Perhaps only a few of us have not heard of Salman Rushdie, a renowned British Indian novelist and essayist, who has been critically acclaimed throughout the world and been a recipient of the Booker Prize. His fourth novel The Satanic verses gained immense popularity as well as criticism. After the book got published, a year later, on Valentine’s Day in 1989, the political leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini announced a fatwa against Rushdie’s book.
So, what exactly is a fatwa? It is basically a religious decision issued by mufti who is seen as an Islamic scholar. In Salman Rushdie’s case, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa directing Muslims to kill the author.
So, it becomes important to understand the context which forced this leader to issue a fatwa. This allows us to focus our attention to the novel, raising the question of what exactly is the novel all about. This novel is a fictional account of two men, following the faith off Islam, who are trapped between the need to follow the religion and the temptation to adopt the modern culture of the West. The first man somehow survives by returning to his roots while the other man, Gibreel, forced by his spiritual need to believe in God and his intellectual inability to return to his religious sect, eventually carries out an act of suicide. Basically, even though the plot doesn’t propagate ideas of apostasy, it seemed to have instigated a section of population who claim that the book mocks their faith and is blasphemous.
The act of issuing a fatwa led to numerous attempts of assassination and caused a severe threat to Salman Rushdie’s life. However, it went in vain as he was eventually protected by the UK government and was hid safely under its protection. People who were connected to him also suffered. For instance, the translator, Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death. It has been alleged that Rushdie spent half of his day searching for his son Zafar, before he actually sought protection under the UK government. The headline of the London evening paper read: ‘EXECUTE RUSHDIE, ORDERS THE AYATOLLAH’. “Salman had disappeared into the world of block caps,” wrote the British essayist and novelist, Martin Amis. “He had vanished into the front page”, he further stated.
For years, the book wasn’t allowed to be displayed in shops all around the world. The dangerous situation created as a result of this book being published, became more and more violent in nature. In India, the published book was banned by Rajiv Gandhi’s government due to pressure from the Janata Party as it was considered hate speech directed towards a specific group of the society.
It is clearly evident from the situation that prevailed after the publication of this book that his ideology didn’t go hand in hand with the views of the followers of the Quran. Salman has reiterated the fact that religious writings must also be open to discussions and interpretations. “Why can’t we debate Islam?”, Rushdie asked his audience, in a 2015 interview, “It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being skeptical about their ideas, even criticizing them ferociously”.
This book received both positive as well as negative feedback. The most commendable quality of Rushdie is his courage towards projecting his religious ideas in the public sphere. Neither did he hesitate to express his thoughts, nor did he hesitate to discuss the later criticisms that his book received. After The Satanic Verses, Rushdie continued to publish another book, called Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which he dedicated to his son. Salman used his brilliant skill-set to address this book to children as well as adults. For young readers, it functioned as an adventurous fantasy story, but for adults, each statement in the book opened new arenas for thought and carried a deeper meaning. One of the major themes discussed in the book is the amount of leverage we as citizens enjoy in using our right to freedom of speech and expression. It makes us question whether we are actually allowed to utilize it to the full capacity.
Many prominent people provided their own thoughts on this book. Sir Geoffrey Howe, the Foreign Secretary (1983-1989) of the British government claimed, “The British people, do not have any affection for the book … It compares Britain with Hitler’s Germany. We do not like that any more than the people of the Muslim faith like the attacks on their faith contained in the book. So, we are not sponsoring the book. What we are sponsoring is the right of people to speak freely, to publish freely.”
Therefore, the question that arises is whether we are actually able to use our freedom of speech in the world which promises to guarantee it. Is it allowing us to speak, write or even express ourselves freely?
Picture Courtesy- The Conversation