‘There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.’ Napoleon Bonaparte spoke these words after he was defeated after reaching Moscow by the Russians, and sent back to France exactly 200 years ago in the war of 1812.
So does the spirit need the sword of protection that the law of blasphemy provides? I ask this from India, where The Satanic Verses is banned. On a day celebrating Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday – a man quoted this past week by the President of the United States in the United Nations as a model of religious unity. I write from Gujarat, which saw terrible violence between Hindus and Muslims, yet the home state of the great unifier Mahatma Gandhi.
I am on my way to Russia where a female pop group has just been imprisoned for blasphemy.
So do we need the sword of the law to protect our spirit and beliefs and faiths?
The American answer, provided last week by President Obama at the United Nations, in quoting Gandhiji, is an unequivocal no. To understand the world we live in, you will rarely find a better speech.
‘…because we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values… Nelson Mandela once said: "to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." True democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe, and businesses can be opened without paying a bribe. It depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear; on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people.
In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening; in every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask how much they are willing to tolerate freedom for others.
We not only respect the freedom of religion – we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe. We understand why people take offense to [the video attacking the Prophet Mohammed] because millions of our citizens are among them.
There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an Embassy.
All of us have an interest in standing up to these forces. Let us remember that Muslims have suffered the most at the hands of extremism.
The impulse towards intolerance and violence may initially be focused on the West, but over time it cannot be contained. The same impulses toward extremism are used to justify war between Sunnis and Shia.
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims. It is time to heed the words of Gandhi: "Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit." ‘