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Right to Be Rushdie


Tradition has it that Abraham, a revered Prophet for Jews, Christians and Muslims, never enjoyed his meal except in the company of guests. At mealtime one afternoon, he was hungry and distraught for he could find no one to break bread with. Someone did appear on the scene at last who could keep him company. But the Prophet hesitated, for the man was not a follower of his faith. Even as Abraham struggled with his dilemma, he received a revelation from Allah: What is this Abraham? I gave life to this man and sustain him just as I sustain you. And you have problems even sharing a meal with the man?

Tradition also has it that, much closer to our own times, the highly regarded Sufi saint from Iraq, Rabia Basri, was one day found charging down Basra city's main street, a mashal in one hand and a bucket-full of water in the other. When asked what she was up to, the devout lady coolly replied: "I am going to set fire to Heaven with the torch and douse the flames of Hell with the water." Why on earth had she chosen such an outlandish mission? So that any worship of Allah, henceforth, would be purely out of love for the Divine Being, not for the lure of Heaven or the fear of Hell, was the response.

Many more accounts can be narrated, including from the life of Prophet Mohammed himself, highlighting the tolerant strand within the Islamic tradition. Yet, several thousand years after Allah's injunction to Abraham to grace faith with tolerance, the message has still to capture the imagination of far too many people who are proud to be Muslims. How else does one account for the fact that the very mention of two six and seven letter words brings the blood of so many followers of Islam to the boil?

The news that Salman Rushdie, the fugitive author of The Satanic Verses has, at long last, been granted a visa by the Union government to visit the country of his birth has brought fire-breathers, like the Naib Imam of Delhi's Shahi Jama Masjid and Maulana Kalbe Jawwad from Lucknow, growling out of their dens. But the most explicit instigation to kill has come from the Mumbai-based builder, Akhtar Hasan Rizvi, who must have taken an oath to defend the Constitution of India before being allowed to occupy his seat in the Rajya Sabha. "If Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie is carried out in India, it will be a proud day for the country," he reportedly said at a street-corner meeting in the Muslim pre-dominant Madanpura locality in Mumbai, last week.

Such pronouncements should cause no surprise, for thus do such leaders tend their flock. But what is really disturbing is the fact that on the question of Rushdie, even many of the otherwise sober-minded and rational Muslims seek the safety of silence, or tie themselves up in knots when they choose to, or are asked to, take a stand.

For example, well-known Bohra reformist, Islamic scholar and friend Asghar Ali Engineer from Mumbai told The Times of India, in response to the visa being granted to Rushdie, that the writer is free to go where he likes but was quick to add that the Indian government must refuse him the visa! Why? The hurt sentiments of Indian Muslims. Morally, the argument lies on the same plane as a Bajrang Dal activist from Gujarat who might argue that Muslims or Christians have every right to practice their faith, provided they build no mosque or church in the state because that will hurt Hindu sentiments? And this from a person who, for the 'crime' of asking for reforms within the Bohra community, has been socially ostracised, hounded, beaten and bruised by the henchmen of Syedna Burhanuddin.

A Supreme Court lawyer from Delhi, Danial Latifi, who is normally balanced in his views, wrote in his letter to Communalism Combat last November after the government of Iran had declared it no longer intends to act on the late Khomeini's fatwa: "Under classical Islamic law, a non-Muslim resident of a Muslim territory (known as a zimmi, a protected person) is undoubtedly not punishable for blaspheming the Prophet of Islam. But in order to avail of this privilege, Rushdie would have to say that he is a non-Muslim, which perhaps he is unwilling to do". The 'problem' is that Indian law does not take its inspiration from classical Islamic law. And what if Rushdie refuses to oblige?

There can be no doubt that what Rushdie wrote about the Prophet and his wives in his work of fiction 10 years ago is sacrilegious and blasphemous to the extreme. That is why it inflamed Muslim sentiments like little else ever can or may. Ask most Muslims and they will tell you that to a point a Muslim can tolerate an insult to Allah; but an insult to the Prophet, never! Unfortunately, or otherwise, people like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen leave no middle-ground for any theological, moral, intellectual, political or even tactical pussy-footing. What shall we do with Rushdie? The likes of the Naib Imam and Akhtar Rizvis are absolutely clear about what they want. Therefore, in the struggle to gain the attention of the ordinary Muslim, an intellectual or activist who beats around the bush condemns himself or herself to irrelevance. The choice is clear: You either side with the fatwawallahs and go for Rushdie's jugular, or you defend their right to their views, however, outrageous, blasphemous and hurtful such views be.

How can one defend the right of a person who blasphemes the Prophet and his family members in such vulgar, obscene and abusive language? It is the duty of Muslim intellectuals and others to explain a few elementary points to the ordinary Muslim: Theocratically speaking, Islam has stipulated punishments for crime against a state, society and its members; but for blasphemy and other sins against faith, the right to punish rests exclusively with Allah. Politically speaking, when you grant to Rushdie the right to his views, it does not mean that you also support his blasphemous ideas; rather, you strengthen that very fundamental principle of a secular-democracy from which you derive your own right to your faith - the freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. Societally speaking, it is true that Muslims continue to nurse a deep hurt that Rushdie caused them by his writing 10 years ago. But it is equally true that Indian Muslims live in the midst of millions of Hindus who nurse a 1,000-year-old grievance, real or imagined, against what they believe Islam and Christianity did to their faith. If Muslims cannot forget a 10-year-old wound, what do they expect from their Hindu neighbours holding on to a centuries' old memory? Human rights wise, we all have to understand that minority rights grow out of the right of every human being to dignity and certain fundamental freedoms, of which the right to dissent is one. You cannot have minority rights in a society and yet deny the same right to the minority within the minority - the individual human being. Democratically speaking, nothing prevents India's Muslims from publicly demonstrating their hurt provided the show remains visibly non-violent, both in intent and action. If there is violence, even in the use of language, Muslims must ask themselves whether such action contributes to the building of a culture of tolerance in this country, or whether their action makes them indistinguishable from that of their arch-enemy - the saffron brigade.

Finally, strategically speaking, of course the BJP has made a shrewd move to shift public debate from the saffron brotherhood's concerted assault on Christians to that of the intolerance and fanaticism of Muslims. Can Muslims afford a counter-strategy that plays right into the hands of the Sangh Parivar?

- Javed Anand
Communalism Combat, Bombay

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