Vanity thought #1253. The big deal

For all this talk about blasphemy and offended sensibilities one important question that hasn’t been addressed so far is – what’s the big deal? People defending Muslim rights in this case haven’t answered it, devotees haven’t answered it, but atheists have been asking. Maybe not directly but they have been trying to find the reasons Muslims reacts so angrily and violently. So what’s the big deal?

There’s no shortage of “journalists” who jump on the opportunity to do some “investigative reporting”, read wikipedia, and then announce to the whole world the truth behind it. In this case wikipedia fails, in the sense that it doesn’t shed any real light on the matter, just gives some related facts. “Journalists” then pick up on those facts as if they provide the full explanation and leave it at that. To complete the circle of surrealism someone needs to feed those articles back into wikipedia as sources.

This is symptomatic of the modern age, the 21st centiry. Knowledge is always at your fingertips, one google/wikipedia search away. People expect it to be instant and comprehensive, but also easy to understand, and their attention span is measured in minutes – and that’s for researchers, not the readers. Even if someone decided to study the issue in depth and spend time with real Islamic scholars and historians, by the time their report is ready the news cycle would have moved on and no one would publish it anymore.

The main criteria for publishing these days is whether the topic becomes trending and generates a lot of links and clicks. If it doesn’t instantly resonate with public hive mind it gets binned in favor of something that does. “Buzzfeed” is the most appropriate name for this new kind of media – it feeds on buzz and it’s meant to generate buzz. It goes for quantity over quality every time. They have to write stuff that can compete with hive mind’s interests in selfies and pictures of their food.

I’m not a serious researcher either and I have very little interest in Islamic history but we have an advantage of looking at everything from Śrīla Prabhupāda’s perspective, perspective of Vedic knowledge. It does not always resonate with the public, most of the time it makes people quiet for a while because they are not wired to look at the world this way and internal logic and consistency leaves them short of counterarguments. In the end, those who want to argue would always find something, many would accept is “one way to look at it”, and only devotees can appreciate the beauty of Vedic wisdom.

So, why is blasphemy such a big deal for Muslims? Yesterday I talked about whether or not blasphemy would be a big deal for us. Some don’t see it that way but there are plenty of instructions in our books to treat it very seriously.

That’s what wikipedia editors implied, too – if it’s in the scriptures it should be taken seriously. Meaning the reaction depends on one’s faith, if someone cares less about his books he won’t react as strongly. Even in our own society, if it’s in the books it means we have to follow, if there are contradictory instructions it means there’s leeway and the rule is not absolute. We are proud to live by the book, and it’s great, but our books are not just words in space.

We know that Vedic sounds are intrinsically connected with reality, that properly pronounced “fire” would produce actual fire, and that is true for our philosophy, too. They don’t know that. They think that our lives are solely by the book and have no meaningful connection to reality. If there are some observable benefits to following the scriptures they can explain them differently. They would explain as hidden science what to the ancients looked like magic. They would explain it as simply practical considerations that were misappropriated by religious authorities and so on.

Kṣatriyas are obliged to kill the offenders after cutting their tongues out – explain that! They, the atheists, won’t even try but our reasoning it surprisingly simple – kṣatriyas are meant to uphold the religion, and not only in the sense of following the rules but also as maintaining the proper climate in the society so that religious worship is perceived as a “cool” thing to do.

People should be encouraged to perform their religious duties and big part of that encouragement is providing sufficient affirmation. Religious worship is not supposed to be easy and enjoyable from start to finish, everybody always has doubts, everybody has to fight off laziness, everybody has to make conscious choices between pursuing sense gratification and pursuing his dharma. What helps them greatly in their decision is strong faith in their authorities. In fact, most of our decisions are made on faith in our superiors and against our immediate desires. We do it because Prabhupāda said so, guru said so, GBC said so, temple president said so, and we have to serve them first.

Familiarity breeds contempt, as we should well know. If we see our authorities as mere human, just like us, we lose the conviction to follow their orders, it’s as simple as that.

No one in his right mind would draw a cartoon of Śrīla Prabhupāda, for example, depicting his image is naturally thought of as a sober and serious affair. Muslims go even further – they refuse to draw either God or His prophets because our efforts will never serve them well. Our depictions will always be contaminated and somewhat vulgar, we would always transfer our mundane perceptions of beauty, attraction, wisdom etc. on the Absolute. Personally, I’ve seen too many recent pictures of Kṛṣṇa that make Him “as handsome as that other guy on TV”. Even in our original ISKCON art authorized by Śrīla Prabhupāda Kṛṣṇa sometimes looks like a handsome American.

So, humanizing our authorities is not conducive to building our faith in them, and laughing at drawings of them multiplies this effect exponentially. Atheists know that very well, they often use laughter to free themselves from what they think as unwanted fear and respect. I think there was a lesson like that in Harry Potter’s books, too.

Atheists know that laughing at prophets is probably the most efficient way to destroy people’s faith. The more chuckles they elicit from Muslims looking at those cartoons the better. They might start biting at the fringes – second generation immigrants, teenagers, those not so strict about their “sādhana”, women etc. These people might not matter now but as time goes they would make their, now corrupted voices become heard in the larger community. They bring down the average, so to speak, and so the leaders will eventually have to lower their standards, too.

Religious leaders are aware of this danger perhaps even better than atheists because they are far more attuned to the spiritual health of their communities than the atheists, and I believe this spiritual health is their primary concern when speaking or legislating against blasphemy. Quotes from the books are used only to support their decisions, not guide them. I mean to say that whatever quotes from Quran or Haddith they give on wikipedia are only supporting evidence for decisions based on thorough understanding of the whole body of Islamic teachings.

The same works for us, too. We make decisions based on the whole body of our knowledge, not just books but also history and examples from the lives of devotees. Random quotes that apparently go against this body of knowledge are then made to comply. Some, however, use them to rewrite our entire understanding, like in cases with female dīkṣā gurus or falling from Vaikuntha.

Anyway, my point is that blasphemy is not an isolated event influencing only the hearts of those who listened to it. Blasphemy eventually affects the whole religious society and so religious leaders need to protect their flock from it one way or another. Punishment is just one form of protection – post-factum, prevention is far better. One way to prevent blasphemy from happening again is for post-factum punishment to be seen as a strong reminder but if they can make atheist leaders legislate against blasphemy themselves there would be no need for actual punishment at all.

In a way, blasphemy is just an extreme expression of atheistic ideology. Religous leaders have the responsibility to defeat opposing ideologies and so expecting them to accept blasphemy as a fact of life is like expecting them to accept that God doesn’t exist – it’s a non-starter.

There’s a widespread call for moderate Muslims to oppose terrorists in their ranks but it misses the point that Muslims’ first obligation is to nurturing their community, not to policing it on behalf of infidels. They can probably try and accommodate these requests but I don’t think it will bring lasting success. This request is also hypocritical – atheists refuse to even try and stop their own from provoking Muslim anger but expect Muslims to control those who give in to the provocations.

I once mentioned a school kid response to Charlie Hebdo massacre – they had it coming. They have a lot more coming still.

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