Salman Rushdie and Freedom of Expression

If they are for absolute freedom of expression let them first fight for it in the western democracies and let Mr. Rushdie write a book questioning Holocaust and other Jewish and Christian beliefs. I am sure he will not find a publisher and will be hounded by the Zionist lobby as former US president Jimmy Carter and Tushar Gandhi were in America for merely suggesting that the Palestinians have been wronged.

I would like to ask one fundamental question to all the friends, supporters and admirers of Salman Rushdie “Is the right to speech or expression absolute without any restrictions in any democratic society of the world?” The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kind, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of choice”. Article 19 goes on to say that the exercise of this right carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “for respect of the rights or reputation of others, or for the protection of national security or public order, or of public health or morals”. Under all the democratic constitutions of the world this right is commonly subject to limitations, such as libel, slander, obscenity, incitement to commit violence or a crime. Hate speech against any group, community, race, religion or colour is a crime in any free and democratic society of the world.

Those who read excerpts from banned Satanic Verses did not once condemn or question the right of Mr. Rushdie to abuse or insult a religion and its beliefs and religious personalities. Wouldn’t it have been in the order of things if these great champions of freedom of absolute and unfettered freedom of expression also had condemned Mr. Rushdie for hurting the sentiments of millions of people around the world.

The argument is that the book is banned but not the writer. The writer has committed the crime of hate and abusive speech but his freedom of movement cannot be restricted. Did Mr. Rushdie and his friends who are questioning Indian democracy, raise their voice when a renowned Indian Islamic preacher Zakir Naik was banned from entering Britain in June 2010 and latter banned by US. The argument of the British Home secretary was that he was being excluded because his repeated comments justifying “terror, when faced with terror” was evidence enough of his “unacceptable behavior”. Dr. Naik was invited by a number of British organizations to deliver lectures on “Islam and peace”. The Home secretary said coming to UK is a privilege not a right, and I am not willing to allow those who might not be conducive to the public good to enter the UK.” This is not an isolated case, hundreds of people with valid documents are stopped from entering these great democracies and their right to free speech and movement are curtailed without any reason, based on whims and fancies of some bigoted bureaucrats. Islamophobia has become so prevalent in these Western Democracies that sometime the mere name is reason enough to stop individuals from entering these countries even when they hold valid documents and invitations. Would those who say that by protesting against the participation of Mr. Rushdie people have committed a sacrilege against the very idea of freedom of expression, stand up for the people against whom this crime is committed every day in their beloved democracies?

I am no apologist for Dr. Naik or those who hold such beliefs as I am not for Mr. Rushdie’s absolute right to insult humiliate and abuse in the name of creative freedom. Democratic governments put restrictions on those they think may create some problem if they are allowed to enter the country. However nobody should assert that by doing so these governments are putting democracy in peril as Salman Rushdie claimed in his interview with an Indian t v channel.

People argue that the freedom to criticize and question is fundamental to human conscience and freedom of expression. I am totally in support of this idea. There are hundreds of books critical of Islam, the Holy Prophet or Quran. Some of these writings are offensive and full of misleading or distorted facts. But there has never been any global public outcry against these books. One can always reply to criticism by writing another book to counter such propaganda, but how do you reply to pure abusive and vulgar writing and imagery? Books and articles have been written in the last twenty years in reply to Rushdie’s Satanic Verses but for the common man, who is not a scholar, this remains a very emotive issue. The very title of the book Satanic Verses is offensive but we may overlook this in the light of an incident which in the eyes of some scholars took place in the life of the Prophet.

According to Islamic Studies scholar Anthony McRoy, what Muslims find blasphemous is the name “Mahound”, a derogatory term for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) used during the Crusades and which means the lowest creature from the depth of hell. In fact the most offensive part of the book are the abusive words in Hindi (gaali), freely used against Mahound by Gabriel Farishta, who was a Bollywood film star turned into an angel. Holy Mecca is depicted (god forbid) as a brothel staffed by prostitutes who take the names of Prophets wives, with Hazrat Omar the close companion of the prophet as the brothel keeper. Saladin the great Egyptian ruler, who defeated the Crusaders, is depicted as a devil or shaitan. Even the crusaders had nothing but praise for Saladin. Rushdie’s writings are so offensive that they cannot be quoted in any responsible and respectable magazine or newspaper. The result is that not only those who oppose him, but even those who support him, have either not read or understood the context in which Rushdie is creating his magic realism and it’s not so fictitious characters.

I was one those few persons who was offered the manuscript of the book before its publication by Penguin India to offer my comments as the publishers themselves were doubtful of the impact book will create in India. I recommended to the publishers that the book should not come to India as the communal situation at that point (1988) was not conducive to such writings due to the Babri Masjid controversy. Emotions were already inflamed and the book could be used by communalists on both sides of the divide to exploits passions and sentiments. The book was banned quietly by the government avoiding much controversy or protests from Indian Muslims. It is the fatwa by the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini which led to global protest and the larger controversy. Even then majority of Muslims opposed the fatwa. Indian Muslims at no point supported the idea of killing Rushdie.

