Salman Rushdie as a Dauntless Man of Letters

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Salman Rushdie as Dauntless Man of Letters

published in Vol.II, Issue.XX, September 2016

Introduction to the Author:

Dr. Prakash Narain Dr. Prakash Narain is the head of English Department, MGM (PG) College, Sambhal, UP. He has attended various conferences and presented papers on different literary topics. Also, he has published papers in different literary journals on vivid literary opinions. 

Salman Rushdie is a well-known Anglo-Indian author whose fame lies in his controversial and dauntless manner of writing, presenting burning issues and problems of his own era with his amazingly rational attitude. He said, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist” and he really followed his statement. His world famous controversial novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ is an evident proof of this fact because as a writer, he also believes, “Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true”

 Harold Pinter, a Nobel Prize-winning playwright, said about him,
“A very distinguished writer has used his imagination to write a book and has criticised the religion into which he was born and he has been sentenced to death as well as his publishers. It is an intolerable and barbaric state of affairs.” Who would dare to write a book like The Satanic Verses nowadays? And if some brave or reckless author did dare, who would publish it? The signs in both cases are that no such writer or publisher is likely to appear, and for two reasons. The first and most obvious is fear. The Satanic Verses is a rich and complex literary novel, by turns ironic, fantastical and satirical. Despite what is often said, mostly by those who haven’t read it, the book does not take direct aim at Islam or its prophet. Those sections that have caused the greatest controversy are contained within the dreams or nightmares of a character who is in the grip of psychosis. Which is to say that, even buried in the fevered subconscious of a disturbed character inside a work of fiction – a work of magical realism fiction! – there is no escape from literalist tyranny. Any sentence might turn out to be a death sentence. And few if any of even the boldest and most iconoclastic artists wish to run that risk. John Berger, author and critic, commented on his fearlessness to his own life at the time of writing,

“I suspect that Salman Rushdie, if he is not caught in a chain of events of which he has completely lost control, might, by now, be ready to consider asking his world publishers to stop producing more or new editions of The Satanic Verses. Not because of the threat to his own life, but because of the threat to the lives of those who are innocent of either writing or reading the book.”

The Satanic Verses remains a book about the struggles of migration and the frictions of cultural exchange. It pokes fun at all manner of targets, not least America and Britain. Above all, perhaps, it dramatizes the conviction that there is nothing more sacred than the freedom to question what is sacred. Twenty years on, it’s a principle that urgently needs to be remembered. Fear is not the only explanation why a global religion which, rightly or wrongly, is invoked as the inspiration for terror has become a non-subject for critical (or uncritical) works of art. The other reason is sympathy. And here Khomeini has proved prescient. Back in 1989, only the most conspiracy-minded Islamists took seriously Khomeini’s claims that The Satanic Verses was part of a Zionist-imperialist plot to persecute Muslims.

The world has since changed. Following the events of 11 September 2001, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the idea that the West is engaged in a military and cultural war with Islam is now far more widely entertained. A conflation has taken place in which the war in Iraq and the plight of the Palestinians has become somehow indivisible from the situation of Muslims in Britain. So that to be opposed to the war is to be, if not actively in favour of Islamism at home (the position of much of the far left), then at least not against it. And by extension, open criticism of Islamism, religious censorship and violence is often automatically viewed as an expression of “neocon” or “imperialist” politics. Although there were exceptions at the time – among them Germaine Greer, John Berger and John Le Carré – many prominent cultural figures on the left extended Rushdie their support both here and abroad. Even a critic of The Satanic Verses, the Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who felt the book was insulting to Islam, signed a petition stating that “no blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer”. Five years later Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by Islamic extremists.

In the years since the fatwa there have been many more flashpoints in which artists and writers have been threatened, attacked or killed for criticising Islam, and not all have been Muslims. Hitchens thinks this is a development that has been overlooked. “Salman was raised as a Muslim,” he says, “so in theory he’s within the jurisdiction. He can be sentenced as an apostate, and the same can be done to Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Taslima Nasreen [the Bangladeshi novelist under threat of decapitation who has just been offered refuge in Paris]. But what people haven’t noticed sufficiently is that now people who are not Muslims, like the Danish cartoonists, have been threatened with violence for criticising Islam. That’s sort of new, and ought to be more controversial than it is.”

Yet few of those who have found themselves targeted by Islamic elves targeted by Islamic extremists in the wake of the Rushdie fatwa received wholehearted support from the liberal community. Quite the opposite. Theo Van Gogh, slaughtered on a busy street in Amsterdam; his co-filmmaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali, threatened with death and placed under police protection; the Danish cartoonists who responded to Jyllands-Posten’s commission to draw the prophet Muhammad and were forced into hiding: in each of these high-profile cases, the victims of intimidation were castigated and shunned by a wide swathe of progressive opinion.

