When I first heard of Salman Rushdie
AIJAZ Z. SYEDWhen 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 burned “heretics” on mere hearsay — and everyone who didn't subscribe to its worldview — at stake. When Galileo suggested 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 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 latest report is Rushdie has cancelled his visit to India for the Jaipur festival due to security reasons.
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 Prophet, peace be upon him, and his blessed household, outraging his billion plus believers.
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 a 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.
Fronm an article at ArabNews.