Sunday, December 27, 2009

Waxing Crescent, waning Cross

Google came up with a rather intriguing, if not ingenious, logo for Christmas this year: A stooping date palm decorated with fairy lights straddling one of four islands with sail boats dotting the blue sea which formed the backdrop. There was much excited tweeting on Google’s Christmas logo. I thought it was ghastly that someone somewhere should have supplanted the traditional Christmas tree with a date palm. Others pleaded it was creativity at work. Creativity my foot, I argued; you can’t take liberty with tradition and icons of faith, never mind that the Christmas tree as we know it was most probably part of ritual winter solstice celebrations in pre-Christian Europe: According to one version, the evergreen conifer was a symbol of fertility for the pagans which has survived the ‘civilising’ impact of Christianity. A friend suggested that it was a Judean date palm and thus an apt motif for the occasion; after all, Jesus was born not in Europe but in Judea and date palms are a common sight in Samara.

Google had another explanation for the visual accompanying its ‘Happy Holidays’ message: It was a picture postcard from a tropical island and meant to convey warmth and good cheer. However, the warmth and good cheer disappeared when a second picture postcard showing three snowmen was superimposed on the earlier visual a couple of days later. That was followed by a third postcard, showing a lakeside house lit with fairy lights, a pier, a boat and snow-capped mountain peaks in the background. Even as I write this column on Christmas eve, a fourth picture postcard, depicting a Tolkienian landscape with fireworks in the sky, has surfaced. Google, no doubt, will justify this tomfoolery, but I find it distasteful if not downright subversive. Just as I find being politically correct and wishing people ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year’ obnoxious. There’s no reason to be mindful of the Crescent when it’s the season of the Cross. If someone were to send me a card wishing me ‘Happy Holidays’ on Basant Panchami, Vijaya Dashami or Deepawali because being secular is fashionable, I would promptly throw it into the wastepaper basket and probably look through that person the next time I met him or her. The last time I was in London I bought a piggy bank simply to thumb my nose at those who find it offensive to Muslim sensitivities. Tolerance cannot be reduced to pandering to bigotry, nor is there any reason why we should bother whether the OIC is displeased. Similarly, if celebrating Durga Puja in Rome offends the Vatican, so be it.

The issue, however, is far more important than bogus secularism and fake concern for those who wallow in manufactured grievances and imagined victimhood. Europe, which is slowly waking up to the threat posed by assertive Islam — the Swiss vote against the construction of Islamic minarets and the rising popularity of Dutch politician Geert Wilders are manifestations of the fear of Eurabia becoming a reality — would do well to ponder over Pope Benedict XVI’s homily delivered during Christmas Eve midnight mass in St Peter’s Basilica. “There are people who describe themselves as ‘religiously tone deaf’. The gift of a capacity to perceive god seems as if it is withheld from some. And indeed our way of thinking and acting, the mentality of today’s world, the whole range of our experience is inclined to deaden our receptivity for god, to make us ‘tone deaf’ towards him,” the Pope said, adding, “…For most people, the things of god are not given priority, they do not impose themselves on us directly. And so the great majority of us tend to postpone them. First we do what seems urgent here and now. In the list of priorities god is often more or less at the end. We can always deal with that later, we tend to think.”

The Pope was not exaggerating but merely pointing out the reality as witnessed, most noticeably, in Europe where faithlessness has become the leitmotif of modernism and the public expression of faith is frowned upon as militating against the principles of a secular state presided over by its deracinated elite which is more comfortable with Prada than religiosity and believes spirituality is so much hocus-pocus meant for the gullible, unwashed masses. The smart set which reads newspapers on Kindle would rather invest millions in the stock markets than donate money to the local church. The plate is still being passed around at Sunday mass, but the pews are increasingly empty. Christmas stories are no longer about reconnecting with — and rediscovery of — faith, but falling sales of Barbie dolls. That Britons throw away food worth 60 million pounds during Christmas tells the story of Britain’s moral decline; it’s symptomatic of all of Europe.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Church of England should find itself in penury. It has been deserted by adults and is shunned by teenagers. The Daily Mail says the Church of England now plans to “target children as young as two in a desperate recruitment drive… Senior bishops have privately admitted they are comprehensively failing to connect with teenagers and children”. My friend Daud Haider, the dissident Bangladeshi poet who lives in exile in Berlin, had recently come home for dinner. He told us amazing stories of how churches are being leased out on weekends to serve as night clubs as there are no congregations to cater to and no funds to keep them from falling into disuse and disrepair. Materialism and the concomitant death of spiritualism, coupled with a strange craving to be seen as endorsing ‘multiculturalism’, which has come to mean repudiation of one’s Christian identity 1 hence ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ — have extracted a terrible toll. The crisis of faith is, in essence, the existential crisis that Europe faces today. A limp-wristed, notionally Christian Europe is now confronted by muscular, robust Islamism and doesn’t quite know how to respond.