 Right wing”, “provocateurs”, “reactionaries” and “racist” are some of the more restrained epithets aimed at the above names by their liberal critics. Muslims in all their myriad variety and differences have morphed, or been corralled, into a unitary socio-economic-cultural block. To take vocal exception to one aspect of Islam or one particular leader or sect is, almost by definition, to be an opponent of all Muslims. The Satanic Verses affair was the first test case in Britain of Muslimhood – many were to follow – in which the mark of a true Muslim was to be in favour of banning the novel, and the distinction of an even truer Muslim was to be in favour of killing Rushdie. The novelist told the French magazine that he believes “we are living in the darkest time I have ever known”, with the rise of Islamic State of “colossal importance for the future of the world”. He argued that the taboo surrounding “supposed ‘Islamophobia’” must be brought to an end. “Why can’t we debate Islam?” he said. “It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being sceptical about their ideas, even criticising them ferociously.” The novelist said that “it seems we have learned the wrong lessons” from the experience of The Satanic Verses, which saw a fatwa issued against him by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, sending him into hiding. “Instead of realising that we need to oppose these attacks on freedom of expression, we thought that we need to placate them with compromise and renunciation,” he said.

The Swedish Academy, which selects the winners of the Nobel prize in literature, has condemned an Iranian death warrant against British writer Salman Rushdie, 27 years after it was pronounced. Two members quit the academy in 1989 after it refused to condemn Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini’s fatwa, or religious edict, against Rushdie for allegedly blaspheming Islam in his book The Satanic Verses. Citing its code against political involvement, the academy issued a statement defending free expression but without explicitly supporting Rushdie. However, in a statement posted on its website Thursday, the academy for the first time denounced the fatwa and reward money for Rushdie’s death as “flagrant breaches of international law”. It didn’t specify what prompted its change of heart but cited state-run Iranian media outlets’ recent decision to raise the bounty by $600,000. “The fact that the death sentence has been passed as punishment for a work of literature also implies a serious violation of free speech,” the academy said, adding that literature must be free from political control.

Rushdie responded on Twitter, saying: “I would like to thank the Swedish Academy. I am extremely grateful for its statement. “The fact that the death sentence has been passed as punishment for a work of literature also implies a serious violation of free speech,” the academy said, adding that literature must be free from political control. Respecting culture has come to mean restricting debate. Malik quotes the sociologist Tariq Modood on this issue: “If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each other’s fundamental beliefs to criticism.”

To some extent this sensitivity has been achieved by coercion – the fatwa model. But there has also been a more voluntary adoption of multicultural manners, chief among which is the duty not to offend. And where that has failed, the government has shown itself all too willing to step in with proscriptive legislation. Three years ago we came within a single parliamentary vote of being saddled with a law (the Religious Hatred Act) that meant you or I could be imprisoned for seven years for using insulting language, even if the insult was unintentional and referred to an established truth.” English writer Hanif Kureishi called the fatwa against Rushdie ‘one of the most significant events in post-war literary history’.

Furthermore, under draconian anti-terror laws, it is now illegal to be in possession of a whole range of reading material. This is one of the terrible ironies of the conflict with reactionary Islam, previewed in the attempt to censor (and kill) Rushdie. In 1989 the British government defended freedom of expression against Islamic extremists. By 2009 Islamic extremists could accuse the British government of withdrawing freedom of expression. That the extremists dream of a far more extensive (and violent) censorship is no comfort or excuse. Rushdie has now moved on, figuratively and geographically, from the fatwa years. Back from the front pages, he has once again relocated, having lived in Mumbai and London, to New York (he is not alone in noting that all three cities have suffered Islamic terror attacks). Taken together they are all part of a multicultural accommodation that has come to determine the terms of public discourse. In hindsight, The Satanic Verses was published at a turning point in progressive politics. Throughout much of the 20th century a battle had been waged against discriminating on the basis of race (The Satanic Verses itself was avowedly anti-racist) and class. In other words, those aspects of humanity that are biologically inherited or socially imposed. For a variety of reasons, including the fall of the Berlin Wall later on in 1989 and the emergence of minority group activism, a new identity politics emerged. Class and race were replaced or trumped by culture.

Rushdie said, “When people say, ‘I believe in free speech, but …’ then they don’t believe in free speech, the whole point about free speech is that it upsets people. It’s very easy to defend the right of people whom you agree with — or that you are indifferent to, the defence (of free speech) begins when someone says something that you don’t like. “He cheerfully used to dismiss the question, ‘whether art should or must be politically correct’ Admirably Rushdie has consistently and fearlessly defended freedom of expression even when his own life would appear to be at stake. For example, he campaigned successfully to prevent the British government from banning a libellous Pakistani film about him because a ban would have made it “the hottest video in town.” Instead, the film went virtually unnoticed outside of Pakistan. All the above things transparently proved Salman Rushdie as a dauntless Anglo – Indian author.


Works cited:   

  1. Weller Paul “Literature Update on the Salman Rushdie Affair” Discernment 4.2 (1990) p.35-41
  2. Fletcher,M.D. “Salman Rushdie :An Annotated Bibliography of Articles about His Fiction” Journal of Indian Writing in English 19.1 (1991),p.15-23
  3. “The Satanic Verses Controversy Part II” Contemporary Literary Criticism,59 Detroit, M/I: Gale Research Inc.1990 pp.404-56
  4. “Salman Rushdie: Author of The Satanic Verses” Bestsellers, Books & Authors in the News. Ed. Donna Olandrof, Detroit etc: Gale Research Inc.1989 pp.61-65
  5. “(Ahmed) Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses” Contemporary Literary Criticism, 55. Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc.1989.pp 214-63
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