I have a new piece on Salman Rushdie in Current Intelligence, following up on my previous article, ‘Does Salman Rushdie Exist’, also republished on Politics in Inspires. In this new piece I discuss the “Rushdie Affair” more broadly.
Below is a snippet of my longer article, the rest of which can be read over on Current Intelligence’s website.
As a symbol of free expression under threat, Salman Rushdie has become a fetish for liberals, who not only consider it blasphemy to criticize this wealthy and influential author, but also require a ritual condemnation of the “fanaticism” that once put his life at risk. This despite the fact that the threat he faced lies more than twenty years in the past, and was even then never close to being fulfilled. Only if we consider each one of those who spoke loosely against Rushdie a potential murderer, does the risk he ran seem more significant than one calling for a couple of policemen to be placed at his door, instead of eight years in hiding and on the run. Perhaps it is time to rethink the “Rushdie Affair” beyond the hysterics that still define it for irate Muslims as much as outraged liberals. But having written elsewhere about the global mobilizations over insults supposed to have been delivered Muhammad, from the publication of The Satanic Verses to Danish cartoons of the Prophet, I want to focus here on the politics of those who defend free expression against such “theological” challenges. These challenges can be real enough, I shall argue, but have never been met in a serious and productive way.
Signalling as it did the globalization of Islam, the extraordinary mobilization of Muslims in 1989 was certainly an important event, though not because it represented some never-ending conflict between religious authority and secular order. This old fashioned narrative, drawn from the history of seventeenth century Europe, cannot even begin to explain what the commotion over The Satanic Verses was all about. Yet more than the transformation of the international order following the Cold War, or the role of television in the emergence of global forms of mobilization, it is this fundamentally Christian narrative that continues to provide the defenders of free expression with a template by which to understand events like the Rushdie Affair. Whatever the truth about the events of 1989, however, recent threats against the prize-winning author, like that delivered at the Jaipur Literary Festival, can by no stretch of the imagination be compared to them. It is the historical difference between such events that makes the timeless politics of principle invoked by defenders of free expression incapable of addressing them.
Let us consider another instance of the threat posed by religious authority in secular India. There exists a Salman there who is more famous across Asia and Africa than the one called Rushdie. A Bollywood superstar who also happens to be Muslim, Salman Khan worships a statue of the elephant-headed deity Ganesha during the annual festival dedicated to him. Broadcast as it is in the Indian media every year, Khan’s worship routinely provokes Muslim divines to issue edicts accusing him of committing the cardinal sin of their religion. For denying the singularity of an invisible God by associating idols with Him is, in theological terms, a far more serious infraction than any insult to Muhammad however offensive. And yet the film star’s act of apostasy, repeated year after year, has not led to any threats of violence against him, nor indeed lessened his popularity among Muslims, for many of whom he represents a communal ideal. In fact Salman Khan’s image often adorns cards and posters sold during Muslim festivals like that celebrating the end of Ramadan. How might we account for this situation?
I once asked a friend, whose uncle was one of the clerics inveighing against the Bollywood hero, what he hoped to achieve by his condemnations. The uncle, I was told, had no intention of threatening the star or even creating a stir against him. All he was interested in was achieving some recognition among Muslims by having his name associated with that of Salman Khan. Rather than serving as an illustration of the threat religious authority could pose a secular society, in other words, this annual controversy has little to do with either faith or metaphysics. It is instead as much a part of the publicity machine as other controversies involving rivals, girlfriends or stalkers, all of which make a movie star like Salman Khan the celebrity he is. I would like to suggest that even when it does present a real threat to the freedom of expression, to say nothing of life and security, religious condemnation and mobilization in India rarely possesses a theological character. It should be placed on the same continuum as the publicity-driven controversies that we have seen characterize the career of Salman Khan.
To read the rest of the article, see here.
Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, and the author of two books, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (Hurst, 2005), and The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (Hurst, 2009).