Opinionista Kalim Rajab 23 March 2015

Rushdie and Dala: In defence of the ‘indefensible’

I think it’s fair to say that Salman Rushdie represents a defining existential and religious conundrum for questioning Muslims of my generation. It is the ultimate test of our faith. Here is an author who, with his other works, wrought images and brushstrokes of immense beauty and profoundness and who changed the course of post-colonial literature. Despite this, despite all his brilliance, all these works have been undone by one work of his; a work shocking for its vitriol and insensitivity.

Since 1990, when the infamous fatwa was issued, Salman Rushdie has been a lightning rod for probing many of the foundational aspects of our faith; the ultimate test in how to balance tolerance, peace and Islam’s love for rational thinking, on the one hand, with our sacrosanct and unimpeachable love for the Prophet Muhammad on the other.

The Prophet is, after all, the central figure around the religion. From an early age, we are taught that to love Muhammad is to love God. This perhaps explains why, as the Sufi academic Sadia Dehlavi has noted, “We have seen throughout history that Muslims do not react to attacks on God, but will never allow any disrespect for the Prophet.” It’s a crucial point, establishing why, for example, Richard Dawkins has never become a target for vilification by Muslims, but Rushdie has.

But should he be killed for it, and should others who disagree be met with violence for this viewpoint?

I first met Zainab Dala shortly after I wrote my first article on Rushdie in this publication. She was an incipient author and mother of two young children, and we met to explore the idea of a progressive book aimed at young South African Muslims which could stimulate, in a sympathetic and balanced way, debate and critical thought on some of the challenging issues facing our community today. Our thinking was to get contributors from multiple and varied viewpoints. I, like her, didn’t want my children growing up and being force-fed ideas on Islam in a monolithic way, which is what happens quite frequently in our community. In the end, life got in the way and the project didn’t get off the ground (although the incidents of last week may suggest that perhaps it is time to do so). In the interim, Zainub continued her work and managed to complete her debut novel, What About Meera, which was published a few weeks ago and which was subject to a book launch last week.

From what I have seen, she has blossomed as an author, and writes with a sympathetic, haunting voice. The hard apprenticeship of one who intends to write – reading the works of others, being a sharp-eyed observer, thinking – is what she has spent time doing. Of the writers which she professes to admire, Rushdie is among them – but this is the Rushdie of Midnight’s Children, of Shame and of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, not the Rushdie of The Satanic Verses. And as an author, she is hardly a revolutionary. So when she mentioned her admiration for Rushdie’s writing style during the book launch, it was done not to utter a revolutionary war-cry of counter-jihad, but as a brave new author; paying homage to the undeniable brilliance of his other works.

I completely understand how The Satanic Verses continues to be a source of much humiliation and angst for both moderate and orthodox Muslims throughout the world. In fact, I share this view. (“What was he thinking?” I say, wringing my hands in despair, for the millionth time, as I write this). And on a wider level I’m completely sympathetic to the view held by many Muslims who are suspicious of a holier-than-thou attitude prevalent among Western liberals, whom they accuse of fishing out the freedom-of-speech card only when it is associated with insulting Muslims. So in that sense, I ‘get’ that it is perfectly understandable for people to walk out in protest during Ms Dala’s launch last week when she praised Rushdie’s writing style, or for those who do not support his killing to receive criticism, as I have had.

In my case, the reason for my not being prepared to support the killing of Salman Rushdie is because of my faith – aware as I am of how ironic this may sound. For, as I have said before, “What Rushdie wrote about the Prophet was horrible. Yet, 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 – that articles of faith are inherently strong enough to withstand attacks on them, no matter how radical they may be.”

This is my viewpoint. I suspect there will be many who disagree, and who will be shamed that I can defend something like this. I deserve your opprobrium for my viewpoint, if you do not agree. And so do those who share this viewpoint, as I suspect Ms Dala does. But fight me verbally on it. Read history and Islamic philosophy and remember a time when Muslims met insults with self-restraint. Read the other books by Salman Rushdie, and tell me that you aren’t moved. But don’t be a coward and resort to violence, as you did with Ms Dala.

Go to the mosque; stand knocking at the door 
Live all your days with drunkards in their den 
Do anything you want to do, my friend 
But do not seek to harm your fellow men.

Mir Taqi Mir, 18th century, Lucknow, India DM

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