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Sunday, October 18, 1998
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Lessons from Salman’s Satanic story

By Daya Kishan Thussu

AS Salman Rushdie adjusts to his new life of freedom from state-sponsored death threats, it is perhaps time to reflect on the lessons of this sorry saga.

While the Iranian government’s decision to disassociate itself from the death threats to the beleaguered author is hailed as a victory for freedom of expression, the way in which Rushdie reacted to the news has left many unhappy.

The bearded novelist, now known for his modesty, has no regrets about publishing The Satanic Verses or any intention of apologising for the pain it has caused to the Muslims worldwide. Instead, he told a crowded press conference in London: "I could ask for apologies I have had 10 years of my life deformed by this."

For the 51-year-old author born in the year of India’s Independence, this lost decade has meant living in secrecy in different locations in Britain under round-the-clock vigilance of the special security forces, which cost the British tax payers millions of pounds. This isolation has led to a divorce, three books, a marriage and a son.

In Britain, the most important impact of the Rushdie affair socially has been on race relations. Internationally, the affair has negatively influenced the West’s relations with the Islamic world. This decade has also seen the transformation of Islam into the West’s main adversary, with the demise of communism.

For Muslims across cultures, languages and regions, The Satanic Verses was and remains an offensive book. Many of them, however, may not approve of the fatwa (the Islamic death sentence) which the Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued against Rushdie, ironically on St. Valentine’s Day in 1989.

Even before it was published in September 1988, the book had generated more than its quota of controversies. Most of this took place not in Britain — where both the author and the publishers (Penguin) were based — or in the Islamic world, but in secular and largely Hindu India, Rushdie’s birthplace.

Weeks before its publication, a well-known Indian author and journalist, Khushwant Singh, warned about the potential for trouble that Rushdie’s book was capable of creating.

Singh, a non-Muslim but well-versed in Islamic culture, who also acted as editorial adviser to Penguin Books India, told an Indian magazine then: "There are several derogatory references to the Prophet and the Koran. Mohammad is made out to be a small-time imposter."

Though the publishers appeared to be satisfied with the content of the novel, the Government of India, then led by Rajiv Gandhi, a secular-minded politician, heeded Singh’s warnings.

India became the first country to ban the novel, just weeks after it was released in London, fearing that it could inflame an already delicate communal situation in India. Yet, feelings were running so high that anti-Rushdie demonstrations in parts of India and Pakistan claimed several lives.

In Britain — home to more than one million Muslims — a majority of whom come from the Indian sub-continent — the resentment was strong. And as the copies of the novel were ceremoniously burnt in Bradford, along with chants of "Death to Rushdie", race relations nose-dived.

Such actions invited derisory remarks from the media, with some commentators drawing parallels with an earlier era of book-burning during the Nazi regime. The liberal press-run by journalists who profess little or no "faith" —seemed to find it difficult to understand how a mere book could offend people so deeply.

The media’s tendency to tar every Muslim with the same brush fed on resentment whose roots lay in continuing racism. Many self-styled community leaders did their bit to fan the flames, calling Rushdie by turns, a man of loose morals, an Indian agent, even a Zionist.

The irony was supreme: a man, who was seen to "speak" for the British immigrants, reviled by his own people. However, it is debatable what he had common with them, given his background. Rushdie comes from a wealthy and Westernised business family and was educated at English public schools and at Cambridge University.

What made the Muslims in Britain particularly angry was the fact that there was no legal recourse. British blasphemy laws do not cover Islam. The episode and its coverage in the media created a renewal of racist abuse against the British Muslims, contributing to the creation of several fundamentalist Islamic groups.

Did Rushdie, born into a Kashmiri Muslim family, not have a sufficient understanding of Islam? Did the publishers and all their expert readers and legal advisers fail to see beyond the "magical realism" of Rushdie’s engaging prose? Or does the episode show how little the West knows and, even worse, cares for the sentiments of the non-Western world?

Now that the British and Iranian governments have reached a diplomatic breakthrough, this story can perhaps come to a happy ending. Iran’s relatively liberal President Mohammed Khatami told journalists in New York that as far as his country is concerned the Rushdie affair was "completely finished."

Khatami, a moderate cleric who was elected last year, heads a government desperate to open up Iran to the West, to end its isolation, in force since the Islamic revolution of 1979. The eight-year war with Iraq and the continuing sanctions from the United States, which still considers Iran as a state that sponsors terrorism, have stunted the growth of an oil-rich country.

The Rushdie affair was one of the key stumbling blocks in normalising relations between Britain and Iran. In addition, Britain’s close ties with the US, until recently the "great Satan" for the Tehran regime, has not helped.

The resolution of the Rushdie problem should make it easier for British firms to exploit commercial possibilities in Iran. Already, German and French companies are queuing to win lucrative contracts in the oil and gas industries.

For Western energy corporations, Iran has assumed special importance in recent years, given its growing influence among the oil-rich republics of central Asia with which it shares religion and culture.

In the post-Soviet era, Iran has been increasingly improving its relations with central Asian republics to ensure that it controls the main access for new oil and gas discoveries on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Good relations with Iran have taken on new importance, as pipelines through Iran could be the safest route to move the central Asian oil on the global market. So despite all the jubilation in the liberal press about the victory for freedom of speech, which Rushdie says it was a "privilege to be allowed to defend," the real breakthrough might be about a new oil pipeline.

As for the much-mispronounced fatwa, it is still in force, with London acceding to Iranian claims that it cannot be revoked.

However, Rushdie can breathe a little easier, perhaps reflect a bit more about The Satanic Verses, while working on his new novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, to be published next May. — Gemini NewsBack

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