For those of you who don’t know, over here in euro land we hand the Presidency of the EU to a different country every six months. An egalitarian policy that opens Europe up to radical policy changes and shifts in emphasis twice a year. At the beginning of 2007 EU Presidency passed to Germany, who decided in a fit of well meaning guilt that they would make Holocaust denial a crime and ban Nazi regalia all over Europe. Not that Holocaust denial is a major problem in Europe and last time I saw anyone wearing a swastika it was Prince Harry. Well actually the last time I saw anyone wearing a swastika it was an elephant at Amber fort near Jaipur. The swastika is, as anyone who has been to India or Tibet will tell you a Hindu and Buddhist symbol that dates back thousands of years. No one has seen fit to mention in Germany that copyright theft was just one of Hitler’s many crimes.
At the time of the Prince Harry debacle, when the spare-to-the-heir of the British crown wore a Nazi uniform to a fancy dress party, Der Spiegel online Der Spiegel online reported European Parliament member Silvana Koch-Mehrin as saying “A symbol like the swastika not only has no place in Germany, but it also does not belong anywhere in Europe.”
Now apart from the fact that having the German government telling the rest of Europe that they shouldn’t be racist or xenophobic is a bit like having Ronnie Wood tell you to cut back on your drinking, no European country has the right to monopolise and demonise an ancient Asian religious symbol, let alone ban it completely.
In a less hysterical article around the time of the start of the German Presidency of the EU, Der Spiegel online revisted the issue, and quoted Ramesh Kallidai of the Hindu Forum of Britain who likened the banning of the swastika to a potential banning Christians from using the cross, just because a burning cross was the symbol of the Ku Klux Klan! He also shed more light on the swastika, “In Sanskrit it means May Goodness Prevail,” he asserted.
Certainly in India the swastika is seen everywhere: painted on houses for good luck, on temples and rickshaws – even daubed on elephants and the ubiquitous sacred cows. In Tibet too, the symbol is often seen, and is incorporated into religious art and designs.
Soon after the article, and as a result of a furore of protest from Hindus, Buddhists and free thinking people all over Europe, a press release appeared on the website of the German EU Presidency stating that they would not after all be seeking to ban the swastika across Europe. The end of the argument you might think, but it does shed light on the fact that this ancient, 5000 year old religious symbol is illegal in Germany.
I took up the issue of the swastika with some German friends, who despite having travelled considerably, had no idea of the real origins of the symbol. They were amazed to know it’s significance to Hindus, which is never referred to in Germany even though school children have compulsory lessons about the Nazi era. They also couldn’t believe that the peaceful religious use of the symbol has been banned along with it’s use by neo-Nazis.
No one in their right mind would seek to minimise the horrors of the Nazi era or for one minute suggest that the Holocaust should be forgotten, but to attempt to outlaw racism by banning a symbol is at best naïve, and at worst counter-productive. It is ignorance of other peoples and other cultures that allows racism to flourish in the first place and the blanket-banning of the swastika in Germany is prime example of cultural ignorance.
In a lighter mood, this got me thinking to some of the other stupid, and knee-jerk laws that exist around the world. Laws that might be well meaning – even laudable in their aims, but do so in a ham-fisted and ignorant way. In Thailand, where I am at the moment, it is apparently illegal to go out without wearing underpants. In Tennessee it is illegal to drive a car when sleeping.
Some laws are just forgotten gems, that may have had some significance in the past, but have been left of the statute books by default and now sit there, mocking us all. In my country, England, you can still be executed for treason for sleeping with the monarch’s wife even though the death penalty has long since been repealed. It is also considered treason to put a stamp on a letter upside down.
There are a number of websites that boast lists of these laws from around the world. Most are probably urban myths and recycled from other sites, but in a spirit of humour, here are some that might keep a few Perceptive Travellers out of trouble on the road. Travel legal!
Words & Jaipur image ©stevedavey.com 2007