The crisis is not Europe’s alone. A similar crisis is beginning to take shape in India where urban elitism bereft of values and ethics rooted in faith is seen as both trendy and politically correct. With Wendy Doniger telling The Hindus An Alternative History and Kancha Ilaiyah proclaiming that 2009 marked the arrival of Post-Hindu India, and the commentariat lavishing praise on both, we could be headed the same way as today’s Europe. The Pope may have described Christians who have strayed from their faith as the “religiously tone deaf”, but the expression is equally applicable to Hindus who are persuaded by the bunkum that has brought Europe to its knees. If there is no cause for immediate alarm it is because the vast majority of Indians neither need Wendy Doniger to ‘interpret’ Hinduism for them nor do they believe that they live in post-Hindu India.

[This article originally appeared as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer.]

Monday, December 21, 2009

A challenge for BJP’s GenNext

On a late spring evening more than a decade ago, some of us had gathered at Pramod Mahajan’s apartment — he hadn’t moved into a Lutyens’ bungalow till then — to discuss ideas for the 1996 general election campaign. Mr LK Advani had already declared Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and there was a palpable surge of support for the party which corresponded with the waning of the Congress. Despite the framing of Mr Advani and other senior leaders of the BJP in the Jain hawala scandal by a desperate PV Narasimha Rao (he even turned on his colleagues in the Cabinet who in turn turned against him and resigned from the Congress) there was great enthusiasm among party cadre. Mr Advani had seized the moral high ground and converted what Rao had thought would be a disadvantage into a clear advantage. In that election, Mr Advani was the non-playing captain though he led his team from the front.

Over chai and samosas ordered from an eatery downstairs, ideas were tossed around on how to package the BJP’s core message — good governance — and portray it through the persona of Mr Vajpayee. Till then, the BJP had not projected any single leader in any election; it was always the party’s ‘collective leadership’ that was projected as an alternative to the Congress’s dynastic leadership. The tragic assassination of Rajiv Gandhi midway through the 1991 general election had forced a break in the Congress’s tradition, catapulting Narasimha Rao to power. Since the Ram Rath Yatra days, Mr Advani had emerged as the most prominent face of the BJP; to suddenly weave a campaign around Mr Vajpayee posed a challenge to even Pramod Mahajan who was never short of ideas, especially when it came to election campaigns.

Among those invited for that meeting was an impetuous young man representing a big advertising agency which had offered to help plan the campaign — as had some others. This man suddenly said, “It would have been a lot easier had Mr Vajpayee been a younger man.” There was stunned silence. Obviously ignorant of the esteem in which Mr Vajpayee was — and still continues to be — held in the party, he had clearly upset everybody. Pramod Mahajan looked at him coldly and bitingly said, “This isn’t America where young upstarts are elected to high office. We value experience and we respect age. Please tell your agency we aren’t interested in its services.” The poor sod was halfway through his samosa and didn’t know what to say. “Ab aap jaaiye,” Pramod Mahajan added, literally asking him to leave the meeting.

I don’t recall whether anything concrete emerged from that particular meeting, but over the following weeks a campaign was painstakingly put together centred around Mr Vajpayee and based on the theme, ‘The man India awaits’, which, incidentally, was the headline of an interview-based article I had written at that time. That election saw the BJP emerge as the single largest party and form a Government led by Mr Vajpayee. The Government lasted for a fortnight, but it helped the BJP come to power two years later. The rest, to quote a cliché, is history.

The reason I cite this particular incident is to highlight the point that too much is made of a leader’s age by the New Delhi-based commentariat, more so when it comes to the BJP. Voters are less persuaded by a candidate’s age than by his or her perceived ability to deliver on promises. It is the sum total of a leader’s qualities that matters, not his or her age. Equally important is a leader’s ability to connect with the masses, to strike a rapport and secure their confidence.

