Were a long flowing white beard synonymous with immense wisdom, discord would cease to exist and peace would reign supreme. Unfortunately however, that is not as rampant as we would like. On the other hand, the aforementioned white bearded men seem to have an addiction to spice and sensationalism; sentiments they are usually bereft of by virtue of their religious beliefs. As a result these geriatric souls leave no stone unturned in trying to make the most of a scandal.
In such a scenario had Salman Rushdie’s impending arrival in India for the Jaipur Literature Festival not caused a stir, more than just a handful amongst us would’ve sat up and taken notice. Why should his return be such a cause for concern though? We’re all fully aware that India as a country does not dwell in the past and always believes in looking forward; therefore, to find the answer we must go back to the year 1988 when Mr. Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses was released.
Another exercise these mullahs are particularly adept at is misinterpreting any written statement, be it from a novel of from a cookbook for that matter. So it didn’t come as a surprise when they mistook Mr. Rushdie’s choice of title to imply that the Quran itself was being touted as the ‘Satanic Verses’ or when translated in Arabic, ‘verses from evil’.
Anybody who is familiar with Mr. Rushdie’s writing and appreciates it would not run screaming blasphemy to the nearest police station knowing fully well that Satanic Verses is meant to be a fictional piece of work. But that is exactly what happened. The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, went to the extent of issuing a fatwa against this modern Islamist. The fatwa called upon Muslims to execute this heretic for he must ‘incur the wrath of God and be unsuccessful in his quest towards maligning the Prophet’. It also served as a warning to those who might be foolish enough to insult the ‘sacred belief of the Muslims’.
Considering the novel was written in English for a Western audience and was much appreciated for the literary skill it displayed, the book along with its author was banned in several countries including India. Moreover, that wasn’t the end of the atrocities. A reward was announced for the one who would ‘terminate that anti-Islamist’. Apart from several assassination attempts on Rushdie, bookstores were bombed, copies of the book were burnt, several translators and publishers were attacked and quite a few were killed.
Whatever the time period, to say the furor was justified would be pushing things more than just a wee bit. This reaction which gave fanaticism an entirely new meaning took half the world with surprise. The concept of freedom of speech and action became the hypocrite’s fable and mullahs were pleased.
Although the fatwa has been withdrawn and Mr. Rushdie has paid a visit to India in 2007 causing not more than a few excited whisperings, elections and a controversy are quite a potent combination. While BSP has turned the EC ruling of covering up Mayawati’s statues to its advantage, the Samajwadi Party in an ingenious move has sought to turn the Rushdie advent as its own trump card. The fact that the Doeband Seminary has demanded that Rushdie be not allowed to attend the Literature Fest later this month has therefore come at the most opportune time. Obviously, since Muslims account for 18% of the vote bank, their sentiments have to be taken into consideration.
What these Politicos and the Fatwa-issuing Mullahs have failed to grasp however is the fact that we are no longer living in the 90s! Much to their dismay the youth, be it Islamic or non-Islamic, condemns this ideology of banning any work of art or culture that may be bold. A shielded atmosphere is regressive and banal in the extreme.
I have a feeling that this year’s Lit Fest will see the maximum turnout. Not because of the literary greats that’ll be gracing the Festival with their presence this year but because of our tendency to revel in the scandalous and the sensational. The hype will make it all the more worth it.