Commentary: No Satan, just Salman
Bigots baying for the blood of celebrity novelist and freshly knighted Sir Salman Rushdie, from Iran to Pakistan to Malaysia to Srinagar, are back in business, albeit with a slightly farcical hiss. However, this time round their rage has turned not so much on the "apostate" novelist but on the not-so-great Britain they have come to see as the blood brother of the almighty America in stigmatising and attacking Muslims.
The British queen's knighting of the Booker-winning novelist and author of The Satanic Verses, accused by some Muslim clerics of blaspheming Prophet Mohammed, has kindled anew bigots' fantasies of persecution by the arrogant and smug West that has come to equate Islam with terrorism and hatred, especially since the infamous 9/11 attacks on the very heart of America.
Samuel Huntington, the American pundit historian who famously predicted the clash of civilisations a while ago, could not have foreseen that Rushdie, of all people and historical forces, could become a poster boy of his pet theory.
Add to this the humiliation inflicted on the Muslim pride on an almost daily basis in the two most intractable theatres of conflict in the post 9/11 world: Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US has found in Britain a rock-solid willing ally. Put together, what one has is a combustible mix that feeds rage and paranoia of Muslim zealots who sup on perceived injustice, thrive on intimidation and spurn arguments to protect their turf.
It is this sense of wounded pride and insecurity, which has fed protests in some Muslim countries like Iran and Pakistan against the knighthood of Rushdie with active collusion of the political establishment in those countries.
But amidst all this hysteria, part wilful self-deception and part politics, the point being missed is that such posturing will only end up in hardening Islam's cleavage with the West, irrevocably cutting off any meaningful dialogue, with catastrophic consequences for a globalising world.
More tragically, lost in all this din and rhetoric of the clash of civilisations is the fate of dissent and the predicament of the exilic writer and artist in times of manufactured consent.
One would imagine 18 years - since Iran's Supreme leader imposed fatwa on Rushdie asking Muslims to kill Rusdhie - is a long time to leave fiction as fiction, and not see it as the emanation of a satanic mind who has since incarnated himself in many personae: fugitive, social butterfly, op-ed writer for The New York Times, dandy and celebrity lover of a woman half his age.
Much fiction and polemics have flowed from the famous pen since he lived in exile in London under the shadow of a gun for more than a decade as Britain's most famous fugitive. They may not be the vintage Rushdie who could "chutneyfy" language with the skills of a sorcerer or infect readers with profound insights, lacking the charms of
or dark ironies of
The Moor's Last Sigh
, but it shows the triumph of the storyteller over hate-filled diktats of zealots.
Rushdie may have moved on, but it is the fate of bigots to stay suspended in some timeless zone where facts can't touch their fundamentalist fantasies. What is more distressing amid this renewed orgy of 'hate Rusdhdie, burn his book' slogans is India's disturbing silence and its tactful refusal to stand up for the Mumbai-born writer, who put Indian writing in English on the global literary map, on the pretext that it can't risk offending over 150 million Muslims in the country.
In 2000, when Rushdie last came to India to receive the Commonwealth Prize, he spoke famously about his desire to "re-connect" to the country that nourished his muse and is the preferred habitat of most of his fiction. But India has so far responded to his overtures only half-heartedly and kept a strategic distance.
In the neighbouring country, the reaction has predictably bordered on the paranoiac, with some reports saying that Pakistan is planning to formally approach the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Conference to get Britain to knock off that snotty prefix to Salman Rushdie. One only wishes these reports are mere speculation.
Try hard as they might, but succeed they will not. In a witty poem March 6, 1989, just days after the famous fatwa, Rushdie artfully parodied all the "good names" his detractors tossed to stigmatise him like "self-aggrandising, Satan, self-loathing and shrill" - "the type it would clean up the planet to kill". He ends this poem asserting the triumph of the artist's dreams over brute facts. "Still, nameless-or-faceless or not, here's my choice: not to shut up. To sing on, in spite of attacks,/ to sing (while my dreams are being murdered by facts)/ praises of butterflies broken on racks."
Ten years later, Rushdie is the same fiercely independent spirit rejoicing in his "un-belonging", which he celebrates as the artist's only true home and "his wounds" which he calls "a writer's strengths from which will flow his sweetest, most startling dreams".
Sadly, even though he continues to sing and even win honours, he is mostly in the news not so much for his books, but because of bigots' attention grabbing loud but misplaced rage. As Rushdie wrote memorably on the tenth anniversary of the fatwa: "Amid the cacophony of the professionally opinionated and the professionally offended, may a voice still be heard celebrating literature, highest of arts, its passionate dispassionate inquiry into life on earth, its naked journey across the frontierless human terrain, its fierce minded rebuke to power and dogma, and its trespasser's fearless daring."
Fearless daring of writers and artists versus fears of fundamentalists: this is the real battle, and not the much-touted clash of civilisations.