Mr Vajpayee was not a young man when he became Prime Minister, nor was Mrs Indira Gandhi in the prime of her youth when she swept back to power in 1980. If Mr Manmohan Singh is widely respected at home and abroad, it has nothing to do with his age but his ability to project himself as an earnest and humble person of unimpeachable integrity. And, the BJP’s defeat in last summer’s general election was more on account of a poorly planned campaign and shoddy political management than either Mr Advani’s age or his leadership which has been variously described as ‘uninspiring’ and ‘jaded’ by his critics within and outside the party. But for bogus pollsters, stupidly brash aides and a ‘war room’ whose most creative contribution was the astounding promise of gifting every family living below the poverty line with a smart phone, perhaps the results would have been vastly different. Nor can we overlook the Congress’s surge in States where the BJP is at best a marginal player.

It would, therefore, be self-defeating for the BJP to believe that with Mr Advani standing aside for the next generation of leaders to take charge of the party’s affairs, the 2014 general election will be a cakewalk. Today’s ‘young’ leaders will be five years older when India votes to elect a new Lok Sabha, which means they will be pushing 60. If between now and then those who find themselves propelled to the frontline are unable to tackle the many illnesses that plague the party and fashion an alternative agenda distinctively different from that of the Congress and in tune with the aspirations of today’s voters, the BJP’s tally could dip below the 100 mark. The battle for votes has always been a battle of ideas; in 1996, 1998 and 1999, Mr Advani and Mr Vajpayee had the right ideas largely because they went with their instincts. It’s only when they allowed their ideas to be swamped by the mumbo-jumbo of courtiers and time-servers that they faltered and fell.

Contrary to what is being claimed, the BJP’s main problem is not the RSS but the BJP itself. Last week’s transition will be meaningless unless it is accompanied by a tectonic shift in the way the BJP sees itself. It can either choose to position itself as the only alternative to the Congress by being distinctly, ideationally and ideologically different, or it can persist with fashioning itself as a clone of the Congress, a holdall party with neither beliefs nor commitments but driven by the cynical pursuit of power as an end and not the means to an end. Mr Vajpayee had vision; he was the ‘big picture’ man who couldn’t bother about the details. Mr Advani had ideas; it was his job to fill in the details of Mr Vajpayee’s vision. What the BJP needs to regain its position as an unassailable foe of the Congress is a new generation Vajpayee and a new generation Advani, if not a leader who can combine the qualities of the two stalwarts who still tower above everybody else in the party. Age won’t be a criterion in deciding who qualifies as the new generation Advani or new generation Vajpayee. Nor can the choice be limited to Dilli4.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Mosques as barracks, minarets as bayonets...

Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was being faithful to his creed when he declared, “Mosques are our barracks, minarets our bayonets, domes our helmets, the believers our soldiers.” Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, a fascist Sunni imam with a huge following among those who subscribe to the Muslim Brotherhood’s antediluvian worldview, was more to the point when he thundered at an event organised by London’s then Labour mayor Ken Livingstone, “The West may have the atom bomb, we have the human bomb.” Sheikh Qaradawi, who is of Egyptian origin, frequently exhorts Muslims not to rest till they have “conquered Christian Rome” and believes “throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the Jews people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler”. Islamic schools in Britain funded by Saudi Arabia use textbooks describing Jews as “apes” and Christians as “pigs”. Theo Van Gogh, who along with writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali produced Submission, a film on the plight of Muslim women under sharia’h, was shot dead by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim, in Amsterdam. Rallies by radical Islamists, which were once rare, are now a common feature in European capitals with banners and placards denouncing democracy as the ‘problem’ and Islam as the ‘solution’.

