I can imagine a conversation with friends who think it’s crazy to say that books are bad for your health. What a self-destructive statement for a writer to make; a writer whose three books have recently received more than a dozen positive reviews (see author page on Amazon) But it’s true. In different parts of the world, at different times, books have proved harmful to their authors, as well as to their owners and readers. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was published in 1559 by the Pope and listed books deemed heretical, blasphemous or simply lascivious and were therefore banned. Various editions of the Index were published in later years. The 20th and the last edition was published as late as 1948 and it was only abolished in 1966 by Pope Paul VI. Probably the most famous victim of the Index was Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600 although admittedly, to the Inquisition, his principal crimes were not his writings but his heretical skepticism of many Catholic beliefs including the Virgin Mary and the trinity.
Closer to our time, in the 20th century, the list of books banned by Nazi Germany in the 1930s was long and included the literature of Marxism, Communism, pacifism, democratic writings and, of course, works by Jewish authors. During the cultural revolution in China between 1966 and 1976 a man who later became my close personal friend was sentenced to years in labor camp simply for being a mathematician with a small private library of books. His principal crime perhaps was to know more than the young Red Guards who conducted his trial, spat at him and made him walk around for months with a dunce cap on his head.
Even these relatively recent incidents of the 20th century seem to have faded from a public mind that is drowning in information but starved of meaning. Precisely the reason why much of the world is reacting with demonstrations of outrage (rightly so) at the murders of 12 journalists in Paris while largely ignoring (sadly so) the massacre of 2000 people in Baga village in Nigeria where more than a million people have been internally displaced by Boko Haram’s violence.
Boko Haram can be most literally translated as “books are bad for you,” where Boko means books, literature, the printed word, the world of ideas; and Haram means impure or unclean. Boko Haram’s primitive ideology thrives in the absence of the world’s collective outrage that would force local leaders to take more forceful action to stop this cancer from spreading. This is a cancer that can unleash a civil war and spread to several neighbouring countries; Cameroon, Chad and Niger. This is no longer only a Nigerian problem. In the age of globalisation, this is a problem for the world.
Here is a link to the website of the Quilliam Foundation, an organisation that exists to fight the battle of ideas that lies at the roots of modern religious extremism, which is a form of theocratic fascism. Listen also to an interview with Maajid Nawaz, the co-founder of Quilliam who, as a former radical Islamist, is eminently qualified to talk about the topic. For those who despair at the directions that religious fundamentalism is taking the world, listening to the talk will be 43 minutes well spent. Thanks to Larry Willmore for his Facebook post drawing my attention to the talk.
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