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THE MILLI GAZETTE
Rushdie and the Demonization of Islam
By Shad Shahid, The Milli Gazette
Published Online: Jan 26, 2012
Print Issue: 1-15 February 2012
When the mainstream media went to town depicting the absence of Rushdie as a loss for India’s liberal traditions and democratic ethos, it was indeed a naive analysis. To properly take cognizance of this matter and deliberate on its repercussions, a dialectical inquiry is necessary to contextualize the larger historical and literary issues touching the Rushdie affair. Not only does this issue impact freedom of speech, it is also part of the overarching narrative constructed by the Western intelligentsia regarding progress and civilization. The imperative is that, despite the overwhelming noise generated by liberal activists of all hues, there was simply no alternative for Indian Muslims but to oppose the visit of an individual who indulges in reinforcing a demonization and denunciation of everything that they visualize as sacred.
First and foremost, it goes without saying that there is nothing like absolute freedom of speech. Anyone who says so is at risk of fooling himself as well as others. To illustrate, no country worth its salt can tolerate disrespect to its national symbols – even in India, despite all the talk of ancient liberal ethos embedded in Indic culture, you cannot stand up and abuse the national flag or the national anthem or the Father of the Nation. Nationalism has become sacrosanct in the modern narrative, which is often used to further jingoistic tendencies in the masses by right-wing politicians.
Next, in order to specify Rushdie’s literary genre, we have to look back at the European tradition perfected in the Middle Ages which was bent on vilifying Islam as the Dark Other — Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was often painted in this literary tradition as the Anti-Christ and a paedophile and war-monger (may God forbid!) — Dante’s Divine Comedy is a perfect example of this kind of demonization. Historians and orientalists like Margoliuth and Bernard Lewis look upon Islam as a major problem to be tackled on the intellectual level by denouncing all its traditions as pagan in origin. A concerted effort was made to prove scientifically that the (Arab) Muslims are not descendants of Abraham, that Abraham never went to the Hejaz and that the Black Stone at Makka is a pagan relic rather than established by Ibrahim and Ismail (pbut). It is another matter that sometimes these overzealous pseudo-rationalists ended up making fools of themselves like in the case of Margoliuth who denied that Jahiliya poetry even existed — when this was picked up by one of his students in Egypt, the scholars of Arabic there cried foul and the fake history of Islamic scholarship by Westerners was exposed. Malik Bennabi has done a great exposé of the same in his works where he severely critiques those depicting the Prophet as either an epileptic or while being most generous, as having copied from the Jewish scriptures. It was Edward Said, the Palestinian professor who for the first time, revealed the subtle nature of Orientalism which has its hallmark in depicting the Orient as the land to be rightfully conquered and liberated (aka civilized) by the West. For one who is well-conversant with the same tradition, it is easy to locate wherefrom Rushdie has picked up his moorings – Ziauddin Sardar makes the same point in one of his writings while critiquing Rushdie.
Culture of Muslim-bashing
It should be borne in mind here that the demonization of Islam started by first of all cutting it off from its Abrahamic source — by illustrating against all textual evidence, that the son of sacrifice is Isaac and not Ismail (pbut). This was important because only once a conclusive de-linkage of Islam with the Judaeo-Christian tradition had been established, it could become easy to wage war against the heathens who threatened to overrun Europe. This paved the way for demeaning everything Islamic ranging from the alleged promise of 72 houris in Paradise to the number of the Prophet’s own wives – sexual deviancy was the next step in depicting Muslim culture, and one can see the manifestations of the same even in current western writings about Islam. The reverse impact this had on Muslim minds cut off from the richness of their own tradition, was in thinking of Islam itself as a monolithic culture, and not appreciating how to interact with the modern world. For instance, the Quran has already told that metaphorical verses are argued and deliberated upon only by those in whose hearts is a disease, and it is these very same verses which are often used by Orientalists to emphasize their point about Islam’s incompatibility with science or reason, a fact which can never sink in one’s consciousness unless one approaches text with biased mindset.
While Muslim armies only settled down to rule wherever they went from India to Spain, the European colonizer devalued history of the land and left the natives in an empty shell. In the words of Macaulay, the aim of European education in India was “to create Western-minded individuals who would be dark in skin but European in taste”.
As if the repudiation and intellectual draining of the Muslim mind was not enough, entire disciplines were constructed around the paradigm of Western supremacy — Anthropology is a perfect example of this kind of craftsmanship — the basic premise of an anthropologist rests in the assumption that Western civilization is the apex of human culture and refinement and all other cultural traditions are studied as poor imitations of the former. Thus Arab and by extension, Muslim (including South Asian) culture was at an underdeveloped tribal stage still to shed off its primitive ethos! It is only in recent times that an effort has been made by some scholars to study anthropology from a Muslim perspective.
