Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mock India for Charging Gere? Be Ready to Mock Us, Too

I think religion is a neurological disorder.

We are a nation that is unenlightened because of religion. I do believe that. I think religion stops people from thinking. I think it justifies crazies.

- Two quotes attributed to Bill Maher (taken from here)

I have always agreed with a common point about religion: Turned inward, it helps people get through adversity, but when people try to impose it on those around them, it has the capacity to wreak havoc.

It is no secret that religion is at the heart of a huge percentage of the world's conflicts, both past and present, from the Crusades to the current problems in the Middle East and a million examples in-between. We also see evidence every day of the dangers of religious extremism, regardless of the faith. The murder of abortion doctors, 9/11 and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin are all products of religion taken to a violent extreme.

But, I think there is a tendency in the U.S. to dismiss religious extremism as something that happens somewhere else. We look at the story that an Indian court has issued arrest warrants for Richard Gere and and Shilpa Shetty for the crime of kissing in public and think, "How silly. That could never happen here."

Instead, we think stuff like that only happens in places like Iraq, where the Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other, but not in the U.S., where someone like Pat Robertson's power is only felt in the Bible Belt. Except, as we found out, it also extends to the number three position at the U.S. Department of Justice and 150 other jobs in the Bush administration. (I covered this issue in an earlier blog post, so I'll move on.)

As a result, the controversy over the Gere-Shetty kiss is played here as gossip, merely entertainment and light comedy. We laugh and tell ourselves that something like that could never happen here. Only, it already has. More about that later.

Gere and Shetty (a Bollywood star) were at an AIDS awareness event in New Delhi when Gere playfully hugged Shetty and kissed her on the cheek several times. The reaction? Thanking Gere for traveling thousands of miles to educate and inform the Indian people about a serious health risk? Uh, no. Try, instead, crowds of people in several cities burning Gere in effigy, and an Indian judge saying the kiss was "highly sexually erotic" and Gere and Shetty "transgressed all limits of vulgarity and have the tendency to corrupt the society," according to a Yahoo! Movies article.

I understand that I am imposing my beliefs on another culture. However, let's be real. A reaction of this sort is nothing short of religion imposing a set of rules that defy common sense and basic logic. Gere, who is not Indian, showed affection for a fellow human being. Shetty was not offended by his actions. They were together because they were carrying out a public service, informing and educating people about a deadly disease. A disease that causes people to die. But what the mobs of fanatics and the judge took from this event was that Gere and Shetty should go to jail. It is reactions that fail logic like these that lead to statements like the ones attributed to Bill Maher at the top of this piece.

And, again, this did not happen in a theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia. India is a country of more than 1.1 billion people and the largest democracy in the world.

Are you still saying, "This could never happen in the U.S."? As I said, it already has. While the specific "offense" (kissing a cheek in public) is not something that can get you arrested here, we have already done something that elicited the same kind of expressions of disbelief from around the world that Americans let out after the Gere incident. I have two words for you: Janet Jackson.

Remember, the government of the United States of America issued millions of dollars in fines to stations and the network when a portion of Janet Jackson's breast was exposed at a wide angle for a split second during a television broadcast. How is that any less crazy than prosecuting Gere and Shetty for doing something that our culture would find innocuous? In countries that have more relaxed views about the human body (and may even allow nudity on television), the entire Jackson incident was mocked every bit as much as Americans snickered at India's reaction to the Gere-Shetty kisses. We are no better than the angry Indians we are making fun of.

It is also interesting to me that the incident is an example of religion-based prudity harming the treatment of a health crisis, in this case AIDS in India. Again, we have the same problem in the U.S. Religious beliefs about sex, contraception and nudity hamper efforts here to educate people about sexually-transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and sexual abuse.

You can get away with saying a lot of things in the U.S., but saying something bad about religion is not one of them. Candidates for office are expected to answer questions about their faith, and in nearly all cases, the politician is forced to in some way affirm that he is religious. I would argue that this approach is harming our society.

I think it is time that we stand up and make the argument that the U.S. is a place with a First Amendment that guarantees citizens a separation of church and state, and a place where people are free to practice their faith in their homes and houses of worship. But, I would further argue that this freedom also entails being free of people imposing their religious beliefs on others.

The Bush administration has left a legacy of failures and harms to our society, and one of the big ones is the imposition of a president's religious beliefs on the country. The Gere-Shetty story did not make me feel like I was reading about an exotic problem that did not affect me. Instead, I felt like while the triggers are different in the two countries, the same underlying problem exists.

I admire Maher's guts to come out and lambaste religion. I think it is important that people speak out on the dangers of religious extremism. It is too easy for Americans to mock the Indian reaction to Gere kissing Shetty. Instead, the incident should have people in the U.S. looking in the mirror, asking themselves tough questions about how we allow religious standards to be imposed on the society. If we don't, being mocked by more enlightened countries will be the least of our problems.