Rushdie Redux

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.

Only by recognizing the particular as well as quotidian nature of India’s religious controversies will both citizens and the state be able to engage them in a measured way, by debate and dialogue as much as law and order. Yet those who defend secular society against religious authority almost invariably adopt an undifferentiated and even metaphysical attitude toward such controversies, which are seen in terms of a conflict between different orders of truth. Religious conflicts are also clubbed together, being treated in the same way according the principle of secular impartiality. So Hindu, Muslim and Sikh demands that a statement, book or film be banned, to say nothing of an individual or group attacked, are seen as equivalent even though their political causes and implications may differ widely. Given the structural differences between Hindus and Muslims, for example, to equate even their respective “communalisms,” as Mukul Kesavan does in the Calcutta Telegraph while responding to my previous column on Rushdie, is nothing short of grotesque. This is a purely juridical way of looking at things, one in which the equal treatment of all perceived threats serves to foreground the state’s neutral and therefore universal character. Any attempt to differentiate between such conflicts, then, would not only compromise the state’s legitimacy but also set a precedent for others to challenge it.  

Indian politicians realize the limits of acting on principle alone, and tend to be flexible if not altogether opportunistic when dealing with the claims of religious groups. Those who defend free expression in civil society are far more statist in their demand that such principles be uniformly upheld for fear of setting a bad precedent in the future. Indeed these defenders of juridical principle speak for and in the name of a state they think should but does not in fact exist. By calling so regularly for the state to exercise its repressive force against demonstrators and demagogues who might present them some undefined threat, as at the Jaipur Literary Festival, the defenders of free expression are not only happy to condemn such men and women to the degrading conditions and tortures they know await prisoners in Indian jails. They are also happy to see them just as regularly beaten senseless or shot dead in police firing. In defending their right of expression, in other words, Rushdie and his supporters have rarely if ever betrayed any concern for the rather more serious violations that await the rights of their opponents, who for the most part have also committed no crime worse than destroying public property. In fact it was Rushdie’s unconcern for those who had been killed in protests over his book in 1989 that made me lose respect for him. 

Is it because they have adopted a universalistic perspective in speaking for the state that the defenders of free expression can so easily ignore the particularity of others? Indeed they even seem to have abandoned their own particularity in doing so, since such men and women appear unable to recognize the position they occupy in the country’s religious controversies. For while these individuals are socially privileged and enjoy an almost absolute domination of India’s print and electronic media, their enemies tend to be poor, ill-educated and lacking any representation in public life. This is why they can so easily and regularly be dismissed as “rabble” and “mobs,” as Kesavan does in his Telegraph article. Might not the disparity between India’s injured but privileged liberals, and their “fanatical” if marginalized enemies, itself play a role in the battle over free expression? The priority given to a juridical perspective on the issue makes the question an irrelevant one, for the only thing that matters is a defence of rights that are held to be equal for all but of course are not. And since rights can only be guaranteed by the state, those defending them are doing nothing more than calling for more state intervention, in a longing for law and order that I want to argue runs the risk of becoming authoritarian. 

By identifying themselves with the state, those who speak about the defence of rights neglect their own particularity, and in doing so end up neglecting the dialogue and debate they are ostensibly fighting to protect. For such a conversation depends upon the recognition of one’s own particularity as well as that of one’s enemy, however violent he might be. It is telling that Kesavan, for instance, sniffs at me in The Telegraph for being concerned only with Muslims, though my column had made a general argument about Indian liberalism in which Islam provided a case, which is of course inevitable when dealing with Rushdie. So being concerned with Muslims (and silently being identified as one) is enough to condemn me to particularity, whatever it is that I actually say, while Kesavan’s even-handed universality allows him to escape the charge of “communal” partiality. Rushdie himself, however, must be rescued from the particularity of Islam, though his banned novel is obsessively concerned with that religion. Thus Kesavan scorns my suggestion that the world-famous author might have taken Muslims, too, for his audience, pretending that in doing so I am (again as a Muslim) accusing him of betraying “his own” people to foreigners. 

But of course I had never suggested that Rushdie engage with Muslims as “his own” people, since I would expect any writer to include in his audience those whose beliefs he criticizes. And in fact it has always been Rushdie and his supporters who have presented his work as that of a “native informant,” since he is so regularly praised as a writer whose unique insight derives from his Indian and Muslim background. So Kesavan insists on ignoring Muslims where they do exist and seeing them where they don’t, but in either case to dismiss their particularity as ignorance itself. Yet Kesavan himself is not above playing the role of a native, as when he praises his friends Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil, who had read from The Satanic Verses in Jaipur. They were, he intimates, acting as Indians answerable to the law of their land rather than rootless “diasporics” unable to understand Indian society (presumably like a certain historian safe and sound in Oxford). Kesavan’s contempt for the particular, which here receives the name Islam but can in other contexts become Hinduism or anything else, is unfortunately a liberal commonplace in India. I had urged Rushdie and his supporters to push their struggle for free expression much further than they did. I suggested that The Satanic Verses was not radical enough in its critique. I even said that the God of Muslim protestors was dead. I am not surprised that despite all this, Kesavan accuses me of wanting to censor free speech by bending the knee to “fanatics.” After all, since I have already been identified as Muslim, or as someone concerned only with Muslim politics, such a falsification of my argument becomes acceptable. Such is the fate of the particular.      

