In a sense, any book is blasphemous. Whenever someone reads Nineteen Eighty-Four, or The Ruba’iyat or Slaughterhouse-5, there sits someone who isn’t reading the Bible or the Koran. Even a holy book can be blasphemous, if it is interpreted wrongly or translated into the wrong language.
The Satanic Verses still seems more blasphemous than most. Twenty-three years after the book was published and burned and banned, its author Salman Rushdie has had to pull out of the Jaipur literary festival due to threats of assassination. Even a planned videolink address was pulled.
The novelist Hari Kunzru and the Indian writer Amitava Kumar decided, without telling the organisers, to highlight the ban at their afternoon event, and to read from Rushdie’s novel, in solidarity with the exiled novelist and with freedom of expression. Two other writers, at separate festival events, did the same.
It’s worth quoting from Kunzru’s statement at the festival.
Today, one of India’s greatest novelists, Salman Rushdie – a writer whose work enshrines doubt as a necessary and valueable ethical position – has been prevented from addressing this festival by those whose certainty leads them to believe that they have the right to kill anyone who opposes them. This kind of blind, violent certainty is in opposition to everything the festival stands for – openness, intellectual growth and the free exchange of ideas. There are many rights for which we should fight, but the right to protection from offense is not one of them. Freedom of speech is a foundational freedom, on which all others depend. Freedom of speech means the freedom to say unpopular, even shocking things. Without it, writers can have little impact on the culture. Unless we come out strongly in support of Rushdie’s right to be here, and to speak to us, we might as well shut the doors of this hall and go home.
After the event, journalists and officials descended on the venue in battalions. Kunzru was asked to sign a statement, drafted by a lawyer and the festival organisers, ‘making clear that the festival was not responsible for our actions.’ He was then advised to leave India immediately to avoid the risk of arrest.
The Jaipur organisers scrambled against this heresy. Kenan Malik describes the process:
The Festival organizers distanced themselves from what they called Kunzru and Kumar’s ‘unnecessary provocation’, and put pressure on other speakers not to follow suit. ‘Any action by any delegate or anyone else involved with the Festival that in any manner falls foul of the law will not be tolerated and all necessary, consequential action will be taken’, threatened a subsequent press release.
The press release states with prissy restraint that ‘certain delegates acted in a manner during their sessions today which were without the prior knowledge or consent of the organizers.’ Whatever next!
Freedom of speech is something that local government officers, festival organisers and arts admins say they value – right up until the point where it actually has to be defended.
It’s a feature of the Rushdie debate that so few of the censors and frothers actually bothered to read the work of fiction in question. The Iranian secularist Maryam Namazie has published an extract here, so I will too.
It happens: revelation. Like this: Mahound, still in his notsleep, becomes rigid, veins bulge in his neck, he clutches at his centre. No, no, nothing like an epileptic fit, it can’t be explained away that easily; what epileptic fit ever caused day to turn to night, cause clouds to mass overhead, caused the air to thicken into soup while an angel hung, scared silly, in the sky above the sufferer, held up like a kite on a golden thread… Gibreel begins to feel that strength that force, here it is at my own jaw working it, opening shutting, and the power, starting within Mahound, reaching up to my vocal chords and the voice comes.
Not my voice I’d never know such words I’m no classy speaker never was never will be but this isn’t my voice it’s a Voice.