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UNC Fatwa

Denis Solomon • 1,202 words

This year I saw Carnival for the first time since 1962. Not in Trinidad – in Venice.

The theme of this year’s festivities was “Casanova” (Venice was the great lover’s native city). A large number of the masqueraders were big hairy men dressed as nuns, and there were phony priests and Cardinals by the dozens, all vigorously depicting the raunchy behaviour of their eighteenth-century forebears, including their forebears in the Church.

In France, I opened a magazine and saw a fashion advertisement for a famous brand of jeans, consisting of half a dozen sexy young women dressed, above the waist, in nun’s habits, each clutching a rosary, all of them clad, below the waist, in the advertiser’s tight-fitting product.

Now, you couldn’t find a more Catholic country than Italy. The influence of the Church is enormous. France calls itself “the eldest daughter of the Church”. But both cling strongly to the secular character of their political institutions. For every individual or group that might howl about “insults to religion” there are enough who think religion is a waste of time to maintain a healthy balance, and the State thinks twice about intervening to protect cults from anything as vague as “insults”.

Not that the religious authorities do not do their best to promote obscurantism. Another advertisement showed the star footballer Ronaldo, arms outspread in the posture of the Christ of the Corcovado, looking down on the city of Rio de Janeiro and wearing his team jersey. On that occasion religion, or rather the fear of commercial boycott, triumphed, and in the face of pious protests the advertisement was withdrawn.

In another case, far more important for freedom of artistic expression, a film by a Sicilian director was banned by the Italian board of film censors after protests by the Church. It contained scenes of an angel being sodomised (something which, incidentally, also occurs in the Bible, which is where the meaning of “sodomise” comes from) and an individual masturbating over a statue of the Virgin Mary. But the Italian government overturned the ban, retaining it only for persons under eighteen, and abolished the Board of Film Censors into the bargain.

The point is not that insulting or parodying religion is a good thing in itself. The point is that for a serious state freedom from religion is as important as freedom of religion, because it is part of a larger freedom of choice. The State must be the protector not of religions but of religious freedom, which is not the same thing. As soon as it begins to listen to the whining of sectarian interests about “insults” to their faith it is tacitly accepting religion as a necessary rather than an optional component of society, and by extension, religious belief as a motive for political action. This is a dangerous proposition even when there is an official state religion, for even there different interpretations of dogma conflict. In a multi-religious society it is a recipe for disaster. Only when the State keeps its hands clean by denying political validity to religious beliefs can it deal successfully with terrorists, intellectual and military, who use religion as a political lever.

There is no easier or more common means of disguising unhealthy ambitions from oneself than to attribute them to religious conviction. It is the extreme example of what Marx called “false consciousness” and Sartre “false conscience”. It is dangerous because it is as close to sincerity as makes no difference, and the worst atrocities can be perpetrated in its name.

The deputy leader of the Jamaat al Muslimeen, asked by a reporter on Saturday whether his organisation would use violence against the State, dodged the question by saying that they would do what Allah told them. At the same time he condemned the Anjuman Sunnat ul-Jamaat, which had advised the Muslimeen against violence, as non-Muslim. So where the word of God is concerned, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

The Italian cabinet which abolished the Board of Censors certainly had a number, perhaps a majority, of Christian believers in its membership. Yet they were evolved enough politically to realise that religion, as opposed to the sensibilities of insecure people, is not harmed by gross depictions of the icons of a faith. And as for individuals, anyone not wanting to be “insulted” is free to stay away from the cinema. Anyone who is the target of a religious insult is free to walk away or retaliate with another insult. The same applies to race, sex or geographical origin. Insults are merely thoughts expressed aloud, and thought must be free. What the State must guarantee us against is not insult but discrimination. Not only are they not the same thing but one almost never leads to the other. Conversely, anyone who wants to discriminate against Catholics (or Indians, or Africans, or Jews) will not be deterred by being prevented from putting his thoughts into words.

Trinidad and Tobago does not have an official religion. But religion is official in it in a very serious and dangerous sense. God is in the preamble to the Constitution (I tried to get him/her taken out in 1975, when I was a member of the Joint Select Committee of Parliament to revise the Constitution, but without success). Every meeting of the House or Senate begins with a prayer. Sects of every type flourish, and call for their national days to be recognised and their dignity to be protected by the removal of names and costumes from Carnival bands, and for the censorship of calypsoes. One group of Catholics recently called for a campaign to ban a non-existent film in another country. These clamourings are different from the fatwa of the Iranian ayatollahs only insofar as the sects that utter them do not (yet) enjoy State power.

All this sensitivity, by its very nature, is false. Religion is supposed to strengthen its adherents in their self-esteem, not turn them into hedgehogs. In any case, if God is perfect, it is difficult to see how it would be possible to insult him/her. The cries of the faithful for respect for (i.e. polite behaviour toward) their particular sect are no more than a disguised weapon (disguised even from its users) in the struggle for political advantage.

In this country not just the right but the necessity (in the philosophical sense) of religion is implied in all our political institutions and behaviour. Thus it is not enough for the Constitution to protect religious freedom: the government must cosset every sect by legislating against “offence” or “insult” to it, and do the same for every other group it is possible to define, ethnic, sexual or geographic. The Equal Opportunity Bill the Government is bringing to Parliament is a fatwa-enabling bill, all the more in that it lumps the prohibition of “insult” together with the prohibition of discrimination (which is already, in any case, prohibited).

How can the State dismiss, and expect the population to dismiss, the Jamaat’s claim of divine authority for anything they decide to do, when our own legislators routinely and officially invoke divine guidance for their own acts?

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top