When I first heard of Salman Rushdie
I was at university. The Satanic Verses had set off a perfect
storm in India and around the world. The book was banned in India
following fiery protests by Muslims. Many died in Mumbai when
police opened fire on angry protesters. Then came Ayatollah
Khomeini's fatwa sanctioning the novelist's death, sparking a
global debate on free speech and "excessive" Muslim sensitivity.
One day, discussing artistic freedom in one of his lectures, Prof.
Isaac Sequiera, who headed the English department at Osmania
University and taught us American literature, launched a
blistering broadside against Khomeini's fatwa and attempts by
"some people" to curtail free speech. Prof. Sequiera was one of
those brilliant teachers who would draw you to the class day after
day. Yet it wasn't easy to stomach his critique of the Muslim
response to Rushdie's book, comparing it to the infamous Spanish
Inquisition. Was it the same thing?
The church burned “heretics” on mere hearsay — and everyone who
didn't subscribe to its worldview — at stake. When Galileo
suggested Earth was round, rather than flat as the church
insisted, he was given a chance to reconsider his opinion while he
spent the rest of his life behind bars.
Rushdie, on the other hand, has repeatedly abused his creative
license, and the gift of creativity, to assail a billion people's
revered icons. As someone born in a Muslim family, he knew what he
was doing and its possible consequences.
No freedom is absolute — not even in the anything-goes West.
Blasphemy is a serious crime in many European nations including in
Denmark. Every freedom is qualified. Every right comes with
responsibility. You can't go around happily waving your big stick
and hitting people in the name of freedom. The freedom of your
stick ends where my nose begins. And if you think you have a right
to offend, well, others have an equal right to take offense. If
Rushdie is free to exercise his creative freedom to attack
people's sacred icons, shouldn't his victims too have a right to
exercise their freedom of action to deal with him?
Of course, I couldn't say all this to my teacher. Blame it on my
moral timidity or the fact that I was painfully shy and the only
Muslim in the whole class. That was nearly two decades ago. Today,
as this row over Rushdie's participation in the Jaipur literary
festival rages on, I am amazed by the fact how little has changed
in this whole debate over the past two decades. The latest report
is Rushdie has cancelled his visit to India for the Jaipur
festival due to security reasons.
The Muslims are upset over the invitation being extended to
someone whose name has become a curse word for them. On the other
hand, the increasingly shrill voices in the media are crying
themselves hoarse as they invoke India's fabled tolerance while
ignoring the sentiments of the minority community.
Indeed, more than their concern for the nation's secular ethos,
it's their intolerance of all things Muslim that has them batting
for Rushdie. They defend his right to visit his “motherland”
oblivious of the fact that the man has repeatedly heaped abuse and
scorn on the same motherland and its icons in his books, from
Midnight's Children to Shame to The Moor's Last Sigh.
The late Premier Indira Gandhi took Rushdie to court over
Midnight's Children which describes her as a “black widow.” He was
forced to expunge parts of the book that had Sanjay Gandhi
accusing his mother of killing his father, Feroz Gandhi, by
neglecting him. Rushdie argued in court that it was only fiction,
only to be snubbed by the judge who pointed out that Indira and
Sanjay Gandhi were real people.
In the case of Satanic Verses too he hid behind the same fig leaf
launching cheap attacks on the Prophet, peace be upon him, and his
blessed household, outraging his billion plus believers.
The outrage was deliberate, just as most of his books have been
deliberately offensive and provocative. He loves to provoke and
offend because it sells in the West. And Islam and its icons and
followers have been a fair game for centuries. Free speech? Gimme
a break! Freedom and free speech have nothing to do with it. Even
the so-called liberals and Hindutva fanatics cheering for the
author and lecturing Muslims on tolerance know it. They love him
because the Muslims loathe him.
That said, the way this whole issue has been handled by Muslim
leadership — if there's such a thing as Muslim leadership — makes
one extremely uncomfortable. Except for Asaduddin Owaisi, the
young leader of MIM who saved the day once again, not one Muslim
talking head could survive the likes of Arnab Goswami of Times
Now, India's answer to Fox News. Once again the bumbling lot did
not merely fail to present their case explaining why Rushdie isn't
welcome, they managed to make a laughing stock of the whole
This week CNN IBN's Sagarika Ghose had two Muslim “leaders” pitted
against two “liberals” on the panel. One gentleman, an eminent
lawyer associated with the Babri Masjid case, had one hand on his
earpiece the whole time as he struggled to make sense of the
brutal attacks by the anchor and her guests. And studio guests and
audience couldn't understand half the things the other gentleman,
a former Maharashtra MLA, kept muttering in a chaotic mix of Urdu
and English talking of an “international conspiracy” against
Muslims. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Do these guys really represent and speak for a 200-million strong,
diverse community? More important, why do Indian Muslims get
repeatedly bogged down in the same old, festering issues when we
have far more serious challenges and problems staring us in the
As much as I am repelled by Rushdie, I can't help being intrigued
by the question that has been raised by others - why now? Rushdie
has apparently been quietly and frequently visiting India over the
past few years. Does it have something to do with the assembly
elections in five states, including Uttar Pradesh, next month as
some suggest? Given the propensity of political parties to raise
such issues to excite the easily excitable Muslim public opinion
so they could soothe it later, the possibility cannot be
Of course, Rushdie will remain unwelcome as long as he remains
unrepentant. And by protesting against his abuse, Muslims are only
exercising their democratic rights and the suggestion that they're
undermining India's future is ridiculous. We cannot, however,
allow characters like Rushdie and controversies like these to
define us and our agenda forever. We must choose our battles
wisely. For we have far bigger wars ahead of us.
From our political and economic dispossession to our situation in
education and employment sectors, the level of our deprivation is
simply overwhelming. A TV documentary this week, again on CNN IBN,
on the legendary weavers of Benares, literally fighting for
survival with their emaciated, starving children, should be a
must-watch for every Muslim. It's the same story with the once
famous artisan communities in UP, from Aligarh to Moradabad to
Bareilly and Kanpur, and general state of affairs across the
Gangetic belt. Indeed, the condition of Muslims in north India,
once the power center, is today the worst in the country. When
will Muslim leaders and those who claim to champion the community
take up these real issues? When will we stop expending all our
time and energy on fighting phantoms and chasing chimeras?
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a
Gulf based commentator. Write him at
The above article first appeared in the leading Saudi daily,