The assault on Salman Rushdie in New York state on Friday has left us all worried about the persistent threats to freedom of writing and of speech in our times. That it was so easy for his assailant to pounce on him and riddle him with stab wounds to the neck and torso, which have now left the writer in danger of losing an eye, and indeed paralysis in the remaining years of his life, is gravely worrying.
One does not have to agree with everything a writer brings forth into the public domain. When Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses in the late 1980s, large sections of the Muslim community reacted with outrage. Indeed, throughout history, the reality is that writers make their thoughts public in the form of fiction, non-fiction and articles and are met with outrage.
But the problem arises when outrage or disagreement translates into outright violence or the threat of violence against a writer. The Satanic Verses was either a good book or a bad book, and it all depends on the one who reads the work. One could again argue that Rushdie ought not to have penned the work, but then comes the question of whether we have the right to decree how and in what way a writer should be expressing his thoughts.
The fundamental issue here is the right of the writer to produce his works in a way he feels he should. And the fundamental issue, again, is for readers to read those works or ignore them. It is quite natural that readers may not agree with a writer, for readers too have their opinions on the themes the writer may dwell on. But when a disagreement with a writer translates, in a rather macabre manner, into threats of taking his life, it is a medieval notion of life we give voice to.
The assault on Rushdie takes us back to the fatwa decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini following the appearance of The Satanic Verses. It was an abhorrent instance of a nation’s spiritual leader, who had led a revolution against a corrupt monarchy in his country, letting the world know that Rushdie had to die. That was, yes, an outrage. And it was --- because there was a global figure openly and unabashedly pronouncing a sentence of death, in his mistaken interpretation of faith, on a writer.
Any defence of Salman Rushdie is rooted in a simple, universal premise --- that when an individual wields the pen to give voice to his ideas, it becomes the right of those who do not agree with him to use their pens or their verbal expressions to let people know why they do not agree with him. Informed conversation is the baseline of intellectual debate. But when a writer is forced to go into hiding because a price has been put on his head by a state where politics is but another term for intolerance, the world of ideas is left stunned.
Rushdie is not the only writer who has been in danger because of what he writes or has written in our times. Our very own Taslima Nasreen, with whom many of us agree and many others do not, has languished abroad because we have not had the moral courage to call her back home. Where writers around the globe have consistently defended Rushdie’s right to express himself, scandalously few voices in Bangladesh have called for the threat on Nasreen’s life to be neutralised and for her to be welcomed home.
Writing has always been a hard task, a reality Charles de Gaulle recognised in his wisdom. With Jean-Paul Sartre constantly sniping away at him, he was asked if his government contemplated any action against the writer. De Gaulle had a sophisticated response to the query: you do not arrest Voltaire. That was an implicit reference to the trouble Voltaire ran into with the state in 1759, a full three decades before the French Revolution, when his Candide came forth. The work was condemned for its supposed immorality, but nowhere was there any hint that Voltaire’s life was in danger because of what he had written.
Rushdie’s abilities as a writer are, without question, commendable. Midnight’s Children will remain a work that not only provided a sad look-back at the trauma of the Indian partition but also gave its title to a particular phase of history, becoming a new entry into the popular lexicon. His work Shame has inspired introspection for readers who have gone through the book. That Rushdie has, in these nearly four decades, been a pivotal figure in the literary world is a truth one will not find easy to refute.
That the shadow of death has dogged him since Khomeini imposed that fatwa on him --- an Iranian religious group has upped the bounty on his head --- has troubled people of true faith and intellectual aspirations everywhere. Friday’s attack on Salman Rushdie should be a reason, indeed the reason, for men and women who believe in intellectual freedom everywhere to rise to the occasion in defence of the right of writers everywhere to express themselves through judicious employment of their thoughts.
Boris Pasternak ran into trouble with the Soviet state and so did Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But the state did not decide that they should die for what they wrote. Sajjad Zaheer’s Angarey bore the brunt of attacks by a moralistic British colonial power in India, but he was not marched to the gallows. Buddhadeva Bose’s Raat Bhor Brishti caused him problems of a legal sort, but no one put a price on his head. DH Lawrence ran into a mighty squall with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The outrage did not translate into a sentence of death for him.
Hypatia --- philosopher, mathematician and astronomer in Alexandria --- was put to death in 415 AD by men unable to tolerate her ideas. It was medievalism at work. It was, to our intense sadness, medievalism when Khomeini’s fatwa was decreed on Rushdie. That medievalism has now seen the writer come under criminal assault for his words.
In a civilised world, we formulate ideas through words. Where we do not agree with a writer’s words, we engage in academic debate with him through our own words. We do not shoot him or raise the machete to threaten his physical being. In Bangladesh, the tragedy of seeing Humayun Azad come under violent attack was a shame we have not been able to overcome.
The assault on Salman Rushdie is depressing for all of us. It is also a message for everyone that the freedom to write and convey thoughts must be upheld in an era of growing intolerance. It is for us to reinforce the principle that when men and women confront writing they are not comfortable with, there is a morally powerful way of dealing with the problem -- engage in critical and academic debate with the writer on the issue.
Killing writers, or threatening to kill them, leaves us all diminished. It also conveys to us the ugly lesson that when powerful state actors go after writers when they pronounce a sentence of death on a writer, our ability or willingness to respect these men of authority swiftly goes out the window.
[Syed Badrul Ahsan writes on politics and diplomacy]