Political and religious populism threatens freedom of expression

Oslo 8. March 2012

To the board of PEN International

Political and religious populism threatens freedom of expression

Political use of religious symbols and play on religious feelings undermine freedom of speech and political debate in many parts of the world. Populist politicians exploit human insecurity and powerlessness by stirring demonstrations, public rage and violent actions against members for alleged blasphemy, unbelief and lack of respect for sacred symbols.

Religious based law and scripture interpretation restrict human freedom. Statutory or politically interpreted commands and prohibitions define shame, honor and punishment in violation of basic human rights for women, children, religious and sexual minorities and make political and artistic criticism impossible.

In the battle for the evangelical Christian conservative votes in the United States, the remaining candidates in the race to be nominated for the Republican presidential candidate become increasingly clear on religious affiliation and religiously motivated political views. Questions about abortion, homosexuality and so-called Christian family values become central, well-defined issues. Former President Jimmy Carter is one of many who is now warning against excessive use of religion and religious symbols in the political nomination battle.

In Nigeria, religion and religious identity is being exploited in order to strengthen regional and ethnic borders. Politicization of Islam through the introduction of sharia in several states in this declaredly secular republic has led to increased political tension and has triggered regional, violent conflicts between Muslim and Christian groups.

In Iran and Iraq there has been a shift from secular to Islamic constitutions. The Iranian Constitution, which states that all other legislation must be based on Islamic criteria, is the strictest. The Afghan Constitution of 2004, Article 2, states that “no law can be contrary to the teachings and laws of Islam.” This has weakened the position of human rights in the country´s legislation.  It has limited the number of religions that are approved as a recognized religion and weakened freedom of expression and equality.

Egypt’s first democratic elections has given the Muslim parties an overwhelming majority in Parliament. What consequences this will have on the design of the new Egyptian constitution, remains to be seen. The country’s Coptic Christian minority is experiencing various forms of sectarian harassment, and fears increased discrimination including greater influence from radical Islamist parties. Many women fear the introduction of sharia, which will severely restrict their rights and freedoms. Author Nawal El Saadavi is among the most outspoken critics of the fact that the commission, which has started to work on a proposed new constitution, was formed without the participation of women.

In Pakistan weak politicians allow themselves to be dictated by small religious populist parties, which exploit the strong anti-Western trends in the country in its struggle to preserve the country’s inhumane blasphemy laws. A law that involves the possibility of accusations, imprisonment and brutal punishment of women and children, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities and political critics.

Indian politicians like to describe the country as the world’s most populous democracy. Author Salman Rushdie was recently forced to withdraw from India’s largest literary festival in Jaipur in northwest India. Muslim extremists claimed that Rushdie’s expressions violate Islam and that criminals should be hired to eliminate the author. Again, Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses from 1988 is being used to justify threats from Muslim activists and populist politicians. An Iranian fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 involved a death sentence for the author and all his translators and publishers. The fatwa still formally exists. Satanic Verses was banned in India shortly after its release and is still blacklisted. The ban came after pressure from Muslim populist politicians. The novel became a symbol for the strengthening of support among Muslim voters and led to pressure against PM Ranjiv Gandhi and the Congress Party, which was dependent on Muslim votes. Roughly 23 years later the Congress Party is back in power, but chooses silently to let the threats from extremists set the agenda in the political power struggle.

Norwegian PEN warns against a trend in which religiously based politics, at both national and international levels, weakens freedom of expression and undermine basic human rights for individuals and groups. Norwegian PEN urges PEN International, the national PEN clubs, other human rights organizations and  institutions, and national and international authors´-, journalists´-  and publishers´ organizations to challenge a political development in which populist politicians abuse religious feelings and symbols in order to set groups up against each other, undermine the rights of individuals and groups and weaken freedom of expression.

On behalf of the board of Norwegian PEN

Ann-Magrit Austenå                   Carl Morten Iversen
boardmember                             secretary general

Sjokkert over indisk sensur av Rohinton Mistry

I slutten av oktober ble det kjent at den indisk-canadiske forfatteren Rohinton Mistrys roman Så Lang en Reise  fra 1991 var blitt fjernet fra pensum til litteraturutdanningen ved universitetet i Mumbai etter press fra studenter tilhørende den ytterliggående Shiv Sena-bevegelsen.  En talsmann for bevegelsen uttalte i et TV-opptak fra en demonstrasjon der man også  brant Mistry´s bok ved inngangen til Universitetet i Mumbay, at “Mistry er heldig som bor i Canada – hadde han vært her hadde vi brent ham også.”  Mistry er en kjent og populær forfatter i Norge gjennom bøker som Familieanliggender og Balansekunst (Aschehoug).

