The knighting of Salman Rushdie and the benighted reaction

19 Jun

Here in Australia we were much more interested in the fact Dame Edna Everage may now really be a Dame, in that Barry Humphries is now a Sir, but the knighthood that has had the usual suspects up in arms — from Iran to Pakistan to the predictable counter-fury in the West — is Salman Rushdie’s. It so happens I was saved from being corrupted by The Satanic Verses because it put me to sleep and I never finished it, but I was enthralled by Shalimar the Clown, whose message of tolerance is precisely what we all need to hear. I commend too “Defend the right to be offended” by the same Sir Salman.

I was in Washington just before the Iraq war began in March 2003 and was invited to speak to groups of senators from both parties. The most obvious distinction between the Democrats and the Republicans was that the Republicans used exclusively religious language. They discussed why they hadn’t seen each other at a certain prayer meeting. One senator said to me, in tones of genuine horror, that what he disliked most about Osama bin Laden was that he called America a Godless country. He said: “How can he call us Godless? We’re incredibly God-fearing!”

I said: “Well, senator, I suppose he doesn’t think so.” But his outrage at being presented as un-Godly was undeniably sincere. He meant business. And the increasing power of God-fearing America – of the Christian coalition, Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ variety – subsequently determined the result of the November 2004 presidential election.

Now here in Britain I discover another kind of Anschluss of liberal values in the face of resurgent religious demands. One of its results is the proposal by Tony Blair’s government – under the auspices of its Serious and Organised Crime and Police Bill – to introduce a ban on the “incitement to hatred on religious grounds”.

The pressure of members of English PEN has wrested a late concession from the government, which has renamed the proposed offence “hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds”. But the danger the legislation carries for freedom of speech, while diminished, remain. It seems we need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again in Europe as well as in the United States…

The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions. (But they don’t shoot.) …

So I looked around to see if there were Muslims, even among those none too fond of The Satanic Verses, who were not joining in with the hysteria around Rushdie’s honour, an honour well merited on many levels literary and social, in my view, more merited in fact than many such honours. I am actually a bit of a fan.

The Indian Muslim Blog is not a Rushdie fan site, but I think I can live with sentiments like these:

…Just because some ailing mullah decides to score brownie points with his increasingly agitated population by issuing a fatwa, it becomes a life and death question for Muslims the world over. It is the insecurity and sheer intellectual bankruptcy throughout the Muslim world that leads them to believe that a mere book can threaten their very existence…

By banning a book, the government is unintentionally providing a big fillip to what might have been a totally worthless piece of literature. Taslima Nasreen is a case in point. I have asked many of my Bengali friends about their opinion of Nasreen as a writer and most of them have been pretty disappointed by her literary skills. By banning her books, the Bangladeshi government made her a martyr to the cause of freedom of expression. Her books have now been read by millions of people world-wide and are now available in over 20 languages. Nothing guides a man like curiosity does. Not many people would have cared for The Satanic Verses but for the reactionary fatwa of Khomeini. When I couldn’t find the book in India, I looked for it in Korea just to figure out what the whole fuss was about. To be very true, I found it to be profoundly boring and couldn’t get beyond a few pages. May be it would have remained such but the whole controversy gave it a cult status. Banning things generally don’t work. Be it alcohol, movies or books, people don’t like to be told by some higher authority what they should or should not do. And then it goes against the very notion of freedom of expression…

The Muslims protesting violently and calling for death are actually playing into the hands of trouble mongers. And the fence-sitters, their curiosity stimulated by controversies, when decide to explore more about the whole issue, there is nothing for them to read and understand the Muslim perspective. So, it reinforces their belief of Muslims as intolerant, violent people who have nothing to say but everything to shout.

Banning books, threatening authors, blackening houses have all been a recent phenomenon and should have no place in modern society. The fact that poets like Mir and Ghalib could write pretty much anything during the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries and get away with it provides us a mirror in terms of freedom of expression. And the picture in the mirror is not pretty.

Progressive Islam takes a rather different tack.

A spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry has claimed that Salman Rushdie’s recent knighthood is another example of the West slapping the Muslim world in the face. For my own part, I wish the Iranians would get over Khomeini and his silly fatwa. Personally, I owe a huge debt to Rushdie and his most famous/infamous novel, The Satanic Verses. It came out when I was in high school, and was immediately banned in both Bangladesh and India. So I couldn’t read it till I went to the US for college; and it was an eye-opener. To this day I give Rushdie credit for making me aware that there were quite a few things written in the Qur’an and early Muslim sources that were routinely ignored or glossed over in the course of a traditional Muslim upbringing. From there it was only a short jump to wanting to pursue Islamic and religious studies in order to find out if there was more of this sort of thing that I should investigate. So whatever I have been able to accomplish in terms of studying and writing religion is in some part due to Rushdie. Thanks, man. =)

However, I have been very disappointed in Rushdie in recent years, especially over this knighthood business. The whole British imperial honours system of knighthoods, OBEs, MBEs, etc just reeks too much of an Empire built on the blood of millions of colonized peasants who starved because they were made to grow cotton to supply English textile mills rather than food. I wish Rushdie had followed in the footsteps of Benjamin Zephaniah in rejecting this ‘honour’:

The Rastafarian poet argues that the very name of the Order of the British Empire reminds him of “thousands of years of brutality – it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised”.

I post these to remind everyone that not everyone is an extremist. We do well to remember that. It could even be that such are more numerous than we are led to believe.



This post has attracted a range of comments, not all of them strictly relevant. Many are interesting nonetheless, so thanks everyone. I am now closing comment.

Meanwhile, Irfan Yusuf has posted on the subject: Shock! Muted Muslim response to Salman Rushdie’s knighthood ….

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22 responses to “The knighting of Salman Rushdie and the benighted reaction

  1. Kevin

    June 25, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    Well, I hope the 60 people who took the poll are not typical Aussies, and winning wars has very little to do with enemy hearts and minds. The latter comes after the wars are over.

    But I’m not sure I agree with your ‘it’s a free country’ statement. In a free Australia, are you ok with whack jobs saying “Hitler was right, and we need someone like him to save the country and exterminate the jews!”?

  2. ninglun

    June 25, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    These whack jobs have sailed very close to that, as a matter of fact, and I am sure you could point to Americans who have too. You can read more about the principal whack job here. “In 2005 in an interview with Iranian (Persian) state television he indicated that it was his belief that ‘Israel is founded on the Holocaust lie’.”

    I think Holocaust deniers are barking mad. That may be partly my having worked in a Jewish school, of course, and having met Holocaust survivors.

    Yet, as foul as I find him, I would say he has the right to hold those views, unless he actively incites hate, violence, or criminal behaviour. Then of course he is breaking the law.

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