Following the controversy over author Salman Rushdie’s appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival, which ultimately ended with even a video conference with Mr. Rushdie being cancelled, India Ink is speaking with Muslim leaders about the situation, their feelings about his book “The Satanic Verses” and what role politics played in the affair.
Prof. Akhtarul Wasey is the director at the Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia; Malavika Vyawahare spoke to him on the telephone. A lightly edited transcript of their conversation follows.
What is your reaction to the protests against Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literature Festival?
In a secular democratic country every citizen has a right to protest within constitutional limits. Why should it be wrong when no ugly incident or violence took place? Indian Muslims have never approved violence. Until and unless Rushdie is going to apologize and express regret about his writing, Muslims have a democratic right to protest.
What is it about his work that has offended you personally and offended the Muslim community?
I have not read the book entirely but I did look through it when it was first released. I came across the offending passages where he has portrayed the prophet and his family in an indecent manner. He has hurt the sentiments of the Muslim community across the world.
Many see this as a curtailment of the “right to freedom of expression.” What is your response to this?
Every freedom and liberty has certain limitations. Everybody has the right to move a stick in the air, but this freedom ends where my nose begins.
Muslims have asked that he should not be invited but no Muslim group has threatened violence. The director general of Rajasthan Police himself had said that there was no threat to life.
Above all, the Constitution of India under which the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed states: “We the People”, Muslims are also citizens of this country. Being a part of the minority, how can we oppose the right to express freely? That would harm us only.
Do you think the issue has been unnecessarily politicized?
They are accusing Muslims of politicizing the issue. But why have they invited Salman Rushdie now? At a time when five big states are going to election?
The organizers and politicians have themselves politicized the issue. Why was Rushdie not invited in 2011?
Do you believe the Muslim community has been given a fair hearing?
I understand the government has compulsions. As he is enjoying the status of PIO [person of Indian origin]and he does not require any visa.
However, when M.F. Husain was mired in controversy regarding the portrayal of Hindu Goddesses, Muslim clergy did not approve his portrayal. He had to render an apology and even then he had to leave the country, and was not allowed to return even on his death to be buried here.
My submission is that Rushdie has not rendered an apology.
Why are there two criteria for judging people who have hurt the sentiments of a community? Why should Rushdie be invited again and again to hurt the sentiments of the Muslim community and provoke them? Muslim sensibilities are so intense on this issue they cannot tolerate such offensive portrayal of their religion.
They say that he has helped establish Indian literature on the global scene and his works are literary. But much before him, many Indian authors have done excellent work and established India on the global scene.
The impression I get is this: a person who hurts the sentiments of the Muslims, he is a champion. And a person who hurts the sentiments of other communities is a devil.
I am not against the right to expression but there is a difference between using and abusing. My grievance is that he has not used but abused this right, and this is the feeling among an overwhelming majority of Muslims.