Våre kolleger i PEN All-India Center sammenligner forholdene i Mumbai i dag med situasjonen i Tyskland  i 1935:  “India henfaller nå til den verste form for populisme, der politiske grupper forsøker å overgå hverandre gjennom å ødelegge og forby litteratur, kunst, teater og film med bakgrunn i krenkelse av religion eller etnisitet……. Det finnes bare en betegnelse på et samfunn som forbyr og brenner bøker, river malerier ned fra veggene, angriper kinoer og avbryter teaterframføringer (……….) “fascistisk” er en for mild beskrivelse, den nøyaktige betegnelsen er “nazistisk”.

Både sensuren og bokbrenningen er blitt møtt med sterke reaksjoner internasjonalt.  Det framkommer også  at lederen for aksjonen, en 20-årig student og litteraturkritiker, ikke en gang hadde lest hele boken, og at universitetsledelsen hadde gitt etter uten intern debatt.
Om den unge studenten, sier Mistry selv i en artikkel i canadiske Globe and Mail: “Hva kan man – hva bør man – føle for ham? Sorg, opprørthet, skuffelse, medfølelse?”, og fortsetter: “…han er i ferd med begi seg ned Shiv Sena´s veltråkkede sti for å appellere, som flere før han, til alt det verste i den menneskelige natur.”

Norsk PEN og  Aschehoug forlag vil med dette uttrykke sin støtte til Rohinton Mistry og tar skarpt avstand fra både bokbrenning og den avgjørelsen som er tatt av universitetet i Mumbai.

Oslo 3. november 2010

Styret i Norsk PEN/Aschehoug forlag
Ytterligere informasjon: Norsk PEN:  Carl Morten Iversen, 22607450, 926 88 023, Aschehoug: Asbjørn Øverås, 22400342, 97793883.

Rohinton Mistry ble født i Bombay (Mumbai) i 1952, men har bodd i Canada siden 1975, der han først arbeidet i bank, studerte engelsk på universitetet og skrev noveller.  Han debuterte i 1991 med romanen Så lang en reise, og ble meget populær i Norge gjennom Balansekunst som kom i 1996.  Alle Mistry´s romaner har vært nominert til Bookerprisen.
Shiv Sena-bevegelsen er en ytterliggående, høyreorientert parti med base i Mumbai.  De har vært involvert i flere voldelige aksjoner, blant annet i Kashmir, og hevder at deres medlemmer er villige til å ofre livet for å sikre Indiass eksistens som en hinduistisk nasjon.

Rohinton Mistry sensurert i India

THE PEN ALL-INDIA CENTRE
Theosophy Hall 40 New Marine Lines Mumbai 400 020

20 October 2010

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The PEN All-India Centre strongly condemns the removal of Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such A Long Journey, from the SYBA syllabus of the University of Mumbai’s Literature course. We also express our great disappointment at the manner in which politicians belonging to the supposedly centrist and liberal parties, including the Indian National Congress, have consented to this ban, demanded by the scion of a right-wing political party, the Shiv Sena.

India has lapsed into the worst kind of competitive populism, with political forces seeking to outdo one another in destroying and banning works of literature, art, theatre and cinema, in the name of an aggrieved religious, ethnic or regional sensibility. Not only does this constitute a betrayal of the liberal Enlightenment ideology that ushered India into postcolonial freedom, but it also makes nonsense of our claim to being a 21st-century society, marked by openness, tolerance of diversity, and respect for the creative imagination. There is only one name for a society that bans and burns books, tears down paintings, attacks cinema halls, and disrupts theatre performances under the sign of an aggressive chauvinism. ‘Fascist’ is too gentle a description. The exact name is ‘Nazi’. It is a matter of extreme sorrow that Mumbai in 2010 is exactly what Munich and Berlin were in 1935. It is for civil society in our city to decide whether we want to plunge deeper into the abyss of Nazi-style obscurantism, dictatorial oppression and a savage destructiveness towards every impulse that is open, receptive, creative and compassionate — or whether we shall resist it.

Ranjit Hoskote
Naresh Fernandes
Jerry Pinto
For The Executive Committee
THE PEN ALL-INDIA CENTRE

 

2008: India: Taslima Nasrin

14th February 2008

Dr Mamohan Singh
Prime Minister of India

Dear Prime Minister,

Novelist, poet and journalist Taslima Nasrin is an internationally acclaimed and award-wining write. Whilst her writings are undoubtedly controversial, she is an active supporter of human rights, and according to the Indian constitution should have the right to express her views freely and without fear of attack. More that ten years since she fled Bangladesh, Nasrin still cannot return to her homeland without fear for her security. She has for the past three years lived in Kolkata, West Bengal, and has applied for Indian citizenship. Her current visa reportedly expires on 17th February 2008. International PN urges the Indian authorities in the strongest possible terms to uphold their constitution and the international treaties to which they are signatories by enabling her to continue living and working safely in Kolkata.

Urging you to pay attention to this appeal,

Yours sincerely

Aase Gjerdrum
Member of  Norwegian PENs Writers in Prison Committee