Association for Asian Studies & Tom Friedman’s Narrative

1. Tom Friedman & the Narrative

Tom Friedman of the New York Times has criticized moderate Islamic Scholars in the Middle East for tolerating hate speech against other religions. He has written about the insularity that pervades the Madrassa education system of those countries and how students grow up knowing only what they are taught in these Islamic educational institutions. These students then go on to practice and preach to others what they were taught building a vicious cycle of hate. This, Mr. Friedman, called the Narrative, as we recall.

We have news for Mr. Friedman. There is a similar “Narrative” that is systematically supported in American Universities, a Narrative that is systematically disseminated and spread from University to University via doctoral students who practice and preach the Narrative to colleagues & their own students. Just as in Middle Eastern institutions, no dissent is permitted in these American University departments and in their conferences.

What would Mr. Friedman say if he knew that there is a conference next week in Philadelphia, 

  • a conference of “scholars” from that has chosen as Keynote Speaker the author of a book on a global religion that, according to practicing scholars & devotees, is filled with vile sexual observations about sacred scriptures and divine personages of deep emotive centrality to that global religion, and
  • a conference made up of “scholars” composed mainly of non-practitioners of that global religion, “scholars” that are brought up to follow & disseminate the Narrative?

We don’t know what he would say. But presumably he would understand that, to paraphrase the famous dictum of Justice Stewart of the US Supreme Court, you recognize religious defamation when you witness it, when you feel it. 

2. Wendy Doniger as a keynote speaker at the AAS Conference in Philadelphia

The Association for Asian Studies (AAS) is an association of “scholars and students interested in Asia”. Look at the people who comprise the Indian Subcontinent council or “South Asian” council as AAS calls  it: 

  • Anne Feldhaus, Farina Mir, Christian Lee Novetzke, John Rogers, Thomas Barfield, Shelley Feldman Cornell, Kathleen Erndl, Saadia Toor, Karin Zitzewitz 

Hinduism is the largest religion of the Indian Subcontinent, the religion that is inseparable from the subcontinent because of its origin, name and dominance. Yet, the AAS council for the Indian Subcontinent excludes Hindus and only has Christians, Jews & Muslims as its members. 

These non-Hindu “scholars” of Hinduism have elected as their keynote speaker the one author whose books have become flag-bearers of “academic” anti-Hindu Narrative. Why has she been honored as the keynote speaker? The Conference website states:

  • “Her two most recent books, The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin Books, 2009; Penguin India, 2010) and On Hinduism (Aleph Books, 2013; Oxford University Press, 2014) have set off a heated controversy about censorship and blasphemy in India, with repercussions in the wider world of writers and publishers.”

No mention of the fact that Penguin settled the lawsuit against them by voluntarily withdrawing their Doniger book from India and by agreeing to destroy all copies of the book in India. The other publisher followed Penguin by withdrawing their Doniger book as well. The publishers withdrew the books because they had realized the case was going against them.

There was no censorship involved and the concept of blasphemy is not a part of Hindu philosophy. Look up blasphemy – it is a Christian word for what is mainly a concept in religions born in the Middle East. So AAS website is demonstrably wrong and misleading.

But the topic selected by AAS is relevant and important. The trouble is they have opted for one-sided polemics rather than an intellectually honest discussion. Had AAS wanted one, they would have invited an expert on Indian law and a practicing Hindu scholar to join Wendy Doniger in a panel discussion.

For those who may not know, books of Wendy Doniger have provoked intense outrage among Hindus around the world for her vile sexual allegations against Divine Icons & Avatars. No one else to our knowledge evokes such intense anger. Just think how Christians would react to a non-Christian scholar writing “god raped Mary and afterwards restored her virginity”. Replace Mary by Kunti and you have the statement attributed to Doniger by outraged Hindus.

This is the author the non-Hindu “scholars” of AAS invited to deliver a keynote address at their annual convention? And they did not even try to achieve a semblance of balance by getting an opposing point of view?

Frankly, this is worse than an “academic conference” of scholars from Middle Eastern Madrassas on religion. At least, those guys cannot be accused of hypocrisy.

