Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses and Hurt Muslim Sentiments

The Vice Chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband is annoyed. He (I am assuming the vice chancellor is a man) is cheesed off. He is about as happy as Gordon Brown was on the May 2010 election day.

Why is the vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom Seminary in Deoband peeved? What is making him more sore than bleeding haemorrhoids? What has caused him to be as comradely as a starving grizzly bear that can’t get to the bee-hive at the top of the branch?

I can clarify.

The vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary is in a towering rage (and we are talking at least forty stories here) because the infidel is coming to town.

I think more clarification is in order at this stage.

The first question requiring an answer is: where in Allah’s name is Darul Uloom seminary? That is easy. The answer, given in the first line of this post, is: Deoband.

The next question: where in the name of Mohammad is Deoband? I can answer this, too. Deoband is a town (I am assuming it is a town seeing as it has a seminary which boasts of a vice chancellor, although calling a cleric in a seminary a vice-chancellor is a bit like a chiropractor calling himself a doctor) in India.

Where in India, I hear you asking, is Deoband? There you have got me. I don’t have a f**king clue. But wherever it is, the infidel would be well advised to steer clear of it. Because he is not welcome there.

The infidel in question is Salman Rushdie, the Booker Prize winning author of Midnight’s Children, who, in 1988, wrote a novel entitled The Satanic Verses, which incurred the wrath of the then supreme leader of the Islamic republic of Iran, the AyatollahRuhollah Khomeini. Khomeini, in his infinite wisdom, decreed that Rushdie had insulted the prophet and any punishment short of execution was too kind. And Khomeini was not in a mood to show mercy to the insulter of the prophet (and by extension Islam). He took out a fatwa against Rushdie which gave permission for the infidel to be killed wherever he (the infidel) was.

The densely written The Satanic Verses, which I doubt would otherwise have been heard of, let alone read, in the Muslim world, achieved instant notoriety following Khomeini’s fatwa. Rushdie went into hiding and had to stay hidden for several years (the British taxpayers’ money was well spent in protecting him).

The Satanic Verses was banned in many countries, most of them Islamic.

India was one of the first countries to ban The Satanic Verses. The book is still officially banned in India, although, according to an Indian friend of mine, for a while after Khomeini’s fatwa the novel was one book that was smuggled the most into the country (until the Indians realised that it was unreadable).

(As an aside, I read somewhere that The Satanic Verses has sold more copies than Midnight’s Children. It is Rushdie’s most commercially successful novel to-date, all thanks to Khomeini’s fatwa, although I doubt that that was Khomeini’s intention when he took out the fatwa.)

Salman Rushdie is of Indian descent (he was born and brought up in Mumbai, India), and he was said to be deeply hurt that the country of his origin banned the book even before it was banned in some of the Islamic countries.

India, of course, is not an Islamic country. It is a secular, democratic country. However, it has a sizeable Muslim population. Muslims form almost 14% of India’s population (more than 100 millions). One guesses that the Indian authorities were not overtly keen to piss off the already pissed off Muslim population by allowing the novel to become freely available.

In due course Rushdie came out of hiding. I am not exactly sure, but I think after Khomeini’s death (I hope he is enjoying the delights of the paradise after leading a life of piety) the Iranian government found some sort of face-saving formula, managing, in the process, the kind of intellectual contortions that would have British politicians nodding with approval; and essentially said that they were taking back Khomeini’s fatwa (and were happy to wait, instead, for the infidel to be struck by the full wrath of Allah).

India might have banned The Satanic Verses, but it has not banned Rushdie from travelling to India.

Rushdie is invited to attend a literary festival that will be held in Jaipur, Rajasthan later this month. It is this invitation that has raised the hackles of the vice-chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary.

Rushdie is not the only prominent writer (in the Western hemisphere) who will be in attendance. Other prominent authors attending this literary festival include the Pulitzer Award winning American novelist, Annie Proloux; the 1991 Booker Winner Ben Okri (we shall ignore for the moment that Okri has written little of consequence since his Booker win twenty years ago); the British playwright David Hare; and Richard Dawkins. The last name is interesting. I have not read Richard Dawkins (he bores me with his constant anti-God, anti-religions hectoring), but I should hazard a guess that Dawkin’s views about all religions, God, and figures—historical and current that claimed to have had a special relationship with or an exclusive channel of communication with the Supreme being—are likely to be even more sceptical than those expressed in one section of The Satanic Verses.

