BY SHAJAHAN MADAMPAT
SIR Salman Rushdie, that beloved symbol of freedom of expression, has now turned Khomeini, so to speak, exposing, in an ironic twist of tale, the hypocrisy and double standards that marked the entire liberal case for unqualified and unrestrained freedom of representation.
The man, in whose defence the world’s intelligentsia mounted an intellectual blitzkrieg against the alleged medievalism of the Muslim masses, has threatened to sue the publishers of a book about him by a former police officer, Ron Evans. In his forthcoming book, On Her Majesty’s Service: My Incredible Life in the World’s Most Dangerous Close Protection Squad, Evans dares to paint a rather unflattering portrait of the writer, whose unflattering ways stirred up controversies ever since he began to write. Rushdie alleges that the book “destroys his character” and “presents wholly made up incidents as facts.”
Echoing his Muslim critics, Rushdie says in an interview with The Guardian: “This is not a free speech issue, this is libel — there is a difference between those two things. I can defend the truth, I will not have my character destroyed and presented to the world as something that it is not. I am not trying to prevent him from publishing his stupid book but if they publish it as it is there will be consequences and there will be a libel action.” Contrast this indignation with the Satanic Verses which describes a brothel in which all the sex workers take the names of the Prophet’s wives, who are revered by Muslims as the mothers of the believers.
“He is portraying me as mean, nasty, tight-fisted, arrogant and extremely unpleasant. In my humble opinion I am none of those things,” says the writer, who used the derogatory name Mahound for the prophet, a term that smacked of the crusades.
“It is an obscenity to suggest that I asked people to leave the room so that I could have sex with my girlfriend. I will not have that said about me,” avers Rushdie. This prudish protestation comes from the man who described Margaret Thatcher as “Maggie the Bitch” in his novel. He had this to write about white women: “Never mind fat, Jewish, non-deferential, white women were for ******* and throwing over.”
Ironically, Evans, the victim of the novelist’s ire, was a member of the Scotland Yard team which protected Sir Salman when he faced death threats. Compared to Rushdie’s favourite epithets to describe many eminent historical figures, Evan’s description of Rushdie as nasty and arrogant is rather mild. After all, not even Rushdie’s supporters consider him a paragon of good personal conduct and refinement. What Rushdie’s critics told then is exactly what he now parrots in his defence. “The simple fact of the matter is that nothing of this sort happened.”
The last two decades have seen many interesting debates, occasionally spilling over to the streets, on the holy subject of freedom of expression. Almost always, with few exceptions, Islam and Muslims were at the receiving end. The tone and tenor of the raging controversies seemed to suggest that the medieval mindset of the Muslims made them extra-sensitive to even well intentioned and mild criticisms. Many a writer, ranging from the quotidian pen-pusher to exalted names from world literature, lamented the intolerance of the Muslim community.
There was indeed a grain of truth in the charges levelled against the community. One always felt there were better ways of handling criticisms and vilifications. Thoughtless reaction to criticisms on the part of Muslim leadership has done enormous disservice not only to the reputation of the community, but also to literature! For example, the hue and cry over the writings of Taslima Nasrin, a third-rate writer by any reckoning, has elevated her to the level of an international celebrity. At least those who never read her books seem to think she is a great writer!
However, one point repeatedly made by defenders of the Muslim view point seemed to have always fallen on deaf years. The point was that each society had its own inviolable sanctities and sacred imaginations which define, to a large extent, the collective subconscious of people identified as a single bloc by virtue of nationhood, religion, culture or whatever. Muslims have their notions of the sacred and inviolable just as other societies have theirs; counter-narratives on the Holocaust are still a punishable offence in several Western countries. Though in varying degrees, all peoples, both on individual and collective levels, are sensitive to certain modes of representation. That is precisely why all cultures sought to distinguish between free speech and libel in one way or another.
The debates around Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses showed the appalling selectivity with which arguments were deployed in his defence, marshalling an array of liberal concepts to justify his distortion of a very crucial part of Islamic history. Many objective observers who tried to dispassionately understand the issue pointed out the double standards and chicanery that marked the debate. But Western intelligentsia and their supporters elsewhere largely ignored the arguments that called for a balanced approach to the whole issue, instead of looking at the issue of freedom of expression in absolute terms.
Now, that Rushdie himself has called his bluff and betrayed his own cause, true to his consistent pattern, it is perhaps pertinent to parody those statements made ad nauseam over the last few decades: Banning of books is a reactionary way of handling differences; the solution is to intellectually fight the contents of the book. A writer of Rushdie’s stature must not try to stop the publishing of a book. He must let the people judge the book and the opinions expressed therein about him, just as he wanted the people to judge the contents of The Satanic Verses. Courts of law are not the best places to judge the merits and demerits of books and films, but the wise republic of the readers and the viewers!
Shajahan Madampat is a cultural critic and commentator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org