Salman Rushdie is back in the limelight in the Islamic world – this time as Sir Salman. His inclusion in the Queen’s birthday honours list this year has rekindled memories of 1988-89, when the publication of his controversial book The Satanic Verses provoked orthodox Muslims. The book was declared blasphemous and Iran had placed a price on the author’s head.
It is not just Rushdie who is under fire. The British government is also viewed as being in the wrong and has criticism heaped on it. But the fact remains that very few in the Muslim world have read The Satanic Verses which is banned here. Those who have read it would not publicly admit it for fear of being branded as blasphemers themselves. It will be difficult to find a Rushdie fan in Pakistan. And no one would ever defend Rushdie along the lines of ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’
Yet many find the vociferous reaction intriguing. With so many grave problems of governance, economic development and social adjustment posing a challenge for the Third World, the enlightened section of opinion here feels that ‘Sir Salman’ is hardly worth the fuss.
Hence the field has been left open to the anti-Rushdie critics who have traditionally used religion to promote their own political ends. The knee jerk response from different quarters reflects their zeal in competing with one another in their display of anger and disapproval to establish their love and reverence for the Prophet of Islam. If in the process they can score a few political points too, they stand to gain.
The reactions have varied in their intensity and nature. The mildest, if one may call it so, was the resolution adopted by parliament condemning the British government for knighting Salman Rushdie and demanding that the title be withdrawn ‘to avoid offending Muslims’. The resolution was passed unanimously in a rare show of unity between the government and the opposition.
Beyond that the protests took different forms. The Pakistan Foreign Office summoned the British envoy in Islamabad to convey its ‘deep disappointment and resentment’, describing the move as betraying an ‘utter lack of sensitivity’ on the part of the British government. Coming at a time when the Musharraf government is under attack for its role as a ‘faithful ally’ of the US and Britain in their war on terror, this stance was designed to demonstrate the government’s independence.
For others, the knighthood issue was seen as an occasion to establish their Islamic credentials. The clerics used the mosques to denounce the author of The Satanic Verses and the British government in one breath, while the religious parties rushed to mobilise their followers and hold rallies where the Union flag was burnt. The Pakistan Ulema Council retaliated by creating the title of Saifullah (the sword of God) and conferring it on Osama bin Laden. Some traders offered head money for killing Rushdie. There was also a call for Pakistan to leave the Commonwealth.
There was more political than religious passion in these reactions. Small wonder the government and the opposition used this as an opportunity to embarrass each other. The Minister for Religious Affairs, Ejaz ul Haq, who happens to be the son of the former military strongman Zia ul Haq, was embroiled in vitriolic exchanges with the Pakistan Peoples Party chairperson, Benazir Bhutto, whose father had been executed by General Zia. The minister had said that the knighthood would ‘encourage extremists to legitimise suicide bombing’. Ms Bhutto demanded his dismissal. Promptly came the rejoinder – she was pleading Rushdie’s case.
Benazir was confronted with the demand made by another rival, the Sindh chief minister. Publicly renouncing the honours bestowed on his ancestors by the British, Mr Arbab Rahim challenged Ms Bhutto to do the same. We do not know what happened to the medals Mr Rahim was photographed with. But no one responded to Ayesha Siddiqa, the author of the controversial book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. In a newspaper column she suggested leaders in Pakistan should demonstrate their ‘honour’ by returning to the government the massive estates that their ancestors were awarded by the British.
Ironically it needed a conservative cleric to (almost) hit the nail on the head. In a TV interview, Dr Israr Ahmad said that honouring a writer like Salman Rushdie was a provocation like the Danish cartoons were last year, but did Muslims have to overreact and fall into the ‘Western trap’?