Salman’s Atheist Shrine

| by Farzana Versey
It is not people of the faith that are fearful of their belief being damaged but the purveyors of phobia who are scared stiff that their little world is not as large as they’d like it to be.

(January 15, Mumbai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The timing could not have been more serendipitous and ironic. Around the time when the Deoband Darul Uloom made a demand that he should not be granted a visa to attend a literary festival, Salman Rushdie was genuflecting at Christopher Hitchens’, and by default his own, shrine in Vanity Fair.
Rushdie, Hitchens and Voltaire’s bust
Image (cropped version): Vanity Fair
It is rather interesting that labels like far right and far left, religion and atheism while seen as pockmarks on the faces of traditional practitioners become the rationale of the evangelical rationalist.
The seminary has gone on its usual tripe trip about hurting the sentiments of Muslims and there is a belief that this could be a ruse to garner Muslim votes in the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh. While the Muslim vote bank is a reality, the person in the street is not interested in a book, and is often not completely in tune with even the Quran. Is that not the reason they consult the mullahs over simple matters? These are uneducated and naïve people who do not even know their scriptures well enough. Would the majority of them care about a parody of the holy book called ‘The Satanic Verses’ written in a language they are not acquainted with, forget the magic-realism twists and turns? They would prefer to get clothes and other freebies from their candidates and not a reminder about a man living in the west who had a fatwa issued against him by a man in another country.
Alluding to the Muslim voters as bumpkins only interested in their religious rights and in a constant state of war for their faith only keeps the stereotypes alive. If someone is behind this move, then it begs the question: why are the mullahs being blamed? Why has it become a question of the infidel as victim? And those who say, “Don’t make an issue of it” are precisely the ones fanning the fires.
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The discussion has taken a full circle and it is liberal discourse that has travelled in a time machine back to1988. People snort that those religious goons burned copies without even reading the book. Were these liberals so adept at speed-reading? The one who first suggested a ban is a rationalist-pragmatist-agnostic (Khushwant Singh) who assumed there would be trouble. His assumption was lapped up first by another rationalist-pragmatist-believer (Syed Shahabuddin). The secular government banned it. If that had already happened, then who was feeding the mullahs pulp fiction? Why were copies made?
In fact, the whisper campaign started early. Those who had inside information were considered important. The publishers in Delhi probably sold out the lot in this mafia operation. Who wanted it so bad? The intellectuals and academics. Their interest in the Quran seemed to have peaked. I was gifted a copy of “the prize catch”. It came by courier wrapped with a mock cover and a brown sheet.
This is the wonder of it all. A primarily self-conscious satire of a scripture is treated with reverence. There is obeisance for one version of freedom of expression. Such a one-dimensional idea gives as much succour to its proponents as any supreme god does to devotees. This form of liberalism is monotheistic and suffers from righteous arrogance. As Rushdie writes, “I began to understand that while I had not chosen the battle it was at least the right battle, because in it everything that I loved and valued (literature, freedom, irreverence, freedom, irreligion, freedom) was ranged against everything I detested (fanaticism, violence, bigotry, humorlessness, philistinism, and the new offense culture of the age).”
His right is obviously the only right. The violence for his cause, both by those against him as well as the more lethal violence of inflicting thought by his supporters, was very much the “new offense culture” that he detests.
* * *
There are millions more who read holy books. Is their pleasure to be discounted? Why are those books never banned? Because, outside of the cocoon of pop history is the reality of a belief system. This system may be in opposition to the freer one, but soon enough the latter seeks to sanctify itself. It gets baptised in the salons. The safe zones preempt the battle, and perhaps prepare the stage.
Using Hitchens, Rushdie writes:
“He, too, saw that the attack on The Satanic Verses was not an isolated occurrence, that, across the Muslim world, writers and journalists and artists were being accused of the same crimes—blasphemy, heresy, apostasy, and their modern-day associates, ‘insult’ and ‘offense’. And he intuited that beyond this intellectual assault lay the possibility of an attack on a broader front. He quoted Heine to me: Where they burn books they will afterward burn people. (And reminded me, with his profound sense of irony, that Heine’s line, in his play Almansor, had referred to the burning of the Koran.) And on September 11, 2001, he, and all of us, understood that what had begun with a book burning in Bradford, Yorkshire, had now burst upon the whole world’s consciousness in the form of those tragically burning buildings.”
Joan of Arc did not write any book but, here we go again, there is the subliminal refuge of Belief, of being impaled at the stake. In fact, one might go further and even refer to it as the Cross, for the good authors felt as slighted, or even more so, about insults hurled their way. The difference lay in how cannily they used this. They carried around the nails, and rusty as they became over time, they kept polishing them because it was about the “world’s consciousness”. Here were the Twin Towers themselves.
* * *
It is not the people of the faith that are fearful of their belief being damaged but the purveyors of phobia who are scared stiff that their little world is not as large as they’d like it to be.
And they are tremendously in awe of the Establishment. Rushdie got his moment at the White House to sort out his ‘war’ with the help of his fanatical atheist friend. And as he reached the room where the President awaited him, Hitchens declared, “The Eagle has landed.” Salman takes great pride in this brush with power. However delectable his prose, you take the fatwa out of him and he won’t be this Goliath in the political stratosphere. His oeuvre seeks sustenance from the ‘better’ societies.
Rushdie’s tribute to Hitchens is an occasion to revisit the only site that can keep him a martyr:
“The spectacle of a despotic cleric with antiquated ideas issuing a death warrant for a writer living in another country, and then sending death squads to carry out the edict, changed something in Christopher. It made him understand that a new danger had been unleashed upon the earth, that a new totalizing ideology had stepped into the down-at-the-heels shoes of Soviet Communism. And when the brute hostility of American and British conservatives (Charles Krauthammer, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and Paul Johnson) joined forces with the appeasement politics of sections of the Western left, and both sides began to offer sympathetic analyses of the assault, his outrage grew. In the eyes of the right, I was a cultural ‘traitor’ and, in Christopher’s words, an ‘uppity wog’, and in the opinion of the left, the People could never be wrong, and the cause of the Oppressed People, a category into which the Islamist opponents of my novel fell, was doubly justified. Voices as diverse as the Pope, the archbishop of New York, the British chief rabbi, John Berger, Jimmy Carter, and Germaine Greer ‘understood the insult’ and failed to be outraged, and Christopher went to war.”
Can’t you see? The knight-to-be found his knight. There was no way out. Everyone was against a book. The earth shook. The clique went into seismic spasms. The Oppressed People were capitalised, typographically as well as literally. They continue to be. They do not know who Salman Rushdie is.
He arrogantly announces that he does not need a visa to visit India, he who had to once beg the rightwing parties in India to do so because he worked on their ancient heritage blather by invoking his roots. Now, with a government announcement, people of Indian origin overseas can vote too. The ‘Bombay boy’ will not do so. I am sure he will have some civilisational argument. The fact is, he does not care. He is not the classic outsider, the metaphysical maverick. He is a god who needs complete devotion from the praying liberals.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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