What's wrong with Muslim response to Rushdie affair?

WHAT is known as the Rushdie affair is an outgrowth of the publication of Salman Rushdie's book, "The Satanic Verses," in September 1988 by Viking Penguin. It has been haunting the global Muslim population since then.

The book sparked outrage and triggered large protests, which led to riots, deaths and injuries. All these fuelled negative media coverage of Muslims and their religion.

Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian-American professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York City, said "The Satanic Verses" is now manipulated for extra-literary purposes, as non-Muslims use it to explain or to camouflage their anti-Muslim hatred, and Muslims, to denounce the West and its plots against the Muslim world.

More than three decades on, the attack on Rushdie in Chautauqua in New York on Aug 12 reignited the Rushdie debate.

Before the Rushdie affair, Muslims in the West, especially those in Britain, were identified mainly by their ethnicity: Asian, South Asian, African or Middle Eastern.

The Rushdie affair catapulted them into a media whirlpool and defined them, first and foremost, by their religion.

Today in the era of Islamophobia, such identification has not augured well for them, especially those living in Muslim-minority countries.

In November 1988, Edward Said, a Palestinian-American professor of literature, was in Algiers to attend a Palestinian National Council meeting.

It was there that he received Rushdie's typescript of "The Satanic Verses".

He told British writer and journalist W. J. Weatherby: "My impression was that [Rushdie] was expecting the novel to have an impact…. He said it would shake up Muslims."

In "Risky Deconstruction: The Rushdie Affair" (1996), Michael Thorpe maintains: "One cannot doubt Rushdie offended deliberately…. Beginning with the title, 'The Satanic Verses' is never indirect; it strikes directly at the heart of both Islam's founder and its sacred book."

Being a writer of Muslim background, Rushdie knew the Muslim sentiment well and could foresee the consequences of the content of his book.

What is more, said the late Ali Mazrui of the University of Michigan, the United States, writer and journalist Khushwant Singh had advised Rushdie and Penguin against publishing "The Satanic Verses".

However, despite such external factors and considerations, Rushdie had every right to decide whether to write and publish "The Satanic Verses". For one thing, he received huge advance royalties for the book.

There are specific contexts that should lead a writer to self-impose limits on their freedom of expression if their work "published in London or New York" can potentially "kill people in Karachi or Bombay."

But that is a topic for another article. Here, I want to focus on the Muslim response to the Rushdie affair.

"The Satanic Verses" is a written work that made fun of Islam, its Prophet and his companions.

Instead of countering it in a like manner (writing through writing), many Muslims spilled out into the streets to yell for the book ban and for the author's punishment.

In my opinion, this was a sign of their mental sterility and academic stagnation.

There were of course Muslims who distanced themselves from the hysteria over the publication of the book and were against Khomeini's fatwa.

One of them, Ali Mazrui (mentioned above), wrote a wonderful critique of 'The Satanic Verses'. His opinion was to "leave Rushdie to Heaven!"

Similarly, Mohammad Akram Nadwi of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, was of the view to "ignore" the book.

Egypt's Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz disliked the book and the fatwa.

He once said: "We need to differentiate between free speech and disrespect for religious symbols. Every man has the right to stretch his arms, for example, but not to the extent that he hits the face of the person next to him."

However, such unconventional voices were largely unheeded, as the general run of Muslims jumped on the bandwagon of public fury and opted for demonstrations.

They shunned the painstaking method of engaging with "The Satanic Verses" intellectually.

Rushdie's book was not the first, nor the last, to blaspheme Islam or slander Muslims.

Khaled Abou El Fadl of the University of California, Los Angeles cites the examples of Abu Nawas (756?-814) and Abu al-'Ala' al-Ma'ari (973-1057) who composed profane poetry.

However, Muslims in those days didn't bother to burn or destroy their poems. Nor did they shout for the death of the poets.

Being intellectually competent and confident, they rather "preserved, studied, analysed and countered" them by producing equally or more brilliant work.

Rushdie's book was followed by other artistic productions that ridiculed Islam and its symbols. Unfortunately, in all or most such cases, many Muslims betrayed the same predilection for street rallies.

They seemed to have been reluctant to engage in research and scholarship as countermeasures to such attacks on their religious sensibilities.

Especially in the case of the Rushdie affair, demonstrators ran amok and sought to stop the circulation of "The Satanic Verses" through marches.

They bought the book, photocopied its sections they deemed offensive and discussed them in public meetings and in the media.

In cities around the world, they "exploded with indignation" and "ceremonially burnt" copies of the book.

Such tantrums were at best unproductive and at worst counterproductive.

They no doubt increased the sale of the book and piqued the curiosity of readers who would otherwise never flip the novel or hear of its author.

Before the Rushdie affair, as Dabashi notes, Rushdie as a writer was known "only to a community of South Asian literary aficionados."

But street protests against "The Satanic Verses" made him a world writer and contributed to the book's promotion.

In denouncing the book, Muslims gave it a competitive edge in the market, something proven to be a boon for the coffers of Rushdie and Penguin.

Khomeini's fatwa forced the writer to go into hiding but ironically helped sell the book in a large way.

Therefore, if the "The Satanic Verses" is a succès de scandale, Muslims cannot avoid responsibility for making it so.

Despite Khomeini's un-Islamic fatwa and protesters' demand for Rushdie's head, the writer is still alive.

But what about all those people, mainly protesters, who died because of the public disorder that erupted after the publication of the book?

Many would blame Rushdie for these deaths (which according to one report reached 45).

But can Muslim organisations and rabble rousers who invited protesters to agitate in the streets avoid responsibility?

By the way, Margaret Thatcher's government in Britain defended Rushdie's right to write.

But was it really a friend of free speech? While defending Rushdie's right to free speech, the Thatcher government banned Irish republicans from speaking on British television (the BBC had to employ actor Stephen Rea "to speak [IRA leader] Gerry Adams's words" from 1988 to 1994).

Similarly, there are establishment intellectuals who are vociferous about Rushdie's right to write, but kowtow to repressive governments that stifle dissent, imprison writers and shut down media outlets under various pretexts.

Many have rightfully denounced the deplorable attack on Rushdie in New York.

But what about midnight door knocks and forced disappearances of journalists and writers in countries ruled by autocrats?

There are commentators who are vocal about Rushdie's right to write but are not equally silver-tongued about free speech infringements in other cases.

While Muslims must avoid book-burning and other forms of furore, the self-styled champions of free speech cannot overlook such issues.

Silence on them will complicate the freedom-of-expression discourse and may not further the interest of Rushdie as a writer.

The writer teaches English and postcolonial literature at International Islamic University Malaysia

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