By Marianne Landzettel
March 19th 2012
A quarter of a century should be enough time for anyone to calm down, except we’re talking about Salman Rushdie’s book ‘The Satanic Verses’. Published in 1988 it still has the power to ignite a row – and the author seems to be doing his best to keep it that way. The most recent spat has Salman Rushdie in one corner and Imran Khan in the other. The ring for the verbal clashes moves from lit fest to lit fest or wherever else an attentive audience can be found. This round was kicked off by Iran Khan at the Calcutta literary festival. He accused Mr Rushdie of ‘inflicting pain on society’ through his writing. Next was there was the Jaipur literary festival where Salman Rushdie had been invited to speak, just to be un-invited because of fears that protests by Muslim groups might lead to violence. Mr Rushdie called the move a ‘black farce’ that stifled free speech. And a number of authors deciding to read from ‘The Satanic Verses’ – to the displeasure of many visitors who had come to hear about new books, rather than a stale controversy.
Mr Rushdie got his chance to speak in India last weekend during a conference in Delhi sponsored by the India Today publishing group. Also on the list of speakers was the former Pakistan cricket captain turned politician Imran Khan. But when he discovered Salman Rushdie would be present, he cancelled his visit, saying Mr Rushdie’s writing had caused ‘immeasurable hurt to Muslims across the globe’. On Saturday Rushdie had a packed auditorium in Delhi’s Taj hotel to explain what he thought caused hurt to Muslims. Immeasurable hurt, Mr Rushdie said, was caused to the way Muslims are seen by ‘the terrorists based in Pakistan who act in the name of Islam, including those who attacked this country (India) from Pakistan.’ Referring to the writer with whom he shared the podium, Aatish Taseer, the son of the murdered Punjabi governor, Salmaan Taseer, Mr Rushdie said: ‘Immeasurable hurt is caused to Islam by people like the fanatic who killed this young man’s father and by those who showered the killer with flower petals when he came to court.’ Mr Rushdie is not the first to make this point, but considering the circumstances it might be a point that can’t be made often enough. Had he just left it at that…. But Mr Rushdie didn’t and instead started to get personal and into rant mode. He doubted very much, Mr Rushdie said, that Imran Khan had ever read ‘The Satanic Verses’. And he went on: ‘Back in the day when he was a playboy in London the most common nickname for him in London circles was ‘Im the Dim’. The force of intellect, which earned him that nickname, is now placed in the service of his people. And its enemy, I believe, is my book. If Imran really wants to argue about the literary merit of the Satanic Verses I am happy to meet him in a debate of that subject anywhere, any time. Well… maybe not anywhere.’
Warming to his subject and audibly amused by his own perceived wit Salman Rushdie pointed out what he believes to be a physical likeness between Imran Khan and Muhammad Gaddafi – and so it went on. It was this comparison several English language papers in Pakistan picked up as a headline for their coverage of the Delhi event – which, it must be said, relied mostly on agency copy and stuck to reporting the story. The Express Tribune also published the result of a poll: 76% of its readers, it said, agreed with Imran Khan’s decision to pull out of his Delhi speaking engagement.
But just when you feel yourself starting to side with Mr Khan, Salman Rushdie comes out with a new line – and some genuine food for thought. Referring to the ‘very difficult game’ he believes Imran Khan is playing, ‘placating the mullahs on the one hand, cosying up to the army on the other, while trying to present himself to the West as a modernising face of Pakistan’.
There has been no official reaction to Salman Rushdie’s comments either in India or in Pakistan.
(Salman Rushdie quotes at India Today conference transcribed from video embedded on NDTV webpage.)