Belfast Telegraph

Rushdie's oppressors need to turn over a new leaf

Last Wednesday, I was sitting with the writer William Dalrymple at his beautiful farmhouse outside Delhi. He is well-settled out there and rightly admired for his magnificent books on India and for starting the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) - the equivalent of Cannes for writers.

The JLF name that was exciting Indians was not Oprah Winfrey, but Salman Rushdie. Some benighted Muslims had issued deadly warnings to him. To them, his is the Satanic Voice.

Dalrymple was sanguine; the show would go on. By Friday, the threats had got serious enough for Rushdie to withdraw.

A historian I know blamed the Brits for the situation. I reminded him that Rushdie is proudly acclaimed as a great Indian writer - he was born there - and also a great British writer, a phenomenal dual reputation.

Not again, Rushdie must think. Groundhog Day. You can only be wholly with the author and his values or wholly against him and them. Some cast all Muslims as 'backward' people. Sometimes I find myself thinking this, too.

What is wrong with these Muslims? Have they learnt nothing from those wasted years when Rushdie was hounded?

Every time they turn on him, they make him more famous - for the wrong reasons. Their uproar intensifies and justifies anti-Muslim attitudes. In Britain, hard lessons have been learnt since The Satanic Verses was burnt in Bradford. In fact, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, one of the men who went to see Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to request the fatwa, deeply regrets what he did. If Rushdie had gone to Jaipur, those who still can't forget or forgive could have asked him if he has learnt anything. They might have heard his side of the story - how it felt to be in hiding and to be the object of such terrible hatred when once he was loved across the globe.

But we still can't have the conversations that will take us towards that understanding and enlightenment. We need to talk about that. And about freedom and censorship.

Authors allow all sorts of restrictions without raising a sigh. I cannot write about some people and organisations because of legal constraints. A raunchy novel about a seductive paedophile, or one on the imagined assassination of Salman Rushdie, would never be published.

With democracy breaking out in Arabia, Muslims must see that minds need to be liberated if political freedom is to transform their lives and they must not oppress freethinkers and writers.

I want to end on an elegiac note. When first I came across Salman Rushdie's writings, I felt as if he had shaped my thoughts. I defended him when the fatwa was issued and do still.

But I also tried to find out why British Muslims were so hurt and I was repelled by the instinctive xenophobia and militant atheism of our liberal intelligentsia.

Now the same faultlines have appeared and the writer once again embodies them all. I wonder if he ever wishes those days back again when he was not a battle cry, but just a man with a glorious imagination and way with words.

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