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The biggest insult of them all

It’s probably too early to be completely sure but as I write this, the good news is that Salman Rushdie is alive and is likely to remain so.

We don’t know the extent of his injuries — there are unconfirmed reports of damage to one eye and wounds in the liver — but so far at least, the prognosis is that Rushdie will survive the knife attack on him.


The Indian responses to the stabbing of Salman Rushdie have told me several things. The first and most important thing to emphasise is that all of us don’t always realise that the threat to Rushdie’s life did not emanate from India as so many people on social media seem to believe. Yes, India was the first country to ban the book and there were protests in both India and Pakistan. But Rushdie was in no personal danger. Speaking to him during that period, I had the sense that he was able to handle all that.


   He, of course, disapproved of the ban and he wrote an angry letter to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi about it. But Rushdie intended to fight his critics. He enjoyed a good fight and did not believe that his life was in danger.


   All that changed when Ayatollah Khomeini heard about The Satanic Verses and issued a fatwa offering a reward to anyone who killed Rushdie. That is when things got serious and the British government (he had lived in London for decades and had a British passport) asked him to go into hiding. He remained undercover with protection from the British police for years.


   So, to argue, as some do that he was hiding from Indian Muslim extremists or that his life was in danger because of threats that originated in India is nonsense. And yet, so many people on social media, including those who should know better, seem to think that he was an Indian writer who was forced to flee because of threats in our country.


   The fatwa came from Iran and the men who were dispatched to kill him also came from West Asia. Many people associated with the book (translators etc.) were also attacked and some were killed. But all of the attacks took place outside India and, as far as I know, were not linked to any Indian Muslim group. Even the man who stabbed Rushdie appears to be of Lebanese descent.


   So yes, Salman Rushdie is a writer of Indian origin with a deep affection for this country. But, no, the threat to his life did not come from India.


   I shouldn’t really have to repeat all this. Any fool with access to Wikipedia can check it out. But you would be surprised by the misinformation floating around on social media.


   It is worth remembering that nearly all of those protesting about Salman Rushdie and his ‘insult to Islam’ don’t know if any insult actually occurred. To know that you would have to read the book. And hardly any of those who say that they have been hurt by the disrespectful references to the Prophet can really have been hurt because they have not read the book.


   In fact, the entire controversy over the ban on The Satanic Verses was based on ignorance and illiteracy. The MP Syed Shabhuddin, who had never read the book, called for it to be banned on the basis of interviews with Rushdie in India Today and Sunday. This call was echoed by many Muslim bodies whose members had also not read the book because it had not yet been published. The home ministry, headed by Buta Singh, who had not read the book, recommended a ban. And Rajiv Gandhi who had also not read the book, agreed to ban it.


 "It is not Islamophobic to point out that the reason Rushdie is in hospital today is because of violent Islamic fanaticism."

  One of the most ironic aspects of this whole saga is that people who could not possibly have been offended by the book because they had never read it said they were, nevertheless, offended. That situation persists to this day. All the angry Muslims on social media who suggest that Rushdie had it coming because he insulted the Prophet don’t know how he insulted the Prophet or, even, if there was actually any insult contained in The Satanic Verses, because they have never read the book.


   I blame the Indian government of Rajiv Gandhi for agreeing to ban the book without reading it on the basis of complaints from people who had also never read it. (If you care enough, the whole saga is dealt with at length in my memoir A Rude Life.)


   Why did the Indian government ban the book? Well, according to Rajiv Gandhi, because the home ministry believed that the protests could turn violent and lives would be lost. No book, the government said, was worth the loss of lives.


   It was a strange argument to make in a liberal democracy that claimed to respect free speech. The truth is that someone will always get offended by something or the other. The moment you start restricting free expression on the basis of some real or imagined slight or somebody’s claim that he was offended, you strike at the heart of a free society.


  Which takes us back to the themes of much of the social media commentary. Various pro-BJP handles ask: Why are people defending Salman Rushdie when they refuse to defend Nupur Sharma? Well, first of all, this argument is based on lies.


   When The Satanic Verses was banned, much of the media (most, actually) supported the ban on the book on the grounds that it helped keep the peace. Rushdie never got the support he deserved.


   Nor is there a great parallel between Rushdie, one of the world’s pre-eminent writers, and Nupur Sharma who is only a fringe element who tried to create trouble between India and West Asia and against whom action should be taken. (Not my view, this is the view of the BJP government.)


   But speaking for myself, I don’t believe Nupur Sharma did anything wrong. She has a right to free speech. She exercised it. I said so in this column in June. It is the BJP that did not agree with me and took action against her. So, the person to direct these questions to is JP Nadda who suspended her from his party.


   Judging by the tone of the social media campaign, it is obviously coming from some IT cell and is supported by the familiar professional Muslim haters. For these people, the attack on Salman Rushdie is no more than another opportunity to attack Muslims or to raise communal tensions.


   Equally, Muslims should realise that the actions of a dangerous minority damage global Islam. It is not Islamophobic to point out that the reason Rushdie is in hospital today is because of violent Islamic fanaticism. Sadly, this fanaticism is encouraged by some global leaders and, in India, by religious and political leaders who, when they offer bounties on the heads of those they claim have offended their God actually function as recruiting agents for the RSS.


   And finally, I am getting a little tired of all this insult-to-God stuff used by fanatics from all religions. If God is really so omniscient and omnipotent, then he can take care of himself. He can punish people who insult him in his own way in his own time. He has no need for your fatwas, your bounties, your threats and your knives.


   Each time you act as though it is up to you to defend God, you make your God seem small and ineffectual.


   And that may be the biggest insult of them all.



Posted On: 14 Aug 2022 06:40 PM
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