For a truly free country nothing can remain sacred or above ridicule

Recently Lawrence M. Krauss’s The New Yorker article, ‘All Scientists should be Militant Atheists’ went viral. He reiterated that no idea or belief is above ridicule or contempt. In his masterpiece, he writes:

The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal. Davis is free to believe whatever she wants, just as the jihadist is free to believe whatever he wants; in both cases, the law constrains not what they believe but what they do.

Krauss an American theoretical physicist and cosmologist, is known as an advocate of the public understanding of science, of public policy based on sound empirical data, of scientific skepticism and of science education. He works to reduce the impact of what he opines as superstition and religious dogma in pop culture. He was talking about Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who directly disobeyed a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and, as a result, was jailed for contempt of court. She was released later and finds support from a US senator and Presidential candidate.

I found myself wondering on the current meaning of the word ‘militant’ as applied these days to atheists, feminists and overly zealous people who are not registered soldiers but can be anyone subscribing to the idea of using vigorous, sometimes extreme activity to achieve an objective, usually political. Of course growing up in the 80s and 90s of Srinagar, Kashmir, the meaning of the term ‘militant’ was brought home brutally through gunshot sounds and the increasing custodial and enforced disappearances, a result of the clash between the might of the Indian Army and extreme hardliners using ‘guerrilla’ warfare in civilian terrain. It’s taken over two decades to understand, sift, mull, reflect, introspect, explore, research and finally come to some conclusion about the change in the meaning and usage of the term as applied in the subcontinent.

We have seen the year 2014 end successfully for opponents of free speech — from Bangladeshi secular bloggers being killed and fatally assaulted to Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi’s flogging and imprisonment while his family fled to Canada. From Islamists murdering 11 French cartoonists in cold blood to Al Zajeera journalists being jailed in Egypt. 2015 saw Indian rationalists being killed for writing their views and opinions against superstition and dogmas to movies, books and even beef getting banned in India — all because the line between maintaining decorum, political correctness and separation of the state and religion is getting blurred. In this scenario who is the ‘militant’?

I was reminded of my home where I spent very troubled teens in a joint Muslim household, difficult adolescent years made traumatic because of an absent and negligent father and crappy husband to my pious but harassed mother and equally sinister and bigoted uncles, aunts and cousins. It didn’t help matters at all that I was outspoken by nature and did not back down over injustices meted out in the name of respectability and the equally crappy ‘lihaaz’ (respect for) of elders. What made it worse was my growing rationalism and my immersion into books and individuality. I have focused on the inner to the outward — how our society actually flows from the personal to the political and vice versa. How much the personal is equally important as the political, how the ethics of the struggle for freedom have to reconcile with the ethics of freedom of the mind and how it inevitably tramples upon the rights of Kashmiri minorities and Kashmiri women.

Krauss’ essay has this very enlightening paragraph:

“Ultimately, when we hesitate to openly question beliefs because we don’t want to risk offense, questioning itself becomes taboo. It is here that the imperative for scientists to speak out seems to me to be most urgent. As a result of speaking out on issues of science and religion, I have heard from many young people about the shame and ostracism they experience after merely questioning their family’s faith. Sometimes, they find themselves denied rights and privileges because their actions confront the faith of others. Scientists need to be prepared to demonstrate by example that questioning perceived truth, especially “sacred truth,” is an essential part of living in a free country.”

I happen to agree with him. For a truly free country, nothing can remain sacred or above questioning or ridicule. In order to become free, everyone has to strive to ‘be’ free.