Such crude though accurate assertions of Islamism, coupled with the relentless jihad being waged overtly — exemplified by the London Underground bombings and the riots in Parisian suburbs — and covertly as exposed by Channel 4’s stunning investigation in its Dispatches programme titled ‘Undercover Mosque’, have now begun to raise hackles in Europe. The first signs of an incipient backlash came in the form of French President Nicolas Sarkozy demanding a ban on the burqa (the sharia’h-imposed hijab is already banned at public schools in France). Any doubts that may have lingered about Europe’s patience with Islam’s rage boys running thin have been removed by last Sunday’s referendum in Switzerland where people have voted overwhelmingly to ban the construction of minarets which are no longer seen to be representing faith. For 57.5 per cent of Swiss citizens, the minaret, an obligatory adjunct to a mosque which is used by the muezzin to call the faithful to prayers five times a day, is now a “political symbol against integration”. They view each new minaret as marking the transmogrification of Christian Europe into Islamic Eurabia. The Islamic minaret, according to Swiss People’s Party legislator Ulrich Schluer, has come to represent the “effort to establish sharia’h on European soil”. Hence the counter-effort to ban their construction.

Last Sunday’s referendum and the massive vote against Islamic minarets is by no means an unexpected development, as is being pretended by Islamists and those who find it fashionable to defend Islamism or are scared of taking a stand lest they be accused of Islamophobia, which Christopher Caldwell, author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, describes as a “standing fatwa” against Islam’s critics. Resentment against assertive political Islam has been building up in Switzerland for almost a decade, triggered by refugees from Yugoslavia’s many civil wars seeking to irreversibly change the Swiss way of life to suit their twisted notions of Islam’s supremacy. For the past many years the Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union, both avowedly right-of-centre organisations, have been trying to initiate an amendment to Article 72 of Switzerland’s Constitution to include the sentence, “The building of minarets is prohibited.” After doing the cantonal rounds, both the parties set up a joint Egerkinger Committee in 2007 to take their campaign to the federal level. The November 29 referendum is the outcome of that campaign.

The resultant vote — 57.5 per cent endorsing the proposed amendment to the Constitution with 42.5 opposing it — provides some interesting insights. For instance, the Swiss Government and Parliament, which are opposed to the amendment, clearly suffer from a disconnect with the Swiss masses. The voting pattern also shows that the spurious ‘cosmopolitan spirit’ of Zurich, Geneva and Basel, where people voted against the ban by a narrow margin, is not shared by most Swiss. The initiative has got 19.5 of the 23 cantonal votes — Basel city Canton, with half-a-vote and the largest Muslim population in Switzerland, barely defeated the initiative with 51.61 per cent people voting against it. This only goes to show that the Left-liberal intelligentsia may dominate television studio debates, as is often seen in our country, but it neither influences public opinion nor persuades those whose perception of the reality is not cluttered by bogus ‘tolerance’ of the intolerant.

Daniel Pipes, who is among the few scholars of Islam not scared to be labelled an ‘Islamophobe’, is of the view that the Swiss vote “represents a turning point for European Islam, one comparable to the Rushdie affair of 1989. That a large majority of Swiss who voted on Sunday explicitly expressed anti-Islamic sentiments potentially legitimates such sentiments across Europe and opens the way for others to follow suit”. As always, Pipes is prescient. An opinion poll conducted by the French Institute for Public Opinion after the Swiss referendum shows 46 per cent of French citizens are in favour of banning the construction of minarets, 40 per cent support the idea, while 14 per cent are indecisive. “That it was the usually quiet, low profile, un-newsworthy, politically boring, neutral Swiss who suddenly roared their fears about Islam only enhances their vote’s impact,” says Pipes. The post-referendum opinion poll in France shows that one in two French citizens would not only like to see minarets banned, but along with them mosques, too.

The ‘sudden roar’ heard in Switzerland has found a resonance in countries apart from France. A comment on the Swiss vote that appeared in the mass circulation German newspaper Bild reflects the popular mood in Germany which is remarkably similar to that which prevails in Switzerland at the moment: “The minaret isn’t just the symbol of a religion but of a totally different culture. Large parts of the Islamic world don’t share our basic European values: The legacy of the Enlightenment, the equality of man and woman, the separation of church and state, a justice system independent of the Bible or the Quran and the refusal to impose one's own beliefs on others with ‘fire and the sword’. Another factor is likely to have influenced the Swiss vote: Nowhere is life made harder for Christians than in Islamic countries. Those who are intolerant themselves cannot expect unlimited tolerance from others.”