3. AAS Keynote Address by Pankaj Mishra

If the above didn’t demonstrate the bias of AAS, consider the selection of Pankaj Mishra for another keynote address. The AAS conference website lists Doniger and Mishra as distinctly unrelated speakers. It doesn’t mention that Mishra is virtually a devout supporter of Doniger and her tirades against Hinduism.

Read what Mishra wrote about Doniger and her book that has been withdrawn by her own publisher:

  • “There is no dignity, no taste, no form,” he complained in a letter home. Recoiling from Hindu India, Forster was relieved to enter the relatively rational world of Islam.”
  • “Forster, who later used his appalled fascination with India’s polytheistic muddle to superb effect in his novel “A Passage to India,” was only one in a long line of Britons who felt their notions of order and morality challenged by Indian religious and cultural practices.”
  • Repelled by such pagan blasphemies, the first British scholars of India went so far as to invent what we now call “Hinduism,”
  • “As Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Indian religions at the University of Chicago, explains in her staggeringly comprehensive book, the British Indologists who sought to tame India’s chaotic polytheisms had a “Protestant bias in favor of scripture.”
  • “Yet it is impossible not to admire a book that strides so intrepidly into a polemical arena almost as treacherous as Israel-­Arab relations.”

These may sound as ravings of an anti-Hindu fanatic. They are not. Mishra is a brilliant man who has marketed himself into a perfect product, a smart Indian who can be trotted out to be virulently anti-Indian, meaning anti-Hindu. A born “Hindu” who argues that British invented “Hinduism”, that British authors recoiled from Hindu India and preferred the rational world of Islam.

Wouldn’t you want this man as your keynote speaker if you were a bunch of non-Hindus who needed a celebrity Indian to spew hate against Hindus and who simultaneously would shower fulsome praise on Doniger, your main keynote speaker?

This is what they call “Asian Studies” in American Universities? As we said, at least the Madrassas in the Middle East & Pakistan are intellectually honest.

By the way, who published those anti-Hindu rants of Mishra as a book review of the Doniger classic? The New York Times, of course, the same newspaper who virtually made Mishra into the celebrity anti-Hindu that he is today.  

4. Why is this important?

Most readers do not understand how US Universities work. These institutions may profess academic independence and free thought. But the reality is completely different especially in “liberal arts” programs like religious studies.

A professor becomes successful through her or his doctoral students; the greater the number & fame of your students, the more famous & powerful you become. But your students cannot become professors unless you can find faculty positions for them. And you cannot find such positions for your students unless you are a member of a clique that is formed to hire students of each other.

A second and related way to success is publication of papers and books. But every paper you submit to an academic journal has to be accepted by a peer review group at that journal. And who forms this review group? Professors at other Universities. So you cannot get your paper accepted if your paper does not toe the line demanded by the review group. And people that sit on journal review boards are the people publishers turn to when deciding whose books to publish.

This is how professorial cliques are almost mandated by the US University system. And these cliques create frameworks that they believe in or that are convenient to them. Anyone interested in benefiting from such cliques has to toe the line and those who dare question are weeded out systematically.

This is less so in money-making fields like business management, finance, engineering etc. Faculty in these fields have options in industry, in wall street and in consulting. And so they become more independent and less likely to be coerced into cliques. But professors in fields like Asian studies, religion, philosophy and other liberal arts are totally dependent on academic acceptance. That is why, as Kissinger is reported to have said, “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

This explains the power of Doniger and those like her. This is why other better-respected & established scholars of Hinduism & Indian Culture remain silent and why upcoming academics toe her line. This is how the South Asia council and the Board of Directors of AAS invited Doniger to give the keynote address and got Mishra as her native champion. This is how views of Doniger and her ilk become mainstream in US Universities.

Let us be clear. Wendy Doniger has every free right to express her opinions about Hinduism, however disgustingly vile they might seem to Hindus. And Pankaj Mishra has every right to the anti-Hindu opinions he delivers to people who will pay him for those. They are covered under Freedom of Expression.

What is absolutely unacceptable is the total ban on any discussion at AAS on why & how Doniger-Mishra are wrong. What is appallingly despicable is the refusal by AAS to have the opposing views addressed at their conference. AAS & their conference are professional entities and they do not have freedom from consequences of their, as it seems to us, one-sided anti-Hindu hate fest.

