Sentiments vs freedom: Rushdie issue festers
New Delhi: Days after Salman Rushdie was not allowed to speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the issue continues to touch a raw nerve among Muslim clerics and intellectuals even as liberals excoriate the brazen violation of a writer`s freedom of creative expression.
"It was the right thing not to let him speak. And it`s a good thing he did not come," Darul Uloom Deoband vice chancellor Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani told reporters when asked whether he felt vindicated after Rushdie`s video-conference was cancelled Jan 24 amid apprehensions of protests.
In the run-up to the literary festival, Nomani had protested against the proposed visit of Rushdie, the author of ‘The Satanic Verses’ which takes a critical look at Islam, to India.
"If he visits it would be adding salt to the injuries of Muslims," he had said when the guessing game was still on about Rushdie`s visit.
"This is their point of view. He has hurt the sentiments of Muslims," he said when asked whether the blackout of Rushdie`s video-address and his visit has hurt the image of India as a secular, liberal country.
Shahid Siddiqui, the editor of Urdu daily Nai Duniya, contended that it was not undemocratic not to allow Rushdie to visit India as there was apprehension that it would become a major issue given the sensitivity of Muslims about his banned book "The Satanic Verses".
Questioning the right to absolute freedom of speech, Siddiqui argued that hundreds of Muslims are stopped from entering Western countries and their right to freedom of speech and expression is curtailed as they are seen as a threat.
"But why nobody raises outcry against this discrimination in advanced Western democracies?" Siddiqui asked. "Every country has a right to decide whom to let in. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is not welcome in the US (due to his alleged role in the 2001 Gujarat riots), but China rolled out the red carpet for him," Siddiqui told reporters.
According to Siddiqui, the whole issue was blown up by the electronic media and linked to the Uttar Pradesh elections. "It`s a fantasy of the English-speaking middle class that Rushdie is an election issue," he said.
Mushirul Hasan, eminent historian and former vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, is anguished at all the hype around Rushdie. "Nobody talks about real substantial issues Muslims have to grapple with in their everyday life. Rushdie is a non-issue for most Muslims," Hasan told reporters.
"Rushdie is not even an issue in Muslim countries. Even in Iran, where the fatwa was imposed by Ayatollah Khomeini, Rushdie is not an issue," he said.
"This is a manufactured issue. The controversy reinforces a negative stereotype of Muslims. It makes the job of a liberal Muslim all the more difficult," said Hasan.
The liberals are, however, convinced that while there may be any number of arguments, a writer`s right to freedom of expression was absolutely sacrosanct and by denying Rushdie the right to visit India, it harmed the image of a country as a democratic, secular and pluralistic society.
"You can object to the book, but not to the writer visiting," said veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar. "It shows fanaticism. India is a secular country and not a theocratic society."
The government played into the hands of fundamentalists and had elections on mind, said Nayar.
"It`s a great pity because it`s all right if a certain set of verses written by Rushdie were unacceptable but to react to the writer in this entirety shows tremendous immaturity," said Aruna Roy, a Right to Information Activist and National Advisory Council member.