When people in the US and Europe think of Peshawar, Pakistan, they perceive it as a hub of religiosity and extremism. Such a perception is understandable given Peshawar’s proximity to the geostrategic center of the War on Terror. But this proximity does not mean that the city’s population, or a large demographic of its population, have fallen prey to religiosity and extremism, or that they cannot be expected to show empathy for the victims of senseless violence. I teach an undergraduate political science class at the University of Peshawar. A recent discussion about liberalism turned to Charlie Hebdo. Since the 2014 attacks at the city’s Army Public School, Peshawar has grown increasingly disgusted with organized killings. The school massacre had an immense psychological effect on people; it brought almost everyone to tears, and impelled them to question the very rationale of a protracted war in their neighborhood. One of my students lost his younger brother in the massacre, which made our class discussions quite emotional. When the shootings in France took place, everyone in the class felt for the victims and saw an affinity between the two events.
Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, the question of violence in the name of religion was heatedly debated in public places, homes, classrooms, and mosques. Generally speaking, the response to the killings varied, but the debate at the minimum demonstrated an increased and visible empathy for the loss of human life. The response of my undergraduate class was exemplary. Students demanded to see the satirical drawings that sparked the killings in order to locate their discussion of art’s challenge to religion. Although we could not see the drawings because of an Internet outage, the students’ desire for viewing signaled their intent to break the taboo of reflecting on satire in religion.
Our textual material on liberalism—Immanuel Kant’s What is Englightenment, Muqtedar Khan’s What is Enlightenment? An Islamic Perspective, and Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty—gave us some basic understanding and theoretical context with which to approach the problematic relationship between art and religion. To quickly rephrase the theoretical context, liberty has two forms: negative and positive. Negative liberty means an individual is free to act only to the extent where another person’s sphere of liberty begins. It is negative in the sense that it has an external constraint: the presence of others. Accordingly, when one person’s liberty expands, the liberty of others diminishes. Positive liberty on the contrary means an individual creates liberty; she creates through her creative acts or omissions. It is positive in the sense that it arises from inside the individual, through creative ways of producing and enhancing (the time and space of) liberty. It is more like an art, an art in praxis. And in this sense it can infinitely expand.
With this theoretical context, along with a discussion on the meaning of Enlightenment, we began to think about art and its relation to both religion and liberty. The students generally saw art as a tool that can both enhance and inhibit positive liberty. For Javeria, art was “the creativity of thoughts.” She further noted, “The sketches in Charlie Hebdo were thoughts in the first place.” She insinuated that any debate about the sketches is a debate that takes place in the realm of figuration or representation. In this line of argument Shahid added, “The expression of religion through art has always taken place.” For Shahid religion is illustrated, represented, and carried forward through art. So art is methodologically related to religion. This line of argument highlighted how various denominations of Islam differ on the use of art in religion. For instance, the (Iranian) Shiite denomination allows for making of portraits of Prophet’s family, while the (Saudi) Sunni one believes it blasphemous.
At this stage, Wakil raised a probing question: “Is art possible while living a religion?” To me this question seemed quite philosophical. We had earlier discussed in the class the Renaissance art and its deep relationship with religion as well as Islamic art of imagined portraits. Art, we had agreed, was possible while living a religion. What matters in the wake of Charlie Hebo is how art and religion come to engage each other. We noticed that this engagement of art and religion has more recently come to base itself on—to borrow a phrase from the famous French philosopher Gilles Deleuze—the logic of sensation. Shehzad made a nuanced observation regarding the logic of sensation argument: “Art is sensational while religion is emotional.” And for Abdullah, “Both affect human senses in one way or another, but religion is more close to reason.”
I thought the point relating to sensation as more appropriate to pursue, especially as we talked about the emotional outbursts in both Europe and the Muslim world. It was quite evident to us that Charlie Hebdo is more a politics of sensation than of reason or dissensus. And what surprised the students most was the fact that it is the French philosophical tradition that offers an abundance of critical scholarship on the politics of sensation (and aesthetics). We especially noted the examples of the scholarship of Gilles Deleuze, Baudrillard, and Jacque Ranciere. For instance, in his book Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, a treatise on the function of sensation in art and politics, Deleuze explains how sensation in works of art creates an impulse that bypasses the brain (and reason), directly connecting with the peripheral nervous system to generate sensational reaction. Similarly, some of our initial political responses to violent incidents in social and political settings also take a reflexive or sensational turn, often bypassing the forums of debate and reason. Not to mention how they adversely impact our ability to generate positive liberty, the space for each other.
Tauqir had a different way of looking at the relationship between art and religion. He said, “Both are for our satisfaction,” but that they are at times mutually exclusive and cause dissatisfaction and anxiety. Moreover, he expressed his curiosity regarding the role of international law in such issues: “Is there any law that applies on this? Maybe an international law or French constitution.” We know well that France is famous for its liberal constitutional tradition, with tracts like the Declaration of the Right of Citizen and of Man. But what remains unclear in the French liberal legal tradition is how the sphere of liberty or the right to expression (of artists) interacts with the right to religion (of minorities). Tauqir was of the idea that it is an imperative for the international community to bring up such questions to UN General Assembly and think of making an international law. While for Shahid, “The veto power in the UN should first be removed, so that there can be open debate.” Tauqir also went on to say that Muslims are quite naive—“something happens and they start to destroy their own society.” He further said, “We haven’t learned how to protest non-violently yet.” And he partly blamed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, whose responsibility he thought it was to come up with an appropriate response to Charlie Hebdo incident. But he lamented that OIC stood virtually silent on the matter.
Ayaz expressed his despair regarding the political marginality of Muslims in the current state of world politics. He said, “Protests and strikes don’t do anything. Nor is there any other form of protest. So we face complete helplessness.” Wakil, on the other hand, went on to see the fault in Muslim societies, especially the aspect of mistreating minorities: “We demand that our religion should not be hurt. But we here in Pakistan put persons of other faiths, especially Christians, to mobs on mere suspicion of blasphemy, and we force Hindu girls to marry Muslim men and embrace Islam. When we do this then how do we expect others to be good to us?” While Shahzad said, “There’s violence been perpetrated from both sides. And both sides have their context. So we cannot say who is right or wrong.” He further wanted to say that we know how to cause physical harm while they, the artists in question, an artistic one.
There were a couple of voices in the class that were not sure about the scope of the “Western” idea of liberty and liberalism. Fatima for instance said, “We are not free. The idea of liberty seems a fake. We have given up ourselves to Western ideas.” She meant to say that there is need to take up the idea of liberty afresh in a globalizing world and deal with its rough contours. Moreover that we need to rethink the radical liberal thought that often identifies and even at times celebrates iconoclasm as an essential part of the praxis of liberalism. For Zaheer the western concept of liberalism today stands at odds with its claims and efforts for bringing about peace in the world; and that the ongoing state of war and terror has practically stalled our ability to generate positive liberty.
If history is some guide, we know then that the challenge of art (or literary criticism) to religion has been politically consequential. Note the reactions to William Muir’s Life of Mahomet and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. In our own time, with globalized communication networks and social media, this challenge often gets muddled, hyped, and misrepresented. Moreover, the debate that ensues overlooks or undermines both the logic of critique in art and the ability of religion to respond. In so doing, provocation and violence, both artistic and physical, become appealing modes of engagement. What is more worrisome is how the logic of violence draws, or has the appeal to draw, a large number of people to its calling. My students and I agreed that we live in a precarious time, where both art and religion are under threat, and we have to think new ways of defending both.
Syed Sami Raza is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Peshawar, Pakistan (firstname.lastname@example.org).