Perhaps nowhere is this brought into such sharp relief as on the issue of Salman Rushdie, the hugely controversial author whose presence, or lack of it, caused such uproar last month at the Jaipur Literary Festival, which I attended.
Jaipur is the world’s premier literary event. Yet as it was besieged by the threat of violence by unknown elements, I was forced to re-examine the nature of creativity, censorship and dissent – especially for modern Muslims. Knowing just how much controversy Rushdie had elicited for over 20 years in the Muslim community in South Africa, I asked a fellow South African, also a young and educated Muslim like me, for her views. Well, she said, betraying her pluralistic outlook, I feel very sad that he was not allowed to attend. But she quickly added that she wouldn’t publicly voice these opinions back home in order to respect her parents’ views.
As much as her first statement gave me hope that perhaps a softening in young Muslim attitudes was imminent, so her caveat threatened to make my hopes stillborn.
Yet for us Muslim South Africans, it needn’t be this way.
I am severely tested by Salman Rushdie. He is my favourite writer, an “imaginist” whose impregnable, dreamlike, multi-layered and sweeping prose has transformed the very essence of writing. There is little exaggeration in this statement – as anyone who could scarcely have believed that such a book as Midnight’s Children was possible, will testify. There is universality to his genius which led, at Jaipur, to the finest authors, thinkers and bibliophiles in the world unflinchingly finding common cause with him and his travails. His backdrop is that of the unsettled world of the immigrant. His concepts are ones which confront all migrants, disillusioned with both cultures they continually traverse between: the insufficient one from the old world which they are bound up in, and the alienating one they join. All of us, depending on how far back we travel, are immigrants; and all of our kin have faced the questions of identity and alienation and the struggles for conformity which he dreams of. Few authors before or since have been able to express this disorientation as powerfully as he has done, or to express such empathy with immigrants’ experiences.
To read and love Rushdie, then, is to swirl in fragile ideas and to delight in daring thought.
But, as a Muslim, to read The Satanic Verses is also the ultimate experience in tolerance. Again, this is no exaggeration. In it, amidst numerous dreamlike sequences in which reality is indistinguishable from the imaginary, the very essence of Islam is called into question. The Prophet Muhammad is a false prophet. He is a manipulative, deceitful man little suited to God’s great purpose. The Archangel Gabriel is a weak creature easily turned from his true task. The Divine Revelations from God are miscommunicated, doctored, and worse, are made up by a man to suit his requirements. After the Prophet’s jubilant entry into Mecca, the resentful Meccans secretly keep a brothel filled with 12 prostitutes, each one named after and mimicking the personalities of the Prophet’s wives. Upon his death, it is suggested that one of the heathen goddesses is the female equivalent of God. And then, in its denouement, it is all conveniently revealed to be a nightmare and not in fact the truth. (A little too conveniently, like Pam waking up in Dallas to find out that the entire Season 8 was a dream.)
All these ideas are extremely hurtful to Muslims and demeaning to their faith as at face value it insults their Prophet and calls the divinity of their religion into question.
But does it matter?
As a Muslim, I feel little need to feel insecure about an idea, as demeaning and blasphemous as it may be. My faith is far too entrenched to feel threatened by an opposing viewpoint, or an artist’s licence. The Prophet of my faith believed in the unerring centrality of ideas, the better when the power of these ideas could wash away closed thinking. He never closed down debate. Throughout his life, he was subjected to ritual humiliation, but he never succumbed to wanting to murder as revenge for it. He never condoned the killing of those who opposed him. Rather, he taught peace, and that all abuse should be borne by patience. And, ironically, this is ultimately Rushdie’s message – articles of faith are inherently strong enough to withstand attacks on them, no matter how radical they may be.
Young Muslims in South Africa face a momentous test. Post-apartheid democracy has unleashed a myriad of long-denied opportunities for us. We are free to go to whichever universities we like, to choose whichever professions we like, to think what we like, to socialise and live amongst whomever we choose. Many of our parents were at the forefront of the opposition to apartheid, and they – like us now – subscribed to the notion of democracy, liberal values and free speech. Today I find it difficult in my community to find a Muslim of my generation and education levels who does not describe their political and value system as “liberal” – just look at personal homepages of Facebook or Twitter as an insight.
Yet being liberal bestows on it a multitude of responsibilities. It is not a passive belief system. One of the onuses is a belief in the right of free speech. And ultimately, if we think deeply enough about it, the right of free speech is only the right of free speech if it includes the right to offend.
Offence is not comfortable to live with, but it is something which allows societies – and religions – to advance. Many of the great Islamic civilisations, from the Abassids in Arabia to the Safavids of Persia, from the era of al-Andalus to the Ottoman period, were great because they weren’t content with the worlds and societies which they found. Instead, they were instilled with a deep desire to push forward the boundaries of all that had come before them. In all of these Islamic civilisations, the influence of alternative thought, of satirists and those who pushed the envelope on conventional thought, was indulged and given loose rein. Perhaps it was because the Muslim intellectuals of those civilisations realised that their Prophet was the ultimate radical of his day, bringing with him such distasteful ideas to his society that he was initially shunned by it.
Young Muslims may choose not to subscribe to this view of offence – but then they should not call themselves liberal. Ultimately, if we are to be critical Muslims of the twenty first century in this country, we need to be secure enough in our faith not to instinctively resort to anger and violence when opposing viewpoints are aired – no matter how distasteful. We may not like it, and sometimes we may be deeply offended by it, as in the case of Rushdie. But this does not mean that we should not allow it to be aired. This is the true test of freedom of speech and for me that it is the test of being a critical Muslim. DM
Kalim Rajab was educated at the Universities of Cape Town and Oxford. He has worked in the diamond industry in London and now works in financial services in Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.