Rushdie: Long shadow of the fatwa

Salman Rushdie

Its twenty three years now. On 24th February 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses”. There was nothing very new about a religious leader calling for the murder of a writer because he did not like his books. Or perhaps more precisely: because he vaguely sensed irreverence in his expressions without even going to the bother of reading a line. Religious leaders, if only powerful enough, have always claimed the right to silence any voice that does not sing their song. Not only Islam - the history of Christianity is full of Khomeinis, indexing books and burning “heretics’ alive. Dogmatism cannot stand intellectual confrontation. It needs heavily guarded, air-tight protectorates to survive.

New about this fatwa was mainly that Iran’s “Supreme Leader” brazenly extended his “right” to ban and kill beyond the borders of his country and beyond the borders of Islam’s “protectorate”. He annexed the liberal West to his hunting ground. Had Rushdie been an Iranian writer living in Iran, many would have conveniently ignored his murder. But being a British citizen in London, they could not. His life had to be protected. On the question of his right to free expression, however, opinions differed. It was a widespread fashion to blame the victim rather than the religious perpetrators of the outrage. The Rushdie case shamefully proved how deeply ingrained the argument of religious censorship was in the metropoles of the free and enlightened world - and how shaky the idea of universal human rights. The apostles of cultural relativism could use the chance to spread their dangerous propaganda. It proposes that religious fundamentalists should be allowed to kill because it's their culture to kill.

Richard Dawkins and Sanal Edamaruku
Richard Dawkins and Sanal Edamaruku at the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival

Twenty three years after the fatwa, the echo is still reverberating. India, Rushdie’s birth land and the world’s largest democracy, gives an inglorious example. The Satanic Verses are still banned, their author remains a persona non grata – at least in election times. In January, the Rajastan government forced Rushdie under bizarre circumstances, to cancel his announced speech at the high-profile Jaipur Literature festival. Competing for the more than 18 per cent Muslim votes in the ongoing elections in Uttar Pradesh, various political parties seemed in rare agreement about one thing: that a low blow against Rushdie could be politically very profitable. Meantime police investigates against four courageous authors. They had expressed their solidarity with Rushdie by starting their presentations in Jaipur with reading from the Satanic Verses.

[24th February, 2012]