L'affaire Rushdie and free speech - Part II

IN Media Freedom | 02/02/2012
While the dust has settled over 'the Ghost who (didn't) walk' in Jaipur, the debate over whether the entire episode destroyed or protected freedom of expression rages on.
FREE SPEECH HUB brings together a quick compilation of different strands of opinion on this issue, not all of which we may agree with. In Part II, Shahid Siddiqui urges the intelligentsia not to be swayed by ‘Rushdie-ism’.

 Write, Wrong 

(Reprinted from The Indian Express, 28 Jan, 2012)

Here is a fundamental question to friends and supporters of Salman Rushdie: Is the right to speech and expression absolute, without any restrictions, in any democratic society? The right to freedom of expression is recognised as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 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 democratic constitutions, 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 supported Rushdie said that the book, The Satanic Verses, was 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 Rushdie and his friends who are questioning Indian democracy, raise their voice when the Indian Islamic preacher Zakir Naik was banned from entering Britain in June 2010 and later banned by the US? The British home secretary then said “coming to the 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 the whims and fancies of some bigoted bureaucrats. Islamophobia has become so prevalent in these Western democracies that sometimes mere name is reason enough to stop individuals from entering these countries. 

There are hundreds of books critical of Islam, the Holy Prophet or the 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? 

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 parts of the book are the abusive words in Hindi (gaali), freely used against Mahound by Gabriel Farishta, who is a Bollywood film star turned into an angel. A brothel is staffed by prostitutes who take the names of the Prophet’s wives, with Hazrat Omar, the close companion, 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 of those few persons who was offered the manuscript of The Satanic Verses before its publication by Penguin India to offer my comments, as the publishers themselves were doubtful of the impact the book would 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 exploit 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, the majority of Muslims opposed the fatwa. Indian Muslims at no point supported it. 

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 demonise 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 coincidence that The Satanic Verses unleashed the anti-Islam propaganda, which has led to many unjustified wars, killing of millions of innocent people and demonising a whole religion and its 1,500 million believers around the world.

Salman Rushdie and his publishers took no time in apologising to Indira Gandhi and editing the offensive portions from Midnight’s 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 might have had to pay a huge amount for this offence? The same people made huge amount of money from the Satanic Verses controversy and turned the abusive writer into a hero, celebrity and 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.

If Rushdie had written against Jesus Christ what he wrote against the Prophet he would have been prosecuted under the British blasphemy law, which was partisan in nature and under it the maximum punishment was the 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 the basic tenets of Christianity and therefore blasphemy law was not applicable to him.

Denying or questioning the Holocaust is a crime in most European democracies. Many countries have broader laws that criminalise genocide denial. Michael Whine argues that Holocaust denial can inspire violence. Many writers such as Raul Hilberg, Richard J. Evans, Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer and Christopher Hitchens have regarded these laws as limiting the freedom to investigate, research and write.

I don’t deny the right of people to eulogies Rushdie and regard his writings as the litmus test for the protection of right to speech. In India, believers of all faiths have lived together for thousands of years. In the 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 poet. We do read the poems of Ras Khan in Brijbhasha eulogising Lord Krishna, or Abdul Rahim Khankhana translating Ramayana and Mahabharata into Persian. A book can well 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 tenets 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 Western democracies. 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.

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