Another manifestation of the same historical criticism, in which many Muslims themselves got entangled, was the denunciation of all Hadith literature as Chinese whispers. Thus, with utter disregard to the scientific tradition developed by the Hadith scholars, the entire corpus was sought to be rejected as mere aphorisms. This despite the fact that the modern-day Biblical criticism has itself learnt a lot from Hadith criticism. The objective, of course, was to rework Muslim tradition to make it malleable to new notions of European sensibilities. The frank discussions of marital and even sexual issues in Muslim tradition are interpreted as being a proof of Eastern promiscuity which reflects a tribal sensuality — forgetting that Islam or religion as a way of life, has no need to brush away any sensitive issue under the carpet. Thus Rushdie and his ilk feel no shame at giving fictional prostitutes the names of the Prophet’s wives, while critiquing Muslims for indulging in harems in the tradition of their Prophet!
Faith versus Nihilism
The larger issue in this maze of liberal emancipation is that one cannot delink Rusdhie and look at him as an actor in isolation — there already exists an established tradition of degrading Islam with all its nuances and cultural manifestations. It is amazing that India’s image can be affected by catering to the sentiments of some 18% of its population, but Switzerland becomes an ideal democracy while banning minarets on the basis of a majority vote. Yes, to prevent a democracy from degenerating into a mobocracy, one has to define certain red lines which cannot be impacted by group behaviour — however, the issue here is not one of freedom of expression as was falsely portrayed by the miniscule of over-the-top shouting television anchors — the issue here was an abuse and attack on the religious identity of a very large population.
It goes without saying that irrespective of the post-modern notion of the liberated individual, large sections of populations in both the East as well as the West, think of religion as the only way of life they know. The traditions of India, whether it is in the mutts in Karnataka or the Deras in Punjab or the ziyarats in Kashmir have always been a source of strength to its citizens. Even in Europe, the holiness of the Vatican and the Church has remained undisturbed. Local pastors cater to the religious needs of their localities in the US, which is the supposed liberal paradise. The liberal minority is itself most restrictive of freedom of expression by indulging in much clamour and little understanding of what shapes and defines the lives of large sections of peoples. It would not be too far to say that the majority finds religion liberating rather than restrictive, for man is at heart a spiritual and moral being whose thirst for the same can only be satiated by faith.
The contextualization of Rushdie helps us understand why precisely he is lapped up by the West as a symbol of expressive emotion while denying the same right to Muslims in their midst – for the uninitiated, Satanic Verses as a term is not invented by Rushdie, this term was propagated by the Orientalists as proof of the Prophet (pbuh) being overtaken by Satan while reciting the Quran and thus compromising and admitting of a multitude of gods. In stark contrast to this, the Quran has already said several centuries ago that no one can interfere with Divine revelation: “When you read the Quran, seek God's protection from Satan, the rejected one” (16:98). The nature of Revelation is such that it comes from on high, which the Quran describes as being “guarded against all rebellious devils” (37:7). At other places, the Quran affirms that everything in this universe is guarded by God, whatever we do is within His grasp — it is fine if one does not believe in God himself, yet to suggest that a Prophet receiving Revelation is getting inspired by Satan is the zenith of lunacy and blasphemy. Thus, while Revelation places a great importance on guardianship both by God as well as humans, those with a Satanic bent of mind are wont to degrade everything holy and break off the sanctity which appears to them as a yoke.
The war of words witnessed here is not between Islam and any other faith, but between the God-centered view of the universe with the theory of nihilism which ends up denying one’s own existence — Rushdie belongs to the same genre which insults the Virginity of Mary, whom the Quran describes as one “who guarded her chastity”. It is another matter that today by and large it is only a section of Muslims who hold these values dear and are eager to articulate their point of view. The tragedy here is that due to the ridicule heaped on Islam, it becomes difficult for ordinary Muslims to make sense of striking the balance between tradition and modernity and they either become desacralized or withdraw into their shell.
Where is the Loony Fringe?
Finally, it would be a safe assertion to make that most of those clamouring for the side of Rushdie have either not read the book, or not understood the tradition of which he is definitely a part. To compare him with MF Hussain is not really germane, because the latter is not part of any tradition of vilification of Hindu goddesses by Muslims. In fact, MF Hussain while not any paragon of virtue, has not strayed too far from what is already part of Hindu tradition in the artisan engravings at Khajuraho. Rushdie on his part has not only willingly become part of a well-established western tradition of abuse but is also guilty of treachery to the culture of the nation he was born into — it is no wonder that he had to run away to lead a lascivious life with unending affairs in the West. This is symptomatic of a number of ex-Muslims or born Muslims who make it their hobby to bash Islam and everything it holds sacred — whether it is Ayan Hirsi Ali or Irshad Manji or Ali Sina or Taslima Nasrin — Islam-bashing is the fastest way to get a Western passport and all the temporary luxuries of this life!
It is immaterial why Rushdie was not opposed on earlier visits or why he was opposed at the eve of elections. Irrespective of these sidetracks, the non-admission of Rushdie on Indian soil is a blessing in disguise, for people of all faiths can still hope to come to an understanding with each other about the purported secularization of tradition and demonization of Muslims, in particular. And yes, it is not just the loony fringe which demonizes Rushdie rather any believer with his entire soul would denounce the loony tradition of Islam-bashing.The author is a management graduate. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org