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Much Ado About Rushdie Julai 2, 2007

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.
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By: Farish A. NoorI was on a BBC radio programme recently, in conversation with a certain Minister of a certain Religious Affairs Department of a certain Muslim country. The topic of the debate was, of course, the recent furore over the award of a knighthood to the British author Salman Rushdie.

In the course of the programme, a number of listeners called in to add their opinions to the debate, with a considerable number of Muslim callers from Europe and North America decrying what they saw as the amateur theatrics of some hot-headed Muslims who had gone on the warpath, condemning Britain, the Queen of England, the West, the ubiquitous global Jewish-Zionist conspiracy, et al. for this affront to Islam…

I have to say that in my own quiet corner I was comforted by the fact that so many Muslim callers were wont to distance themselves from the mobs who were burning the British flag and effigies of Salman Rushdie in the streets of Karachi. But what irked me was the refrain of the Minister in question, who again and again repeated the same line: “A billion Muslims all over the world are outraged by this knighthood being conferred on Rushdie, who has insulted Islam and Muslims”.

Now at the risk of being impolite to the abovementioned Minister (and I hasten to add that Im no diplomat and do not wish to be diplomatic here), I would like to pose this simple question: Do you see one billion Muslims taking to the streets all over the world, burning the British flag and denouncing Rushdie?

No, what we have seen thusfar are isolated cases of calculated public anger and collective anxiety being whipped up by specific religio-political groups that have used Islam as the basis of their respective political projects and agendas. The demonstrations against Rushdie that have taken place all over Pakistan, for instance, were organised at the behest of the MMA alliance of Islamist parties that bring together the country’s loose assembly of Islamist parties and movements such as the Jama’at-e Islami, the Jamiat’ul Ulema-e Islam (JUI), the Jamiat’ul Ulema-e Pakistan (JUP) et al. These were not spontaneous acts of public outrage but rather planned and orchestrated demonstrations calculated to have maximum mediatic effect. And what an effect it has had.

For a start, the demonstrations we have seen in Pakistan and even countries like Malaysia show that many of these groups are wanting in focus and a sense of cohesive purpose. The reactivation of the demonised image of Rushdie has become a common tactic for Islamist movements worldwide, and it also helps that an overwhelming majority of the angered crowd have not even read his book The Satanic Verses, or any of his other works like Shame and Midnight’s Children for that matter! Now how does this expression of uninformed anger serve to improve the image of Islam and Muslims, one wonders?

I recall as a young academic in London in the 1980s that I was asked to lend my support to the anti-Rushdie campaign, to which I refused. The agitators who had asked me to sign their petition to ban his book were shocked and repulsed when I refused to put my name to such a document. In the face of their incredulity, I asked them “have you actually read the book from cover to cover?” To which I was served a reply even more startling: “No we haven’t read it but we know it’s a bad book.” From gems like these we are meant to cull the idea that Islam is a religion of reason and Muslims are rational agents? I was dumbstruck (for once) by the total absence of logic in their argument, and remain so still.

When I hear the name Rushdie mentioned, I think of the same Salman Rushdie who was writing in the 1980s at the time when Britain was under the rule of Margaret Thatcher, she of the foreigner-hating-ways. For many a young Asian academic and student then, Rushdie was our spokesman, our voice of reason, whose powerful commentaries, op-ed pieces, public lectures, etc. warned of the dangers of racialised communitarianism in Britain. He was the spokesman for the downtrodden, the poor marginalised migrants, the minority communities of Britain. His columns that appeared in the press lambasted, again and again, the racist policies of the Thatcher government and the racism inherent in the world of Occidental academia and writing. It was Rushdie who foregrounded and promoted the writing of Asian authors as English authors, so that their works would not be marginalised and relegated to the margins as ‘exotic’ literature from the Orient. Thanks in part of the efforts of Rushdie and others of his generation, literature from the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia has entered the mainstream.

Where, one needs to ask, were the Islamist parties then? In countries like Pakistan and Malaysia hardly a word was uttered by the so-called defenders of Islam about the rise of right-wing racialised politics in Europe, despite the fact that millions of Muslims (and Hindus and Buddhists) were living there.

So in the opinion of this author at least Salman Rushdie deserves the knighthood he has been awarded, not only for his services as a writer, but also as a social critic, activist and public intellectual who gave many of us – foreigners in Europe then – a place and a voice. Good on you, Salman – We’re proud of you bro.

Note: Prof. Farish A. Noor is currently visiting professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.

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