(The Quint brings to you 'Khairiyat', a column by award-winning author Tabish Khair, where he talks about the politics of race, the experiences of diasporas, Europe-India dynamics and the interplay of culture, history and society, among other issues of global significance.)
Even sadder than the attack on Salman Rushdie – may he recover soon – is the fact that many Muslims are defending, even acclaiming it. I say so not to defend whatever Rushdie might or might not have written. I say so because as long as substantial numbers of Muslims feel that a stupid knife is an answer to words and ideas, they, as communities, are doomed.
I can understand that religious Muslims feel offended by Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. There is nothing wrong with feeling offended, or even with protesting legally, though optimally, both should involve a degree of intellectual effort, not just loud shouting on the streets. Offended Muslims should, if they have any capability as well, write books or essays to counter what they consider wrong in that novel, or in other novels. They should write books of their own, and write them well enough to gain even more readers.
The 'Generation of Rage'
There is nothing to stop them from doing so. If they did so, they will develop their own ideas, explore their own possibilities, and engage in the kind of intellectual activity that their prophet recommended when he said that a Muslim should go as far as China (the farthest corner of the world) for knowledge. But sneaking up and attacking a 75-year-old author with a knife is not going to give anything to the community except a taste for fascist power.
As usual, most of these Muslims who are acclaiming the attacker have not read The Satanic Verses. Is the novel really blasphemous? Is the novel even about the prophet of Islam? Or is the novel about something else altogether? These are questions they are not willing to ask themselves, and, more than that, these are people who cannot read literature as literature. They relate to the world as if it was a unidimensional thing, like a knife, and fail to really understand words or ideas, let alone consider their subtleties and nuances. In this, for Muslims from my tradition, they fail in the first injunction that started their holy book: ‘Read!’
Interestingly, many of the people tweeting ‘blessings’ on the attacker are indulging in what David Devadas, in a perceptive book on Kashmir some years ago, called the “generation of rage”. By that, he also meant that an entire class of highly privileged people in Kashmir talked in ways that generated rage among the unemployed and the less privileged and educated. This rage then spilt out on the roads or enabled radical militants to influence youth into sacrificing for some cause or the other. The point is not that there were no reasons for protest or even anger: there were such reasons in Kashmir, and there are such reasons in the world.
But the rage generated was a total failure – it was a negative response, enabled by classes that did not put their careers or affluence on the line, but instead prepared poorer, less educated people to offer themselves up as a sacrifice, often for causes they vaguely understood.
Many of the tweets supporting the attack on Rushdie come from people like that, and this, too, is detrimental to Muslims as a community. It is an abdication of community responsibility by the elites.
What Fascism Really Means
Whatever might be the position of Muslims in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran, where the structures of power, though different from one another politically and theologically, are essentially authoritarian, this matter assumes further shades in places like India, and in Western nations. These are constitutional democracies, and in India in particular, many Muslims claim that the rise of Hindutva – with its corollary of lynch mobs – contains a fascist element. The essential definition of fascism is the use of physical force against social, intellectual and political opponents.
It is the brown shirts marching, the stomp of Nazi boots. It is Jews and Gypsies being hunted down in the streets by Nazí mobs. It is the knife in the ribs.
How can any Muslim in India even consider supporting a person who attacks and knives an author? Essentially, this is a quintessentially fascist enactment of power. If religious Muslims cannot see this, then they leave their societies wide open to the incursions of fascism. And interestingly, they enable their opponents to justify the use of fascist force against them.
Reaching an Intellectual Dead-End?
There is so much wrong with the attack on Rushdie. But there is so much more wrong with any rationalisation – let alone celebration – of the attack. Unless Muslims can come to see this, they will be hollowing out their own intellectual and other traditions.
To use a knife against an idea is to use a knife against your own brain. To use a knife against words is to slice off your own fingers. One does not have to agree with Rushdie to say so. One simply has to care enough for Muslims to realise that they have reached an imaginational and intellectual dead-end if they celebrate a knife over ideas.
What kinds of generations of scholars will that spawn? What kind of writers to celebrate and narrate the best in Muslim traditions? What kind of scientists to help Muslim communities – and states and the world – to solve their problems? What students, what teachers? What caring fathers, what informed mothers? What thoughtful children?
A knife is no way to think.
(Tabish Khair, is PhD, DPhil, Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark. He tweets @KhairTabish. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)