Rushdie Knighthood: Flippant thoughts on Sir Salman

That sword might come in handy

I searched and searched everywhere on Google News for a grand international Muslim protest over the awarding of a knighthood to British author Salman Rushdie. All I found was Pakistani MP’s talking about diplomatic crises and some ruptures in Iran.

Apparently one group of Pakistani Mullahs has decided to award Usama bin Ladin the award of Saifullah (Sword of God) in retaliation. I’m sure Queen Elizabeth will be shaking in her heels over such a frightening thought. Another group has offered 10 million rupees to anyone who beheads Rushdie. The way Pakistan’s economy is going, that amount of money should buy me an upgraded PC.

Whoops, I almost forgot to mention protests by one of Malaysia’s opposition parties.

Thankfully, there hasn’t been a peep out of anyone else. I hope it stays that way. However, who knows where all this may go? For some Muslims, burning flags and effigies (and, in some cases, even embassies) seems to be the preferred method to respond to an offence of religious sensibilities. Its as if we think the best way to protest the honour of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God be upon him) is to disobey him!

Given the mute response to Rushdie’s knighthood across most of the Muslim world (including among Muslims living in Australia), it seems the fundies arent having much fun. But where does it go from here? To understand this, heres a bit of history.

Fatwa futility?

In 1981, an advertising executive turned author named Ahmad S. Rushdie published his second novel. Midnights Children is a terrific read, a wonderful journey into the lives of ordinary Indians and how independence and partition affected them. It provides an amazing study of relations between different religious communities in the Indian sub-Continent.

Its probably Rushdie’s best novel. Or so I’ve been told. Despite being a child (or at least grandchild) of the Indian partition, I’ve actually never read the novel. In fact, I’ve never read any of Rushdie’s novels, including his fourth, best selling (and I’ve been told, his worst) work.

The Satanic Verses might have been one very ordinary novel. I might be able to produce a better novel by throwing the words of every Crowded House and Midnight Oil song into a bag and randomly pasting them onto a page.

Yet thanks to the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, The Satanic Verses became Rushdie’s biggest seller. So big a hit that the British government was forced to show its appreciation by throwing in a few security guards to keep Rushdie company around the clock.

One could argue that Khomeini issued the fatwa in an effort to gain some attention. Or perhaps to create a distraction. His attempts to export his Islamic revolution were being jettisoned by sectarian attacks, resulting in reduced support from (largely Sunni) Muslims. Further, things in Iran werent looking to rosy thanks to the West’s backing of Saddam Husseins invasion of Iran.

Khomeini was not the only leader to make use of the Rushdie factor. And as we saw with the Danish cartoons fiasco, a host of Muslim leaders are quite happy to manipulate religious sensitivities they’d otherwise ignore or suppress.

What better way to garner support than to use wedge politics? Heck, it works for Western politicians like Aussie Prime Minister John Howard. Find someone or some group we can all hate and spend lots of time fanning the fires against them. Still, I cant accuse Howard of ever issuing a death sentence against anyone (apart from Afghan and Iraqi civilians). He’s happy for his troops (and other people’s children) to participate in other peoples wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Where does fiction end?

I wonder how many anti-Rushdie Muslim protesters actually read The Satanic Verses? No prizes for guessing. The great Muslim mathematicians of yesteryear didn’t invest the zero just to make arithmetic easier.

Some hostile non-Muslims (or, in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, ex-Muslims) quote verses from the Qur’an in an effort to show that I believe in beating wives or slaughtering infidels. They want you to believe that I am a threat to you. I despise their antics because I know they are quoting the Qur’an out of context in an effort to have you suspect me. They distort the meanings.

So there you have it. I dont want non-Muslims to despise me and other Muslims. I want non-Muslims to believe me when I tell them that the verses being quoted are being taken out of context. At the same time, some Muslims are quite prepared to quote a work of fiction by a novelist as an excuse to cause him harm. Make sense?

This also begs the question: How on earth can a work of fiction be regarded as blasphemy? Heck, it isn’t real. Its just fiction. You read it knowing it doesn’t describe real events. Nor is it meant to.

But then, where does fiction end and reality begin? Or vice versa? I ask myself this question each time I scan the opinion pages of some of Mr. Murdoch’s newspapers. So much fiction in such little space!

Some days back, Mr Murdoch’s only Australian broadsheet published an article by a woman who would like to be Salman Rushdie if only she could write better. Irshad Manji is a Canadian Muslim writer who thrives on controversy and is desperate to get a fatwa to improve her own booksales.

