In 1988 something bizarre happened in the literary world. The novel, a genre in it’s recline into irrelevance, was given a rude awakening. A young writer by the name of Salman Rushdie found himself on the wrong side of some very powerful people after the publishing of his second book, The Satanic Verses. On Valentine’s Day 1989, a fatwa was issued by Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini, calling for the death of the novelist placing a cartoonishly grand bounty on his head. The cause of this decision? Call it insanity. By HAAFIZAH BHAMJEE.
Headlines mocked Khomeini for his hot-headed verdict. The book being written in English, it’s safe to say that Khomeini never read a word of it before issuing a death sentence on the writer. Rushdie, however, was in no place to lavish in the irony, he was running for his life. The Indian-born, Pakistani writer was granted asylum in the UK, and subsequently vanished for nine years hiding from the growing angry mobs.
But while Rushdie hid, the conversation kept going, catapulting into dangerous waters. Meaning, of course, that like most things ignorantly ignored by the left, the right co-opted it. The situation was inflated, ensuring every bob and bill had an opinion, however unhelpful that opinion was. Radicals, and let’s be honest, liberals too, burned Rushdie’s book in the streets. World-wide protests didn’t end at condemnation, often they lead to violence which in the aftermath had left nine people dead. Strangely enough, attacks were not targeted as much at the book as they were at the writer. Most critics, if you can call them that, had far more to say about the morality and character of Salman Rushdie than about the book they claimed determined his character.
The democratic government of the New South Africa only bothered to unban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 2002. Seven years after Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress declared us a liberated country, five years after our constitution was paraded around the world being lauded Exemplary. But this Late-To-The-Table situation shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. After all, it wasn’t the AWB or PW Botha’s parliament which first proposed the banning of the book. No. The strongest voices for censorship in that heyday of Apartheid was none other than members of the African National Congress and United Democratic Front. The first to call for the ban was, unsurprisingly, the Muslim Judicial Council. Not only did they call for a ban, they called for Rushdie to be barred from the country and for a countrywide boycott of his writing. They were supported by the ANC aligned Transvaal Indian Congress and Natal Indian Congress.
While more conservative elements accused Rushdie of blasphemy, liberals accused him of being a ‘stooge of imperialism’, ‘a mouth-piece for the West’. Even apartheid stalwart Fatima Meer took this position, arguing in favour of the banning of Satanic Verses in 1989, she said: “’It is the Third World that Rushdie attacks, it is the faith of the Third World in itself, and in its institutions, that he denigrates…” going on to claim that Rushdie had made “a malicious attack on his ethnic past.” A disappointing observation from an otherwise exemplary icon.
This rhetoric only succeeded in making violence towards dissidents trendy. People who otherwise would not leverage emotional attacks on a writer, people like Meer, a writer herself, who opposed and detested apartheid censorship, found themselves doing it with conviction. To these people Secularism was a tenant of Western civilisation. In leveraging this accusation against Rushdie, they ensured that they preserved the Orientalist notion that we, brown people, are nothing but mindless and devout.
It doesn’t matter how you interpret The Satanic Verses, or whether you liked it or not. In writing about his lived experiences, addressing his own community, depicting people, icons and symbolism in his imagination and through the lens of his experience using his own words, Rushdie engaged in the most revolutionary, anti-imperialist act of all; Speech.
Speaking on the horrendous attacks at Charlie Hebdo, that left nine journalists killed, the British activist and radio show host Majid Nawaz spoke on “minorities within minority communities,” saying “ there are feminist Muslims, there are gay Muslims, there are ex-Muslims, there are liberal Muslims, there are dissenting voices upon whom the charge of blasphemy is used not just to silence them but to actually kill them.”
In representing his world views Rushdie did the opposite of attacking his “ethnic past,” as Meer claimed. He engaged his ethnicity in all its diversity. He demonstrated the multiplexity of people from Muslim backgrounds. He tarnished the colonial myth that all the people of the third world embody but one singular identity.
In collaborating with a racist Apartheid regime to ban The Satanic Verses, Meer and others acted out in colonial terms, harassing, demonising and barring a man for his consciousness of identity.
Last year, a journalist by the name of Jamal Khashoggi disappeared inside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey. Inside, he was killed by hired hit-men, his body mutilated and disposed of. The attack was orchestrated on the orders of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Bin Salman. A leader often praised for being a ‘Progressive’ Prince compared to his predecessors, and this incident did little to damage his reputation. The Khashoggi incident was a 2018 take on a 1998 problem. Like Rushdie, Khashoggi was guilty of writing things that offend. Today, dissenters in the Muslim world are not being threatened with murder, they are being murdered.
The thought of Khashoggi’s murder sickens me and makes me wonder; Are we so devoid of humanity that we do not know how to address our differences? Instead we burn books and murder journalists. Are we so broken that we do not know how to discuss our own identities, religions, cultures and traditions without resorting to violence and hatred? The slightest offense leads us to commit heinous crimes. What has happened to us that we no longer remember how to treat each other with dignity?
Freedom of speech is a pillar of the left. It upholds every other ideal we value as promoters of absolute freedoms. Without it, we are no better than the colonists who erased our identities and barred us from speaking anything other than praise for our own oppression. Speech is not a colonial act; the lack of speech is the defining trait of any oppressed people.
If we are to agree that freedom of speech is more important than we must agree that it is important for everyone, even the people whom we disagree with, and even those who offend us. Free speech when it suits you only is not free speech. When we choose to have conversations in a progressive and honest way, we ensure that we collectively make the best decisions for our communities. Attacking speech with acts of violence only breaks down our paths of communication and makes us incapable of cooperation. As people of colour, people who have experienced the brutality of colonialism, the barbarism of slavery, and the oppression of racism; we need to champion this right with more vigour and gusto. We need to recognise injustice and meet it with condemnation. Recognising this is also a part of the process of decolonisation and healing. We must unbreak ourselves.
Haafizah Bhamjee is a writer and activist from Johannesburg. She is a graduate of literature with a research interest the politics of language.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons