The shocking attack on author Salman Rushdie by a youth who was not even born when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa for his death for insulting Islam, has raised a furious international reaction, with political leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron swearing to stand by him in the fight against obscurantism.
While official Iran was silent, ultra conservatives celebrated, even as a Pakistani announced a bounty of $20 million for the beheading of outspoken Netherlands MP Geert Wilders. Wilders, who has campaigned to ban the Quran, has received plenty of such threats after the attack on Rushdie by 24-year-old Hadi Matar, who struck at least 15 times, indicating a ferocity of no mean order. The incident could be seen as an attack on freedom of speech, or a political statement at best. At worst, it is an attack that justifies killing another in the name of religion. All are unacceptable. But the last is by far more dangerous.
The motive so far
Already, reports in US media are linking this to Iran, with Hadi Matar seeming to sympathise with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). There does seem to have been an uptick in hostile Iranian activity recently, with a member of the IRGC charged just days earlier for an assassination plan of former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Earlier to that, a man was arrested with an assault rifle outside the home of an Iranian Opposition activist and writer Masih Alinejad who has since condemned the attack on social media. But both of these incidents seem politically motivated — after all the IRGC has reasons to loathe the US, including the targeting of its almost revered commander Qassem Soleimani — rather than religious.
Thinkers like Masih Alinejad challenge the ‘revolutionary’ (read undemocratic) order in Iran, making them a threat to insecure political or military heads. There are others in that category. Remember the suspicious death of activists like the brilliant Karima Baloch in Toronto, dissident journalist Sajid Hussain killed equally mysteriously in Sweden, and the attempt on blogger Ahmed Waqas Goraya in Rotterdam by a British citizen of Pakistani descent. All of these people, and other dissident Pakistanis abroad, lead lives almost as dangerous as Salman Rushdie did. And it seems, Pakistan was a lot smarter in its elimination strategy. Meanwhile, it appears that political motivations overrule the religious in the Rushdie attack. This could be geopolitics at the top and Iran could be in trouble. But at the striking range it’s still hatred of a very high order.
Those Satanic Verses — the religious belt
Then there is the high probability of a religious motive. Rushdie comes from a liberal Kashmiri Muslim family, and had little reason to annoy Iran specifically, or the Ayatollahs in particular. It’s as well to remember that the opposition to the book predates the fatwa, and followed immediately after he was awarded the Whitbread Award in the UK in 1988.
The book, The Satanic Verses, was seen as blasphemous for various reasons that include the character called Mahound, who appears in dream sequences, and was said to be a thinly disguised representation of the Prophet, among other issues. The riots in Manchester began almost immediately followed by bloody riots in Pakistan. India, under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, became the first country to ban the book, and even issued a travel ban on him, under pressure from Muslim Members of Parliament. It was after these events that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on February 14, 1989 calling on all Muslims to execute not only the author, but all those involved. It seemed like a shrewd political move. What was still called Bombay erupted a week later, after a crowd marching peacefully to the British mission suddenly turned violent after shots were fired by unknown gunmen. At least 12 people were killed. Then came riots in Srinagar where Imam Bukhari endorsed the call of the Ayatollah. Rushdie expressed remorse at hurting Muslims, and again embraced the Islamic faith, with little result. In 1991, his Japanese translator was stabbed to death near Tokyo, and his Italian translator beaten nearly to death possibly by an Iranian. Later, his Norwegian publisher was shot and seriously injured. But by 1998, Iranian President and officials were saying that Rushdie faced no threat from them. But the conferral of a Knighthood by the Queen in 2007, led to rioting again in Iran and Pakistan.
In 2012, Rushdie refused an invitation to the Jaipur Literary Festival due to protests from the Darul Uloom Deoband, and an apparent intelligence assessment of an assassination threat from the Mumbai mafia, but was probably a case of an excess of caution by the then Congress government. Over time, others have vociferated against him, strangely the only cause that seems to unite Shias and Sunnis, despite their bloody wars against each other. All this over a book that nobody had read. Or possibly even seen.
And in South Asia, Danger Beckons
Salman Rushdie’s tragedy is simply an addition to hundreds of others, some well-known like Samuel Paty, a French teacher beheaded for showing pupils caricatures of the Prophet, and others virtually anonymous like Notan Lal, imprisoned for 25 years in Pakistan’s Sindh province over similar charges. Over time, the charge of “blasphemy” has grown to monstrous proportions, with ‘ill-educated clerics demanding death even for the most minor of charges. Pakistan has seen the worst of this, with Punjab Governor Salman Taseer being hit by 26 bullets from his own bodyguard for speaking against the country’s arcane blasphemy laws. The killer, Mumtaz Qadri, went on to become a hero, and his execution led directly to the creation of more extreme groups for whom he was a martyr.
Bangladesh has seen some cases as has India, while Maldives has the death penalty for the offence. In India, the most recent case was the brutal beheading of a tailor in Udaipur allegedly for his social media post supporting Nupur Sharma, a former spokesperson of the ruling party, now facing death threats. True, such incidents are still few, but it is a dangerous fissure in society that will certainly be exploited by India’s enemies. That is, after all, what intelligence agencies are paid to do.
Time to call a halt
This spiral of hatred that feeds on a self-perpetuating belief of a humiliation of Islam and a denial of its ‘rightful place’, can only be stopped by courageous Islamic leaders and scholars of jurisprudence who need to inject some tolerance into the debate on what constitutes blasphemy. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a sign of this. Pakistan is almost unnaturally quiet as is the rest of the Islamic world. Ironically, those who spawned the monster are now running scared. But it is true that liberal authors and thinkers are hesitant even in India, yielding to a fear that is unhealthy and destructive in any society that prides itself on its freedoms.
Added to that is the danger from what seems to be a mirror imaging of the blasphemy scourge; the rash of cases of ‘hurting religious sentiments’, on charges that range from the ridiculous – like the charge against actor Ranveer Singh for posing in the nude, to the present boycott of Aamir Khan’s movie for its alleged ‘anti-Hindu’ stance. True, the difference is that these are all using either legal or peaceful means to showcase their outrage. That’s a lesson in itself. But that path is a dangerous one, for here too are the haters and the vengeful. That path leads nowhere but upwards towards escalation. Careful, that’s what your neighbours want.
Source » news18