Voltaire’s Struggle against Intolerance

By Paramanund Soobarah

A recent programme on the MBC/MCA educational broadcasts (Thursday 8 Nov) reminded us of the struggle led by Voltaire during the Ancien Régime against political and religious intolerance, often bordering on extreme cruelty. The programme was presented by Prof Serge Rivière. In a general way both MBC and MCA must be congratulated for their educational efforts towards the young and the not so young.

One may not agree with everything that is said or the manner in which some matter or other is taught, or the way some speakers on these programmes pronounce their English or French words, but the effort made by the two organisations is tremendous; in any case they can only show what the teaching community in Mauritius can produce. Concerning the Voltaire presentation I do have a couple of points to raise.

Prof Rivière mentioned the great sorrow that Voltaire felt each year on the anniversary of St Barthélémy (24 Aug.) because it reminded him of the injustices done to Protestants, but he stopped short of telling the whole story. My generation and all before me had to study the history of France from François I to the end of World War I, and we all were taught how Protestants were indiscriminately massacred on 24 Aug. 1572 by Catholics. All Protestant houses were marked and the signal for action was sounded by church bells. Around 3000 people were massacred in Paris and up to 10,000 in all of France.

This massacre was carried out at the behest of King Charles IX who, it is said, issued the order very reluctantly, under strong pressure from his mother, Queen Catherine de Médicis. On issuing that order, he is reported to have said: “Tuez les tous, afin qu’il n’en reste pas un pour me le reprocher après.” When this terrible news arrived in Rome, the epicentre of Catholicism, there was great jubilation, and Pope Gregory XIII (the same one who ratified the amendments to the Julian Calendar to give us the familiar “Gregorian” Calendar still in force today) ordered all the churches in Rome to toll their bells in “celebration”!

Prof Rivière also suggested that we should have a bust in some public place to honour and perpetuate the memory of Voltaire. This was a most commendable suggestion; we would even suggest a full-size statue. He gave examples of intolerance around the world, mentioning terrorism in particular. I have my own instance of terrorism to mention.

Since my early childhood, I have been terrorized at school and in life generally because I do not belong to a “mainstream” culture or religion. In the Christian school I attended, I was a “païen”. When I was a teenager, the press was full of terms like “khoonistes” (remember N.M.U.?). Our leaders did their best to fight this down against great odds as the mainstream press was against them (it still is). When I became an adult, and joined the government service, unluckily for me in a department where people like me were regarded as a threat (périI), I was forced into struggle mode for over a decade. During the last two decades I have been faced with “Ene sel nation, ène sel lepep.”

Some people do not find it acceptable that I lead my life my own way, speak the way I want to, meet people I feel comfortable with. It is now a regarded a matter of shame that I should call myself a Hindu. The pressure is so great that even our beloved Prime Minister, judging from his language in a recent parliamentary intervention, seems to have been won over by them. Bring Votaire back by all means. Bring him back with a vengeance, and Vive la différence!

The ostriches who think otherwise should raise their heads from the sand and look around us. In our entire region (Africa), voting is along ethnic and tribal lines. And what about the recent presidential election in the leading country of the western world? The Republican Party badly needs an expert in “scientific communalism” if it is to make any headway next time. Any candidates?

* Published in print edition on 16 November 2012

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