Salman Rushdie isn’t a popular figure in most, if not all, Muslim nations. Sorry for stating the obvious but sometimes the obvious has to be said. Since that fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 against the author for “Satanic Verses” and charges of blasphemy against Rushdie, he’s not exactly welcome at literary circuits in Arab slash Muslim countries (yes, they have them). So it did come as a bit of a surprise that he pulled out of Friday’s appearance at Jaipur Literary Festival citing security threats.
I say surprise because Rushdie has been a speaker at one of Asia’s most recognized literary festival before; he spoke at an event at Jaipur in 2007. Perhaps the scholarly folks at the Deobandi school of Darul Uloom missed his appearance then and decided to make up for it by kicking up a storm against his proposed trip to Jaipur.
Now India did ban “Satanic Verses” – funnily enough before Khomeini – but not any of his subsequent work and the writer has traveled to India several times since, without a visa since he doesn’t require one as a person of Indian origin. But it turns out that the Darul Uloom pressed all the right buttons when dealing with the government and demanding Rushdie not be allowed into India as he had hurt Muslims’ feelings in the past. Incidentally, Iran, under President Mohammad Khatami, in 1998 said it no longer supported any order to execute Rushdie.
To be fair, Rushdie said he pulled out of his own accord saying he had received credible information that his life was at risk if he attended the festival but not everyone is willing to buy this. Especially since the authorities who advised Rushdie of these threats didn’t name them.
Did I mention the state Darul Uloom is based in, Uttar Pradesh, is hosting elections next month? And that 18 percent of the state’s constituents are Muslim, a key group that no party seems to want to alienate.
And that when it comes to elections, all political parties are known to turn a blind eye to issues they fiercely champion, especially when in opposition. So if the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh say Rushdie shouldn’t be allowed in, presto, it is done.
This is not democracy. It is, as one Twitter user said, hypocrisy.
So once again, senility trumps sensibility and fanatics bulldoze their way with warped logic and the state acquiesces.
Except that this didn’t happen in Pakistan, or Iran, or Afghanistan, or any other “Muslim fanatic” nation where right-wing extremists have killed, maimed, bombed in the name of religion ─ and governments have kowtowed to them, never pursuing them with the zeal that is deserved.
This is India, a self-professed secular nation known for its democracy, its secularism but, sadly not its record on upholding freedom of expression.
Extremists of all religious ilks have bullied and beaten artists and minorities for expressing themselves and their faith respectively. And governments court such groups for votes, caring little for the fact that the more you cave to a bully, the bigger the bully becomes and before you know it you have a monster on your hands.
To some extent this is about more than Rushdie and whether he is a blaspheming writer or not.
India should have had enough faith in its state and security apparatus and reassured Rushdie that it would uphold his right to say what he wanted – as happens in any secular democracy, even if it is to the chagrin of sections of society.
(The writer is Editor of Al Arabiya English and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)