Manji’s major claim to fame is that she re-discovered the concept of ijtihad (roughly translated as independent juristic reasoning), a claim she shares with Usama bin Ladin and a host of other Muslim controversialists.

Manji’s article laments the recent response of some Pakistani lawmakers to the recent award to Rushdie of a Knight Bachelor for his services to literature. What made Manji particularly upset was that Pakistani MP’s spent so much time worrying about Rushdie and so little time focussing on issues of poverty and women’s rights. For a change, Manji did not blame Islam itself but rather “hypocrisy under the banner of Islam.” I doubt many Muslims would disagree with her, though that didnt stop cultural warrior sub-editors at The Australian newspaper from giving this article the headline “Islam’s the problem.”

Holding all Muslims responsible

Manji poses this question in The Australian: “In a battle between flaming fundamentalists and mute moderates, who do you think is going to win?”

Meanwhile, across the Tasman Sea, the Wellington Dominion-Post asks in its editorial: “How would the typically laid-back, live-and-let-live Kiwi react were Pakistan or Iran to threaten death to a Kiwi author who had criticised Islam and the Prophet? Probably not well. And they would expect Muslim New Zealanders to react likewise. Perhaps the grimmest part of the latest Rushdie kerfuffle is the deafening silence from the thousands of moderate Muslims who have made Britain their home. That does not bode well for the author or religious tolerance in his adopted homeland.”

Why on earth should Muslims in Australia or New Zealand or the UK or US or anywhere else have to comment and pass judgment on what Muslims in Tehran or Lahore are doing? What’s it to do with us? Why must we express an opinion about the statements of mullahs on the other side of the world that we have never met or even heard of? And isn’t the fact that many of us are too busy or too disinterested to express an opinion not in itself promising?

Using this fuzzy logic, we should hold all Hare Krishna activists responsible for the LTTEs suicide bombing attacks in Sri Lanka. Or better still, lets insist on comment from Malaysian shop keepers of Tamil background at the Masjid India commercial district of KL. Who cares if they have never been to Sri Lanka? Who cares if many probably cannot even speak Tamil? They are Hindu. They must have an opinion. And their silence must be deemed troubling.

I hope Western newspapers such as the Dominion-Post ask similar questions of Kiwi Jews during the next Israeli offensive in Lebanon. Then again, I hope they don’t. No one should have to put up with this kind of infantile reasoning.

Islamic blasphemy?

I’m not aware of anytime during the thousand-year-plus Muslim renaissance when Muslims had a problem with allegedly blasphemous books. In fact, Muslims almost turned blasphemy into an artform. On the eve of the Crusades, one Syrian Muslim scholar named Abul Ala al-Ma’arri (his surname indicating he was from the town of Maarra in Syria) was told about these nasty uncivilised European crusader thugs who even resorted to cannibalism. And his response?

“There are only two classes of people in this world those with lots of religion but little intelligence and those with lots of intelligence but little religion!”

Around a century later, in the Spanish Muslim city of Cordoba, one Sheik Musa bin Maymoun bin Abdullah al-Qurtubi was placing the finishing touches on his famous Arabic theological text called Dalalat al-Hari’in (Guide to the Perplexed). The Sheik-cum-physician devoted part of the book to comparing the three Abrahamic faiths Islam, Christianity and Judaism. He concluded that Judaism was superior to its younger spiritual twins.

You’d think that, writing this kind of hubris, Qurtubi though himself some kind of rabbi. Indeed, he was! Jews refer to him as Moses Maimonides. Muslim rulers of his day honoured him. Among them was Saladdin, who appointed Maimonides as Chief Medical Officer of his army. Yep, the Muslims liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders with the help of an allegedly blasphemous rabbi!

Returning to Rushdie, it isnt just Muslim militants who campaign against his books. Rushdies 1996 book The Moor’s Last Sigh dealt with Hindu religious chauvinism in India, and lampooned the head of Mumbai’s Hindu fascist RSS party Bal Thackeray. The Indian government of the day effectively banned the book, and Hindu militants threatened Rushdie with their own deadly “fatwa.”

Perhaps that tiny minority of Muslims who love wasting their time and energy on protesting against writers have realised banning books and threatening authors achieves little more than making these authors damned rich!

Irfan Yusuf is an associate editor of altmuslim.com and a Sydney-based lawyer whose work has appeared in some 15 mainstream newspapers in Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia. He also writes regularly online for NewMatilda.com, Malaysiakini.com and Crikey.com.au.


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