Many Muslims wanted or wished Salman Rushdie dead, and some still do. There are also Muslims who Muslims prefer he didn’t exist or just disappeared from the face of the Earth. Some other Muslims from the beginning believed that the anti-Rushdie campaigns run by various Muslim groups in the late 1980s would be counterproductive, harm Islam immediately, and prove more damaging to the religion in the long run.
For me, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the controversy in the late 1980s were a diversion from what I was doing in my life. But living in London, it was not easy to sit outside and not be influenced by what was happening. Many Muslims wanted or wished Salman Rushdie dead, and so did I. But, I couldn’t find any reason to kill him based on any of the arguments presented against him by Muslim scholars, thinkers and activists. I know there were strong feelings, but feelings don’t justify taking action based on the feelings.
In 1994, Taslima Nasreen was hounded out of Bangladesh by, in my judgement, totally unjustifiable feelings. Nobody bothered to logically analyse a small statement regarding the ‘need to revise the Quran’ (my paraphrase from memory) that Calcutta New Statement magazine published based on an interview. Firstly, she couldn’t have meant what she was alleged to have said, as this was illogical, and nobody was willing to listen to the clarification she provided that she was talking about revising interpretations to make the Quran more in line with modern society (my paraphrase from memory). Justice is one of the most important things in Islam, and seeking justice requires seeking the truth. I spoke against the campaigns against her and later wrote about it.
Back in 1989 and the 1990s, I attended many discussion sessions in London where the campaigns against Rushdie were discussed. Some thought the general Muslim reaction was terrible as it would be counterproductive. I thought many Muslims saw Salman Rushdie’s book as an attack on Islam and, without examining properly, believed Salman Rushdie was suggesting that the Quran wasn’t from God but from Satan. I thought, given the nature of our Muslim community in the UK at the time – in terms of intellectual development, knowledge base, economic power and so on – they could not respond in any more sophisticated ways to the perceived challenge from Rushdie than they did.
In 2013, the most ‘liberal secularists’ in Bangladesh went in their thousands to Shahbagh Square in Bangladesh to demand the hanging of Qader Mullah without a fair trial for his alleged war crimes in the 1971 Bangladesh War of Liberation. Many people who talk about human rights, freedom of speech, etc., in Bangladesh were seen on the streets demanding hanging with images of hanging ropes around the neck all around. Some of them were singing beautiful songs pleading for hanging. I spoke out against that on social media because I thought it was wrong, and you cannot punish someone without a fair trial. But feelings of revenge ran strong among the most westernised liberal elites in Bangladesh and supporters of the ruling party.
Late in the mid or late 1990s, while driving to work, I heard a discussion on Rushdie on Radio Five, where two Iranians living in the UK were among the participants. One was a supporter of his right to speak, an exiled anti-Islamic Revolution Iranian journalist, and the other was a critic of Salman Rushdie. I was very surprised at how weak were the arguments presented against Salman Rushdie by the critic. I was a bit disappointed that many Muslims make large noises, but they cannot bring strong arguments to back their noise.
A few months or a few weeks later, I bumped into the Iranian critic of Salman Rushdie at an event. I told him that I had listened to the interview on Radio Five, and he smiled. But then I told him, brother, you criticised Salman Rushdie, but they were very weak arguments – you did not present any arguments in a mainstream British media that could justify the strong position that many Muslims have adopted against Salman Rushdie (my paraphrase). Then he touched my shoulder and said we don’t need any argument, just kill him. I was completely numbed, and a strong chill went down my spine. I became fearful and scared. I thought to myself, how can this be right? We, as Muslims, must always fight for justice and the truth, and I wished that no one like him would ever come to power.
How different groups and individuals in different societies react to different things, very few of us can control. Salman Rushdie, a talented writer, obviously wanted to challenge and denigrate Islam. Soon after the Fatwa was announced by ‘Imam Khomeini’, I remember watching one of his TV interviews, where he, in a bullish and confrontational mood, said that, frankly, had he known that something like this would happen, he would have been even more critical of Islam (my paraphrase from memory). But then, soon, the reality sank in, and he went into hiding.
We don’t know yet, exactly what motivated this young guy to try to kill Salman Rushdie, but Muslims must learn lessons from their successes and failures and organise their life in the world based on the complex reality of our lives. We will always react rather than act and take the initiative if we don’t learn lessons. Truth and justice must be the main guiding principles in all our lives.
Also, every human being is equal, so if one person can say and express how they see the world, then everyone should have the same rights. There can be no exceptions in this regard. There is also social media, the internet and so on, and people say all kinds of things for or against many different things.
Muslims cannot isolate themselves and make themselves immune from these, so the best policy is not to get angry but work to live a life of truth and justice and seek knowledge and intellectual development to defend and promote Islam. Weak arguments and anger will not only be wrong but be ounterproductive.