Knighthood for Salman Rushdie and Muslims

By Asghar Ali Engineer

Knighthood conferred on Salman Rushdie by queen of England a few weeks ago has raised a great controversy throughout Islamic world. Some have conferred, in reaction to this title of Saif Allah (Allah’s Sword) by a group of extremist ‘Ulama in Pakistan. The conferment of knighthood on Salman Rushdie has revived the controversy which raged in nineties on his novel the Satanic Verses.

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Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran who brought about Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 had issued a fatwa to kill Salman Rushdie for insulting the Prophet of Islam (PBUH). It really became a serious confrontation between Western and Islamic world and it appeared as if the self-fulfilling prediction of ‘clash of civilizations’ is taking place. The western countries defended Salman Rushdie on grounds of human rights and Islamic World condemned Rushdie for his insolence against the Prophet (PBUH) and his wives.

Salman Rushdie was provided with security by the British government for years at a heavy cost as his life was in danger after Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa. Later on however, though fatwa was not withdrawn it was almost treated as non-existent by authorities in Iran.

Now with conferment of knighthood the controversy has again been revived and angry demonstrations are taking place in many Muslim countries. However, it must be said that these demonstrations are not as extensive and intensive compared to what happened in early nineties. Nevertheless Muslims in general have been offended. It once again raises the question about right of expression and its limits.

Freedom of expression is a sacred right but it does not include right to insult founder of a religion who is held in high esteem by millions of his followers. But west does not agree. It recognizes no such limit. In the west films, novels, plays are written on Christ which go against the Christian beliefs. But Christians in Eastern countries like India do protest against such novels or films. When a film which did not conform to Christian beliefs was shown in India the Christians protested and demanded ban on it. It was allowed to be shown on certain conditions only.

In the West liberalism on one hand, and, indifference towards religion are almost a way of life. No one takes seriously anything written critical of religion or even anti-religion but it is very different in Asiatic countries, particularly in Islamic world in Asia and Africa. Liberalism in these countries is limited to few intellectuals and these intellectuals also often refrain from expressing their views publicly for fear of being ostracized.

Salman Rushdie’s book is not even serious critique of Islamic beliefs but ridiculing them. There is difference between attempting a serious critique disagreeing with certain beliefs and very much different to ridicule those beliefs. Rushdie uses technique of magic realism and transforms various characters considered to be sacred by Muslims into radically different forms. For example Jibrail Farishta is transformed into a Bollywood character. One can certainly use these techniques for ordinary characters but not characters like Jibrail through whom, Muslims believe, Prophet (PBUH) received revelation which was compiled in the form of Qur’an. Even Prophet’s wives are subjected to this treatment.

This can be hardly acceptable in the cultural and religious ethos in Asia in general and in Islamic world, in particular. Though there is no clash of civilizations but there are significant differences in civilizations and these differences should be respected and accommodated. The limits of freedom of expression are different in degree between western and eastern civilizations.

The latest development in Punjab also throws enough light on this question. It is not only Muslims who get agitated if their religion is ridiculed but also others like Hindus and Sikhs. The controversy between Sikhs and Dera Saccha Sauda assumed huge proportions and Sikhs came out on the streets with swords drawn. The Sikhs felt that the Chief of Dera Saccha Sauda by donning clothes of Guru Gobind Singh has insulted their religion. And even apology from Dera Saccha Sauda does not seem to satisfy them and they are insisting on arresting him and prosecuting him. This is the reality in our countries. The west must appreciate this reality and cannot insist on its own standards of liberalism and individual rights.

Having said this I would like to insist that Salman Rushdie, no doubt has exceeded the tolerance limit of Asians but one should also appreciate his creative talents which cannot go unrecognized. Except his novel Satanic Verses his other novels like Midnight children and several others are highly appreciated and one has to recognize his talent. It is also true that he is not anti-Muslim. As someone very aptly put it Salman both fights Muslims and fights for Muslims. It is literally true. He is committed to minority rights and he fights for their rights in U.K. and other countries. We should not judge him by one single novel.

It is also to be noted that it is the right of the U.K. government to confer honor on its citizens. We cannot dictate government of any sovereign country on whom to confer or not to confer honors. No sovereign government will like to be dictated. One can certainly makes ones feelings known through proper channels but should not take to streets and burn flag of that country. Flag represents dignity and sovereignty of a country and insulting someone’s flag amounts to insulting that country. It does not befit thinking people to tread over some country’s flag or burn it.

It is also important to remember that a creative writer is nothing if not subversive of established values, beliefs and practices. Only thing is that one must be conscious of decent limits of subversion, when it involves religious beliefs. Many beliefs are thought to be religious but are not religious. They pertain more to customs and traditions and social ethos. A writer has to be free to subvert such beliefs or practices.

If one does not have such freedom nothing in the world will change. All great thinkers have been subversive. Even in the Qur’an Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) (PBUH) has been shown as subversive of beliefs and practices of his people. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself attacked superstitions around idols which Arabs worshipped and showed them the right path.

Thus all prophets have been subversive in one way or the other. Great poets and thinkers like Milton and Iqbal were attracted towards the character of Satan for his; challenging authorities and subverting establishment. His subversiveness makes Satan dynamic and this dynamism makes him attractive to some. But Satanic subversion of course is world apart from prophets’ subversion. Satanic subversion is totally negative whereas prophet’s subversion is positive in character. Prophetic subversion leads to creation of new world, a world that benefits whole humanity. Satanic subversion, on the other hand, only destroys. Both challenge established authority but prophets challenge authority which is oppressive, exploitative and unjust. Satanic subversion, on the other hand, challenges just authority and leads to darkness and leads to more oppression and exploitation.

Salman Rushdie, in his western environs totally confuses between prophetic and satanic subversions. He is an atheist and does not believe in religion, any religion. And like some other atheists assumes the character of atheistic character and thinks truth is only in his grip and ridicules those who do not agree with him. Thus he ridicules one kind of beliefs to establish another set of atheistic beliefs. And it is in this arrogance of possessing ‘truth’, he begins to ridicule all those who do not agree with him.

A sober atheist would not disregard truth in others’ beliefs. One set of truth should not be set against another set of truth and ridicule it. It is sheer arrogance. A serious atheist like Bertrand Russell attacked certain religious beliefs and practices of the Church only in philosophical sense. Bertrand Russell was himself a great subverter but also believer in the other world based on justice and compassion. He was firmly against war and stood for peace. He courted arrest during First World War opposing Britain’s entry into it and shocked whole country. He organized, along with Jean Paul Sartre, trial of war crimes against America committed in Vietnam. He was great peace activist.

Also, if we are true Muslims we should represent best in Islam. Among fundamental values of Islam are wisdom and tolerance. We should make our opposition known in most civilized manner. We should argue with the opponent on the basis of reasoned arguments and never use abusive language. Qur’an warns us not to abuse those who worship other than Allah; they will abuse Allah out of ignorance (6:109).

Thus our protest should be dignified and based on reason. Some politically motivated people exploit religious sentiments by organizing violent street demonstrations, burning effigies and flags. It does not represent best face of Islam and gives an impression Muslims are a fanatic and intolerant lot. It wins more sympathy for Salman Rushdie in the West and defeats the very purpose.

The purpose should not be to demonstrate violently but to convince western people that we are responsible and tolerant people and our religious sensibilities have been hurt. One should go for dialogue not for confrontation. Confrontation takes us nowhere and pays only some power hungry politicians, does not uphold cause of Islam, tolerance and freedom. Freedom of conscience is as central to Islam as to western world. We are, however, failing to communicate this central value of Islam.