[This is a guest post from Rohit Chopra -eds]
16 excursuses in despair
Sepoy and Lapata have very kindly given me the opportunity to share some thoughts about the Rushdie affair (the new one, at the Jaipur literature festival this year, which, of course, is connected to the old Rushdie affair, 23 years to the day on February 14) on Chapati Mystery, following an effort to express them as tweets yesterday. Here goes my attempt to unpack the events related to the controversy and the subsequent flood of commentary that followed. I will assume the events and many views shared in mainstream media the world over do not need repeating, since the pipes of the Internets and Twitters have been choked with nothing else for the last so many days. The particular reflections below—which, foregoing the artifice of transitions find form as aphorism—do not invalidate each other; that, hopefully, should be clear. For any philosophical contradictions, I remain responsible but might hide behind Wittgenstein.
I thought Rushdie was intimidated and terrorized by the Rajasthan police and Indian state (yes, we can and should use that word, wresting it back from the WOTists or War-on-Terror-ists). A false death threat qualifies surely.
I do not feel the need to prove my credentials here as a defender of free speech.
Nor prove that I am a friend of Muslims. Nor prove that I am a believer. Or a rationalist. Or secular. Or Indian. Or an atheist. The merits of my argument do not, and should not, rest on any of these.
I did not attend the festival, but got a ringside view of the drama on the Internet. I grew sick of it at some point of time, but could not stop reading or reacting on Twitter. This was not just gratuitous rubbernecking if I may say so myself. What bothered me was the way in which the debate had been hijacked—not just by Rushdie’s detractors and critics but, equally, by his supporters—effectively prohibiting the expression of any nuanced political view beyond Rushdie-or-Deobandi. I could not help think. “You are either with us or you are with the enemy”. Where had I heard that before?
If Maulana Nomani of Deoband and his supporters were and are guilty of a revolting piety, then Rushdie’s supporters were and are surely guilty of sanctimony. For instance, in their unfair demand—not unlike a theological diktat—that all right-minded Muslims, Indians, Indian Muslims, lovers of literature, and lovers of free speech everywhere are obligated take up cudgels on behalf of Rushdie. And in their exaggerated claim that such an act will reverse decades of intolerance and make whole India’s compromised modernity and failed enlightenment.
Because such a claim assumes that India is locked, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s phrase, in the “waiting room of history,” til Sir Salman of South Bombay and his band of merry men and women usher it in to the clear future of liberal utopia, away from the darkness in which medieval Muslim hordes and Hindu obscurantists keep us. Because it plots a graph of Indian intolerance—Rushdie, Laine, Nasreen, Mistri, Ramanujan—that does not recognize the many ways in which Indians struggle everyday for their rights, including the right of freedom of expression and the right of freedom of religion. And just because the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal do not acknowledge these struggles, that does not mean they do not exist.
Because those who paint the Rushdie-Deoband spat as a battle between Gandalf and Sauron http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sauron should consider if they judge Rushdie’s friends and supporters by the same yardstick. Rushdie’s pals, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Hitchens—the “liberal supremacists” as Terry Eagelton calls the breed— have made the vilest remarks about Muslims, and yet they are touted as great defenders of liberal values. In contrast, anyone who disagrees—even civilly—with the stance of Rushdie and his acolytes is cast as a narrow-minded, unenlightened, bigot.
Eagleton reminds us: “Both Hitchens and Salman Rushdie have defended Amis’s slurs on Muslims”
and for good measure,
“The irony is clear. Some of our free literary spirits are defending liberal values in ways that threaten to undermine them. In this, they reflect the behaviour of western states. Liberals are supposed to value nuanced analysis and moral complexity, neither of which are apparent in the slanderous reduction of Islam to a barbarous blood cult.”
I found it puzzling that David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, should state at the festival that the Rushdie affair was “a blot on Indian democracy.” This was not postcolonial sensitivity on my part. I wondered if Remnick, a supporter of the Iraq War, would state that the war on Iraq was a blot on American democracy.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Remnick wrote:
“Ten years after the attacks, we are still faced with questions about ourselves—questions about the balance of liberty and security, about the urge to make common cause with liberation movements abroad, and about the countervailing limits. Only absolutists answer these questions absolutely.” (italics mine)
I replaced the word ‘liberty’ with ‘freedom of expression’ in the sentence above. Many in India had made the same argument. As had many about the freedom of speech not being absolute in India or anywhere. I do not necessarily agree with them. But why do we see them as enemies of free speech and Remnick as a defender of liberal values?
I thought of another asymmetry. Would an Indian or Pakistani or Kenyan editor be able to declare, at the New Yorker’s festival, that any of the policies of the American state were a ‘disgrace to American democracy’? Would he or she be invited back again? Or get a visa?
Amit Chaudhuri has, in this article fleshed out the sorry implications of the fiasco for freedom of speech in India with devastating thoroughness, identifying with equal precision the sources of intolerance in Indian life. Thus: “In India, though, I get the feeling that the liberal middle class is only dimly aware of the importance of the arts, and how integral they are to the secular imagination, except in a time of media-inflated crisis, when it becomes a ‘free speech’ issue.”
This too is part of the problem.
I also liked this statement “The secular middle class – in which I include myself – needs to learn that free speech can’t be arrived at via a well-mannered compromise with its enemies,” because Chaudhuri speaks of the enemies of free speech here not of the enemies of the middle classes. For sometimes the Indian middle classes decide that their enemies—the poor, illiterate masses who demand some security and subsidies from the state—are also, conveniently, designated as the enemies of modernity, rights, free speech, and correct English.
If it has been clear for some time now that there is such a thing as the ‘Rushdie Limit,’ there is also such a thing as ‘Rushdie Capital’
Rushdie Limit: the point at which people who claim to be defenders of free speech find out they aren’t. Thus, when the Satanic Verses controversy blew up some two decades ago, Jimmy Carter, Germaine Greer and John Berger hit their ‘Rushdie Limit’ pretty quickly. Or if I had to make another sentence, I might say, “after initially defending Rushdie, Hari Kunzru seemed to hit his Rushdie Limit when he wrote on his website ‘I apologise unreservedly to anyone who feels I have disrespected his or her faith.’”
Rushdie Capital: Benefit, tangible and intangible, such as cash, votes, visibility, scoops, or publicity to be gained by supporting or defending Rushdie. Thus Barkha Dutt reminding us on Twitter that she had got the prized Rushdie interview and was going ahead with it. And Kunzru, again, on Twitter, on January 24, about the traffic to his website after he posted his explanation for reading from The Satanic Verses “I think my website is about 500 unique users from falling over. #jlf”
Yes Barkha, we know you are also brave. And that you like the word ‘antediluvian’
And that it’s pretty fucking ironic that you claim to stand up for free speech when you are a one-woman chilling effect army threatening to sue anyone who you don’t like.
None of this means that I am equating Rushdie with Maulana Nomani of Deoband. Sometimes these things need to be clarified threadbare.
Because brilliant and courageous as Salman Rushdie is, the histories of Islam, late twentieth-century India, Indian Muslims, and free speech exceed him.
And it is amazing that not a single article on the controversy has actually bothered to discuss the The Satanic Verses. Which is a crying fucking shame because it is a spectacular book. Because it tells us that one person’s sacred verses are another person’s Satanic verses. And it paints a picture of religion as dreamfever quite different from the Marxist claim of religion as opium for the masses. And it shows a writer at the peak of his powers effortlessly claiming, commenting on, and transforming every tradition which sustains him: religious, literary, cultural, civilizational.