Yet, it may be too early to suggest that the tide of Islamism will now have to contend with the fury of a backlash. Governments and organisations that find merit in toeing the line of least resistance have reacted harshly to the Swiss vote; rather than try and understand why more and more people are beginning to loathe, if not hate, Islamism, a case is being made all over again for the need to be tolerant with those whose sole desire is to subjugate the world to Islam. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, who is yet to utter a word about the suppression of freedom and denial of dignity in Islamic countries or the shocking violation of human rights by jihadis, has been scathing in her response, describing the Swiss vote as “a discriminatory, deeply divisive and thoroughly unfortunate step”. The Organisation of Islamic Conference has warned that the vote will “serve to spread hatred and intolerance towards Muslims”. The OIC’s complaint would carry credibility if it were to demand tolerance towards non-Muslims in its member-countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and denounce Islam’s preachers of hate. That, however, is unlikely to happen. On the contrary, the OIC will continue to defend, even while accusing others of intolerance and hate, the denial of religious, social and cultural plurality in Islamic countries as also the repudiation of the core values of a modern democracy by those Muslims who find themselves living in one. The absence of ‘multiculturalism’, which Muslims demand in non-Islamic countries, is one of the defining features of any Islamic country, including those touted as being ‘moderate’ and ‘modern’, for example, Egypt and Turkey.

It is amusing that Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, whose salary and perquisites are paid for by the Government, should feel upset over the Swiss vote: “This proposal ... is not considered just an attack on freedom of beliefs, but also an attempt to insult the feelings of the Muslim community in and outside Switzerland.” In his own country, Coptic Christians live in increasing fear of Muslim attacks with anti-Copt violence fast becoming a regular feature. No less amusing is Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s response to the Swiss rejection of Islamic minarets. Mr Davutoglu finds the proposed ban on the construction of minarets “reminiscent of the sectarian wars of the Middle Ages” and has warned that the move could “incite clashes on a global scale if sufficient measures are not taken”. Had he been honest, Mr Davutoglu would have added that the posters exhorting Swiss citizens to vote for the proposed ban were inspired by his leader’s vivid description of Islamic minarets as Islam’s bayonets.

Hence, those who are crying foul over the Swiss vote and those who are pretending disquiet and anguish are perfectly at ease when Saudi Arabia ruthlessly deals with the faintest expression of faith in any religion other than Islam or Malaysia pulls down Hindu temples. Nor have Ms Pillay and those who blithely cite her criticism of the Swiss referendum to absurdly insist that the vote “represents a fundamental threat to millions of Muslims” ever bothered to protest against the discrimination meted out to Copts in Egypt or the raucous, coarse anti-Semitism of Iran whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad misses no opportunity to reiterate his threat of “wiping Israel off the map of the world”. Closer home, Muslims are not known to have disowned those of their co-religionists whose murderous campaign to cleanse Kashmir Valley of all Hindus resulted in 250,000 Pandits fleeing their ancestral land and being reduced to refugees in their own country. Nor were anguished voices heard when Muslims took to the streets to prevent the construction of temporary shelters along the Amarnath Yatra route for Hindu pilgrims, although Muslims in India and abroad would see any move to curtail facilities and subsidies for Haj pilgrims, which are paid for by non-Muslims, as a “fundamental threat” and a manifestation of Islamophobia. We are yet to be told by Muslims who demand equal rights and more in non-Islamic countries – for instance, public funds for schools in Britain where children are taught Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s hate agenda and madarsas in India which excel in bigotry -- what they have to say about Hindus being asked to pay jizya to Islamist thugs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or the abduction and rape of Hindu women under the Jamaat-e-Islami’s supervision in Bangladesh. What we have heard, most recently in India, are exhortations for Muslims to stand apart from the national mainstream, to maintain their separate Islamic identity, to banish women from public places and to reject all secular statutes.

Instead of indulging in manufactured rage and pretending imagined victimhood, Muslims across the world would do well to ponder over Bild’s pithy comment: “Those who are intolerant themselves cannot expect unlimited tolerance from others.” As for the limp-wristed Left-liberal intelligentsia, it is welcome to be tolerant of Islamic intolerance, but it should not expect the vast majority to meekly subjugate itself to Islam – if that is Islamophobia, so be it. The time to feign tolerance so as to be seen as ‘secular’ is over. The age of dhimmitude is drawing to a close. That is the real significance of the Swiss vote.

(This is an expanded version of my Sunday column 'Coffee Break' which appears in The Pioneer.)