5. What can be done about it?

Hindus have a habit of fighting a battle and then imagining that they won the war. This has been true for the past 1,000 years and it is true now. The victory of Shri Dina Nath Batra and the withdrawal of Doniger books by Penguin & Oxford has made today’s Hindus complacent. They don’t realize that it was just one battle.

And, as the AAS has demonstrated, the battle has shifted to a different front. That front no longer praises Doniger’s scholarship or the virtues of her book. The argument now is that, despite the quality of her scholarship, she & her publisher has the right to publish her book under Freedom of Speech. That is why AAS has made Doniger’s address about publishing a controversial book in India rather than the book itself.

Mind you, this is the same AAS who would strenuously protest any publication in America of a similar book against Christianity and Judaism. There is no shortage of such books in the Middle East as we are told. But none of these books are being touched by American publishers. You will never find any discussion about those books at any AAS conference, let alone a keynote address about them.

The absolute reality is that the AAS Conference is all about supporting Doniger’s anti-Hindu views and actively promoting her agenda. The other absolute reality is that AAS faculty is at no institutional risk to its brand or platform from a motley group of Hindus who privately and only privately hate to see their great Dharma vilified.

As a first step, AAS directors and office-bearers need to hear directly from Hindus around the world via email. That will have some effect. The real step is the next. Virtually every officer and director of AAS is an employee of an American University. Protecting the brand of that University is the job of the President of each University.

So we urge those who care about this issue to write first to the AAS officers listed on their website. Then send that email to the Presidents of American Universities that employ these AAS officers. Every American University lists the names of their Presidents & Provosts on their websites. So sending protest emails to University Presidents should be fairly easy.

We should all remember that Presidents of Universities like Wisconsin (employer of AAS president) or Arizona State (employer of AAS South Asia council head) don’t have to care about Hinduism and feelings of Hindus. They only care about the prestige & the brand of their Universities. They will act against AAS faculty if and only if they understand that their employees are damaging their brand. And they will only understand that if Hindus in their city and from all over the world tell them in plain terms.

Remember when Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania banned Chief Minister Modi from speaking at the Wharton Conference in 2013? We took the position that President Amy Guttman of UPenn was ultimately responsible and approached her office as well as the Board of Trustees of UPenn.

The point is protesting against AAS officers is just the first step. The real level for this battle against religious hate-speech is with the Presidents of Universities that employ these AAS officers. We believe in our hearts and minds that battle against virulent anti-Hindu hate is a battle for Truth & Justice. And we believe in what Mahatma Gandhi taught us that Truth ultimately prevails.

6. Hurting America & America’s global brand

Wherever you go in the world, you will find that America is perceived as a hater of Muslims. You can tell people until you are hoarse t
hat American society is tolerant and Muslims are more free in America than they are in many parts of the world. It falls on deaf ears. That is because the American media, American Universities & NGOs fostered this perception with their behavior for decades before September 2001.

We see this pattern repeated against Hindus as we wrote in  January 2014 in America & Asian Religions – 1990s Deja Vu all over again? The American establishment is creating and fostering a perception in Hindus around the world that America despises and defames Hindus. The reality could not be further from the truth. The sad reality is that Hindus have more freedom in America than they have in parts of Hindu-majority India. But that is already falling on deaf ears.

A big part of that perception is the reported stripping and cavity-searching of Ms. Khobragade, the Indian diplomat in New York. But a rising component is due to the anti-Hindu hate that is being expressed in US newspapers and by American authors. The case against Doniger’s book has indeed made many Hindus aware of what she wrote, what they consider as false & defamatory. When that hate comes from Universities of Chicago, Wisconsin, Cornell, Boston, Washington and others, it sets in a perception about American society.

One of the central objectives of this Blog is to foster and support higher and higher levels of US-India friendship and cooperation. That cannot grow or survive if Indians come to perceive America as biased against Hinduism.

That is why it is extremely important to fight against what we see as anti-Hindu hate speech in US Media and now in AAS. That, in fact, is a patriotic duty of Indian-Americans.

Send your feedback to Or @MacroViewpoints on Twitter

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *