When I first heard of Salman Rushdie I was at university. The Satanic Verses had set off a perfect storm in India and around the world. The book was banned in India following fiery protests by Muslims. Many died in Mumbai when police opened fire on angry protesters. Then came Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa sanctioning the novelist’s death, sparking a global debate on free speech and “excessive” Muslim sensitivity.
One day, discussing artistic freedom in one of his lectures, Prof Isaac Sequiera, who headed the English department at Osmania University and taught us American literature, launched a blistering broadside against Khomeini’s fatwa and attempts by “some people” to curtail free speech. Prof Sequiera was one of those brilliant teachers who would draw you to the class day after day. Yet it wasn’t easy to stomach his critique of the Muslim response to Rushdie’s book, comparing it to the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Was it the same thing?
The church burnt ‘heretics’ on mere hearsay – and everyone who didn’t subscribe to its worldview – at stake. When Galileo suggested that the earth was round, rather than flat as the Church insisted, he was given a chance to reconsider his opinion while he spent the rest of his life behind bars.
Rushdie, on the other hand, has repeatedly abused his creative license, and the divine gift of creativity, to assail a billion people’s revered icons. As someone born in a Muslim family, he knew what he was doing and its possible consequences.
No freedom is absolute – not even in the anything-goes West. Blasphemy is a serious crime in many European nations including in Denmark. Every freedom is qualified. Every right comes with responsibility. You can’t go around happily waving your big stick and hitting people in the name of freedom. The freedom of your stick ends where my nose begins. And if you think you have a right to offend, well, others have an equal right to take offense. If Rushdie is free to exercise his creative freedom to attack people’s sacred icons, shouldn’t his victims too have a right to exercise their freedom of action to deal with him?
Of course, I couldn’t say all this to my teacher. Blame it on my moral timidity or the fact that I was painfully shy and the only Muslim in the whole class. That was nearly two decades ago. Today, as this row over Rushdie’s participation in the Jaipur literary festival rages on, I am amazed by the fact how little has changed in this whole debate over the past two decades.
The Muslims are upset over the invitation being extended to someone whose name has become a curse word for them. On the other hand, the increasingly shrill voices in the media are crying themselves hoarse as they invoke India’s fabled tolerance while ignoring the sentiments of the minority community.
Indeed, more than their concern for the nation’s secular ethos, it’s their intolerance of all things Muslim that has them batting for Rushdie. They defend his right to visit his ‘motherland’ oblivious of the fact that the man has repeatedly heaped abuse and scorn on the same motherland and its icons in his books, from Midnight’s Children to Shame to The Moor’s Last Sigh.
The late premier Indira Gandhi took Rushdie to court over Midnight’s Children which describes her as a ‘black widow’. He was forced to expunge parts of the book that had Sanjay Gandhi accusing his mother of killing his father, Feroz Gandhi, by neglecting him. Rushdie argued in court that it was only fiction, only to be snubbed by the judge who pointed out that Indira and Sanjay Gandhi were real people.
In the case of Satanic Verses too he hid behind the same fig leaf launching cheap attacks on the noble Prophet, peace be upon him, and his blessed household, outraging his billion plus believers. As a Persian line goes, you could take liberties with God but not with His Prophet. And Rushdie knew it.
The outrage was deliberate – just as most of his books have been deliberately offensive and provocative. He loves to provoke and offend because it sells in the West. And Islam and its icons and followers have been fair game for centuries. Free speech? Gimme a break! Freedom and free speech have nothing to do with it. Even the so-called liberals and Hindutva fanatics cheering for the author and lecturing Muslims on tolerance know it. They love him because the Muslims loathe him.
That said, the way this whole issue has been handled by the Muslim leadership – if there’s such a thing as Muslim leadership – makes one extremely uncomfortable. Except for Asaduddin Owaisi, the young leader of MIM who saved the day once again, not one Muslim talking head could survive the likes of Arnab Goswami of Times Now, India’s answer to Fox News. Once again the bumbling lot did not merely fail to present their case explaining why Rushdie isn’t welcome; they managed to make a laughing stock of the whole community.
This week CNN IBN’s Sagarika Ghose had two Muslim ‘leaders’ pitted against two ‘liberals’ on the panel. One gentleman, an eminent lawyer associated with the Babri Masjid case, had one hand on his earpiece the whole time as he struggled to make sense of the brutal attacks by the anchor and her guests. And studio guests and audience couldn’t understand half the things the other gentleman, a former Maharashtra MLA, kept muttering in a chaotic mix of Urdu and English talking of an ‘international conspiracy’ against Muslims. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Do these guys really represent and speak for a 200-million strong, diverse community? More important, why do we get repeatedly bogged down in the same old, festering issues when we have far more serious challenges and problems staring us in the face?
As much as I am repelled by the ‘satanic’ Rushdie, I can’t help being intrigued by the question that has been raised by others too – why now? Rushdie has apparently been quietly and frequently visiting India over the past few years. Does it have something to do with the assembly elections in five states, including Uttar Pradesh, next month as some suggest? Given the propensity of political parties to raise such issues to excite the easily excitable Muslim public opinion so they could soothe it later, the possibility cannot be dismissed.
Of course, Rushdie will remain unwelcome as long as he remains unrepentant. And by protesting against his abuse, Muslims are only exercising their democratic rights and the suggestion that they’re undermining India’s future is ridiculous. We cannot however allow characters like Rushdie and controversies like these to define us and our agenda forever. We must choose our battles wisely. For we have far bigger wars ahead of us.
From our political and economic dispossession to our situation in education and employment sectors, the level of our deprivation is simply overwhelming. A TV documentary this week, again on CNN IBN, on the legendary weavers of Benares, literally fighting for survival with their emaciated, starving children, should be a must-watch for every Muslim.
It’s the same story with the once famous artisan communities in UP, from Aligarh to Moradabad to Bareilly and Kanpur, and the general state of affairs across the Gangetic belt. Indeed, the condition of Muslims in north India, once the power centre, is today worst in the country. When will Muslim leaders and those who claim to champion the community take up these real issues? When will we stop expending all our time and energy on fighting phantoms and chasing chimeras?