquaintances that shared their strong opinions on my post. Had they not spouted uninformed-sounding talking points straight out of a zealot’s mouth, I’d welcome a good debate.

Marx’s famous quote about religion is often, if not always, mentioned only partly, as well as out of context. The paragraph as it appeared in “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” as published in Paris on February 7 and 10, 1844, reads: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Humans are communal beings. Communities exist because we come together. Community by another name is religion, and religions are communities. I’m all for the community. They have much good to offer. They’re even essential. My small community of writers offers me support, friendship, guidance, patient ears, and so much more. If religion is the way a person or a group finds community, more power to them. If their beliefs make them more substantial together, excellent. If their lives are enriched because of each other and their common worldview, good for them. Their beliefs are their own, as someone else’s beliefs, altogether different, perhaps even opposing, are theirs and theirs alone. That is all they are: beliefs. Not standards, not cudgels, and certainly not laws that should ever govern states.

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