However, the Western world, which was desperately looking for a convenient target after the decline of Soviet Union, picked up the chant to protect Rushdie and demonize Islam, Muslims and their governments. They spent millions of dollars not only for the sake of “right to freedom of expression” but to use this issue to garner political support to isolate Iran and justify their Islamophobia. Is it a co-incidence that the Satanic Verses unleashed the anti-Islam propaganda, which has lead to many unjustified wars, killing of millions of innocent people and demonizing a whole religion and its 1500 million believers around the world.

Even those who stood up for the right of Rushdie to come to the Jaipur Literary Festival agreed that those opposed to him had the democratic right to protest peacefully against his visit. Darul-Uloom Deoband said that if he apologises and edits the offensive portions from his book we will withdraw our opposition to him.

Votaries of freedom of expression will outright reject such an idea as a threat to this fundamental freedom. However, same Salman Rushdie and his publishers took no time in apologizing to Mrs. Indira Gandhi and editing the offensive portions from “The Midnight Children”. At that point he and his publishers did not take the moral high ground of absolute, unrestricted right to creative freedom. Is it because her lawyers had filed a libel case in British courts and they may have had to pay huge amount for this offence? The same people made huge amount of money from the controversy and turned the abusive writer into a hero, celebrity and a millionaire. Many British writers and a section of the media at that time alleged that the publishers stoked the fires of anguish and anger to exploit the controversy. Rushdie has always thrived on controversies and insults to known public figures of the sub continent. In his book “Shame” he made fun of all Pakistani leaders from Z. A. Bhutto to Ziaul haq. He has a right to do so but what offended my sensibilities was his depiction of Zia’s mentally challenged daughter Zain as a vampire which roams the streets of Pakistani cities at night and sucks the blood of innocent people. Portraying an innocent, and helpless challenged child as a vampire may be regarded as the height of literary genius by the admirers of Rushdie but in my opinion it is in extremely bad taste and should be condemned by all those who stand for the rights of differently-abled people.

If Rushdie had written the same things against Jesus Christ which he wrote against the Prophet he would have been prosecuted under the British blasphemy law which were partisan in nature and under them maximum punishment was death sentence. The law was abandoned by the British parliament in May 2008. However, at the time of the controversy in 1988, Rushdie took refuge in England to save himself from prosecution by arguing that he had not offended Jesus Christ, Bible or basic tenants of Christianity and therefore blasphemy law is not applicable to him.

Denying or questioning the holocaust is a crime in most of the European democracies. Many countries have broader laws that criminalize genocide denial. Michael Whine argues that Holocaust denial can inspire violence against Jews. Many prominent historians like Raul Hilberg, Richard J Evens, Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer and Christopher Hitchens have regarded these laws as limiting the freedom to investigate research and write. In fact many writers and journalists have either been prosecuted or hounded out of their countries of birth, even for suggesting that the claims about Holocaust may not be entirely true. I hope those who are questioning Indian Democracy and its inability to protect Rushdie will ponder over some of these restrictions and denial of the freedom of expression. Many books in U.S. are banned or edited for exposing the games played by CIA, in the name of national security. The list of books banned in some of these democracies is so long that it will take a book to list and describe them.

I don’t deny the right of people to eulogies Rushdie and regard his writings as litmus test for the protection of right to speech. In India we Hindus Muslims and believers of all faiths have lived together for thousands of years. In thousand years of Muslims presence in India we do not come across any writing abusive of Hindu gods and religious figures by any prominent writer or a poet. We do read the poems of Ras Khan in Brijbhasha eulogizing Lord Krishna, or Abdul Rahim Khankhana translating Ramayna and Mahabharat in Persian. A book can be written on the contribution of Muslim scholars and poets in propagating and appreciating Hindu gods, goddesses and religious books. In India there is hardly any example of writings by Hindu or Sikh writers critical of the Prophet or the basic tenants of Islam. I would therefore request the supporters of Rushdie not to impose their idea of freedom on Indian society. If they are for absolute freedom of expression let them first fight for it in the western democracies and let Mr. Rushdie write a book questioning Holocaust and other Jewish and Christian beliefs. I am sure he will not find a publisher and will be hounded by the Zionist lobby as former US president Jimmy Carter and Tushar Gandhi were in America for merely suggesting that the Palestinians have been wronged. Indian intelligentsia will do well to ponder over these issues dispassionately and not be swayed by Rushdie-ism and votaries of unfettered freedom of expression.

The writer is editor of Nai Duniya Urdu weekly

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