Yet focussing on the universality of rights alone, as Indian liberals tend to do, can only result in the rise of social discord and the loosening of affective bonds between people, a situation that calls for even more stringent action by the state as far as law and order is concerned. This may well produce a completely pacified society in the long run, one in which disagreement has become insignificant, but freedom under these conditions would not be worth having. As Gandhi realized long ago, the peace and stability of any society depends upon the mutual relations of its members, not the forces of law and order that can only play a marginal role in guaranteeing them. And rights, he knew, were incapable of delivering the nonviolence that only understanding, forbearance and courage could. This is particularly the case in India, where engaging an enemy in a genuine but also fearless way might be a more effective manner of resolving disputes than demanding one’s rights from a state unable to protect them. Many of the country’s most vulnerable citizens in its forests, fields and streets have learned this to their cost.  

If the defenders of free expression are obsessed with rights, those who oppose them seem to be dominated by duties, even if the former generally dismiss these as being nothing more than an exhibition of fanaticism. Not only their own duties in protesting the perceived insults of a writer like Rushdie, but also the latter’s duty in withdrawing this insult, are what concerns these men and women. And unlike rights, which must be defended by states, duties are the responsibility of individuals and thus possess a moral weight that the former do not. Is this why the defenders of rights in India, who can only speak in the name of the state, have so rarely been able to stand up for their principles? One of the world’s most protected men, Rushdie has always fled at the least sign of trouble. The author’s supporters in Jaipur read from his banned book, The Satanic Verses, only to abscond immediately afterwards, leaving the festival’s organizers and audience to face the fury of nonexistent Muslim “mobs” and the all too real threat of legal action. In a land where ordinary men and women brave the might of the state every day for many different causes, the sheer cowardice of those relatively privileged individuals who would defend their rights of expression is breathtaking by contrast. Where are the Arundhati Roys and Medha Patkars of free expression?  

Liberal cowardice is not personal but built into the politics of those who defend freedom of expression. By calling for state repression and refusing to act in their own names, these men and women cede ground to their enemies.  They also cede it to others who possess an even more violent ideology. These, as far as Muslims are concerned, happen to be the Hindu right in India or anti-Islam movements in Europe. Indeed some five years before the Rushdie Affair, a controversy over the right to maintenance of a divorced Muslim woman named Shahbano brought liberals and Hindu nationalists together into an unholy alliance, all in the name of a principle that was invoked in a discriminatory way against her religious community. Rushdie and his supporters have done as much damage to free expression as their opponents, since they seem unwilling either to talk with the latter or mobilize support for their cause by collectively defying the ban on a book like The Satanic Verses and courting arrest in doing so. Refusing to behave as moral agents, such individuals have relinquished their freedom for a principle more imagined than real. Indeed the kind of free expression they demand, one defined by rights rather than duties, appears to be modelled on that of economic competition. By the truly theological action of an “invisible hand” it is meant to produce a harmonious society without any investment in the affective bonds linking its members.

The realm of free expression is constantly changing shape, and in our own time contracting at an alarming pace. It is defined not by principle so much as by laws that proscribe information, including copyright and intellectual property, libel and defamation, hate speech and genocide denial, official secrets and, in our own day, some version of “glorifying” terrorism. In the forever-shrinking arena of free expression, therefore, controversies over book bans and religious sensibilities might appear significant but are symbolic at best. And the only principled defenders of such freedom are libertarians like Julian Assange, who are willing to break the laws they recognize as being the chief obstacles to it. Liberals, on the other hand, differ only relatively from “religious fanatics,” since they, too, are happy to ban certain kinds of expression, including that which is deemed offensive, as well as of the kind that is defined as private property or seen as leading to public disorder. So the difference between religious and secular forms of forbidden speech, whose expression might in both cases entail violent reprisal, is one of convention not principle. And this is exactly what Hindu, Muslim or Sikh “fundamentalists” recognize, asking therefore only to be included in the narrowing world of free expression in however sinister a way.

Now convention is an entirely legitimate way of determining the bounds of free expression, but it can neither claim universality for itself nor be defined by rights guaranteed by the state alone. For convention has to do with negotiation, dialogue, debate and the affective bonds that link people in a society. It depends, in other words, on individual duties rather than the abstract rights that allow these to be set aside. Thus in India to use the word “Untouchable” is an offense, but I wouldn’t imagine that this riles the defenders of free expression there. Of course a society whose laws are based on convention may no longer be possible in certain countries where the idea of duty has almost disappeared. But it still marks public debate in places like India, especially in the hateful forms retailed by “fundamentalists,” and should therefore be given the importance it deserves there. For like all identities, religious ones are always in the making. Unless we are to exclude them from humanity as beyond redemption, even the members of fundamentalist “mobs” and “rabble” need to be engaged outside the language of the law, in the hope of creating a nonviolent society capable of regulating itself. This will neither be a quick nor an easy debate, but one that has to occur if a genuinely free society is to emerge in India rather than one defined entirely by the force of the state.

The language of rights has in any case proved to be fraught with contradictions while being prey to great violence. In the post-9/11 period, for instance, the biggest new threat to free expression in countries like Britain and the United States has to do with state surveillance, which can lead to imprisonment without charge, or worse, often on the basis of hearsay and secret evidence. It is the international precedent created by these laws dedicated to protecting life, the most primordial of all rights, that more than any example set by religious groups should worry the defenders of free expression. This is especially the case when the defence of such rights provides the justification for wars waged in distant lands, informed as these are by the evangelistic universalism of human rights. Instead of which the defenders of free expression in India as elsewhere turn towards the state and even identify with it in a battle against “religious fanaticism” that seems analytically blinkered and anachronistic by comparison. They are, perhaps, nostalgic for the simpler world and moral clarity represented by controversies such as the Rushdie Affair.  

Once again, my thanks to Shruti Kapila for helping me think through this piece.         


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).