(I should briefly clarify my position on God and religion, here. Having given the matter considerable thought over the years, I have decided to hedge my bets and have settled on a position of agnosticism. It is like this: if you spend all your life believing that God exists, that there is afterlife, and that you would be answerable for your deeds in this life after your death; and if God does not exist, if there is no afterlife, what have you got to lose? You die, and there is nothing after that. On the other hand, if you spend all your life bad-mouthing God, and if he does exist, then, upon your demise, you are going to meet a Supreme Being that is more f**ked off than the vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband, India.)

So, this is the situation. There is a literary festival in India, to which Salman Rushdie is invited. The vice chancellor of a Muslim seminary in India is upset about it. He does not think that the infidel who has insulted the great religion and its founder should be invited in any official capacity to India.

I have no reason to believe that the vice chancellor is an unwise man. I do not know whether he has actually read The Satanic Verses. If he has never left India, he would not—at any rate, should not—have read the offending novel, which is banned in that country. (May be he travelled to the UK with the specific aim of reading the novel and deciding for himself whether Rushdie offended the Muslim sentiments; or perhaps he was content to put his faith in the sound judgment of the late Ayatollah of Iran and considered The Satanic Verses blasphemous even if he has not read the novel himself. It does not matter. You have a right to feel offended about or have view against something you have no personal experience of. I am totally against greenhouse gases; I think it is bad news for the planet. I also believe that America, China, and India, in that order, are currently the worst offenders; and the politicians—power-makers in case of China—in their short-sightedness are making our planet a more dangerous place. Believe me, I hold very strong view on the matter; I have seriously considered going on marches (before rejecting it in favour of shouting abuses at the TV screen at the Ten o’clock BBC news). I could not explain to you, though, what exactly greenhouse gases are and in what way they are endangering the planet. But that does not stop me from having very strong views on the subject.) The point is: people can have very strong views on matters they know little about, or, in some cases, are even misinformed about. That is life. Therefore, while it is possible that a vast majority of the tens of millions in the Islamic world who feel deeply offended by the alleged anti-Islamic views of Rushdie in The Satanic Verses has not actually read the novel, that does not make the sentiments ersatz in my view. I would rather they read The Satanic Verses and decide for themselves whether or not Rushdie offended Islam. (May be some of them did and feel, after reading the novel that Rushdie insulted their religion. I have known a few educated Muslims over the years and with some of them, whom I became friendly with, I tried to discuss The Rushdie issue. Not a single one of them admitted to have read The Satanic Verses. None of them called Rushdie an infidel, either, I should point out; or wished him a horrible death. There was, if anything, a marked reluctance to discuss this on their part, which I suspected was because they did hold strong views on the matter. But that is my guess.) I could also go on the Net and find out more about it so that I can have an informed opinion on the matter; but I can’t be bothered.

So what is the vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband saying? According to the article in The Daily Telegraph, the vice chancellor, who goes by the impressive name of Maulana Abul Qasim Nomeni, is calling upon

‘the Muslim organizations of the country [India] to mount pressure on the centre to withdraw the visa and prevent him [Rushdie] visiting India where [tens of millions] community members still feel hurt owing to the anti-Islamic remarks in his writings The Muslims cannot pardon him at any cost.’

Abul Qasim Nomeni, it would be fair to say, is not feeling particularly benevolent towards Rushdie, which, one might say, is only to be expected of a man whose name rhymes with Khomeini. He is (or thinks he is) speaking on behalf of tens of millions of community members (Muslims), who, he assures us, are still hurt over the anti-Islamic remarks in Rushdie’s writings. (Interesting that Maulana does not actually mention The Satanic Verses; instead he uses the generic term ‘writings’. Does this mean that Rushdie has made remarks that can be construed as anti-Islamic in his other writings?—I have read half a dozen Rushdie novels and The Satanic Verses is the only one which can be viewed as anti-Islamic. Or is it the case that the pious Maulana can’t bring himself to even utter the name of the infidel’s novel?)

The headline under which The Daily Telegraph chose to publish the article is also interesting. The headline is:

Sir Salman Rushdie facing threat of Muslim reprisals over Jaipur Literature Festival appearance’.

Maybe I am missing something, or The Daily Telegraph has chosen to keep hidden a vital piece of information from its readers.

What Abul Qasim Nomeni is, according to the Telegraph’s own article, asking is: (a) the writer’s centre withdraw invitation to Rushdie, and / or (b) withdraw the visa to Rushdie so that he cannot travel to India. (The second calling is presumably to Indian authorities; I wouldn’t have thought that the writer’s centre that has organized the festival would have any say in the matter.)

That hardly qualifies as a threat of Muslim reprisal. The vice chancellor is not exhorting the ‘community members’ to tie explosive to their genitals and blow themselves up in the festival. He is encouraging the community members to put pressure on the Indian government to withdraw Rushdie’s visa. One might disagree with the vice chancellor; one might feel that his views are not adequately informed; but one can hardly take an issue with his methods.

In recent years, the UK has banned a number of organizations, books and pamphlets, which the government (read security agencies) feels is inimical to the fabric of the society; the government has also banned individuals from entering the country. The vice chancellor Nomeni wants a ban on Rushdie visiting his country. He is entitled to his views, however misguided we think they are, and, in a free country, he has every right to voice them. India is a country with free speech; it is not country with free visiting rights.

The worry, of course, is that while the learned vice chancellor of the Darul Uloom university might not be espousing violent methods to get the message across, his clarion call might just be the kind of encouragement some radical ‘community members’— who have come to the conclusion that the world does not change through somebody asking nicely and whose chief mode of communication, therefore, is hand-made bombs—do not need.

Let’s go back to India’s banning of The Satanic Verses. I don’t know why India banned the book, but I can guess. The Indian politicians probably concluded that (a) the Muslim sentiments were indeed hurt by the novel, and (b) publishing of the book might lead to law and order problems. And they decided that the best way to deal with the situation and prevent it from escalating further was to ban the book.

The Satanic Verses was not the first, and won’t be the last, book to be banned. The list of novels banned in the UK and America in the twentieth century, because they fell foul, in some way or the other, of the powers that be, is longer than a lemur’s tail.

That does not make the banning of The Satanic Verses right, mind, in my view; however, as the cliché goes, time is the best leveler, and decisions which either make perfect contextual sense or serve some or the other expediency (political, cultural etcetera), will look, with the passage of time, cynical, dishonest and wrong.

Is Abul Qasim Nomeni, the vice chancellor of Darul Uloom seminary, a fundamentalist Muslim? He might be, or he might not be. All I can say is Islam is not the only religion which generates fundamentalists. Christianity has its own brand of religious headcases. Like the organization in Russia which wants the Bhagvad Geeta (sacred book of Hindus) to be banned in Russia because it is anti-Christian, apparently. Or the American nutter who was going to burn the Koran. There is no dearth of Christian Evangelists who are bat-shit mental and go into proselytizing over-drive, spreading the true message of Christmas (and generally being a pain in the neck) every December. True, in recent years, the Christian fundamentalists have not been involved in acts of spectacular violence; but that might be because Christian lands have not been invaded by Muslim armies.

However, let’s get back to the Rushdie affair. In recent years, Rushdie is the second author that I know of who has invited disapprobation for his alleged anti-Islamic views. In 2010, V.S. Naipaul withdrew from giving the inaugural speech for the European Writers’ Parliament, in Turkey, after a slew of Turkish writers and journalists, criticized the decision to invite Naipaul, who, according to them, was anti-Islamic. (Commented on this blog.)

Rushdie—bless him!—has so far shown no inclination to withdraw. Instead he has given out a statement (bold or belligerent, take your pick) to the effect that he fully intends to attend the festival, and because he is of Indian origin he does not even need a visa to visit India.

Rushdie, in the words of William Darlymple, the organizer of the Jaipur Literary Festival, has made a major ‘contribution to multiculturalism, pluralism and co-existence.’ He is (Dalrymple, again) ‘one of the greatest artists India has created’. He is also (Dalrymple hasn’t finished yet) ‘one of the greatest figures to come out of Indian Muslim community.’

This is high praise indeed. I do not know about Rushdie’s contribution to all the isms Dalrymple is talking about; neither do I possess knowledge of great Muslim figures that have come out of the Indian Muslim community (I am happy to take Dalrymple’s word for it). What I do know (having read six of his novels) is Rushdie is a superb writer. Three cheers for Rushdie.