Exactly twenty five years ago today, Salman Rushdie received an unusual Valentine: a fatwa from Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini calling for his head. This you already know. But why did India and South Africa ban the book many months before Iran reacted, what does it mean that the book remains sanctioned in both countries today, and why should anyone care?
Hookers, Heretics and Heroes
In the early months of 1989 I became obsessed with a brash, sophisticated and worldly Indian immigrant to England whose nascent renown peaked in a spectacular international crisis. It was the story of the season: newspapers were full of it, newspaper editors were in the thick of it, national security was threatened, and Muslim potentates were involved. Her name was Pamella Bordes. (Or, as a Daily Mail teaser had it, Per-mell-a Bor-dez, thereby conferring upon her a sultry Latin mystique). She began life as Pamela Singh, with a single ‘l’ and in middle-class Punjabi comfort. In 1982, she won the Miss India crown, which took her to Europe—and there was no looking back. Seven years later she was another person in another country, a researcher at the House of Commons and the lover of big-name editors, high-ranking parliamentarians and Middle-eastern arms dealers all at once—while somehow still finding the time to turn tricks on the side.
Alas, the good life was not to last. A curious tabloid and an undercover investigation ended it all; the revelation that Gadaffi’s top lieutenant and several of Her Majesty’s finest had rolled in the same hay proved too horrific for the fragile islands to handle—and the press had a field day. In good old socialist India, Bordes’ story was reported with the expected level of hysteria, and with a distinct touch of pride thrown in. Bordes was supernaturally glamorous, and she was one of ours. Sure, it was a scandal, but it was a scandal of the highest order. As for me, I was lost in a vision of her face, her body and her story. And three months into my rapture, when the paparazzi chased her down in faraway Bali—precipitating a road accident that left her face wrecked beyond recognition—I was incensed. At that moment, in the middle of my interminable teenage interregnum, I knew exactly how I wanted to spend the rest of my life: rescuing her, comforting her, and providing her the everlasting love that someone of her exceptional sex appeal so clearly deserved.
There was, of course, another brash, sophisticated and worldly Indian immigrant in London who was causing trouble at exactly the same time. This young man, a nascent celebrity too, would go through his own transformation—from a bright, young writer of experimental fiction to the fictional experiment known as Joseph Anton. Somewhat unusually, his transformation could be traced back to a single day; Valentine’s Day. On February 14, 1989, the ailing Ayatollah Khomeini—standing in for the greasy London publicist Max Clifford who discovered the Bordes story and sold it to the world—issued a fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie’s head. In the next few months, both scandals vied for the headlines. Murdoch’s News of the World had the big Bordes scoop early in March 1989; the Evening Standard exposed her Libyan connection immediately afterwards; the Daily Mail ran an exclusive tell-all that April; and shortly after, Bordes was lying bruised and broken in Bali. Then she fell of the map.
In India, where none of these newspapers had any meaning, I remember reading of the fatwa as it happened. And I remember being mostly uninterested in Rushdie: he was a sleepy-looking man in some kind of uninteresting trouble, I was a hormonal beehive, and she was the sexiest woman in the world. Then, one day, I learnt of the connection between these two people. I saw a cartoon which had a confounded Margaret Thatcher poking her buck-teeth out of a window while competing placards below called for Rushdie’s death and Parliament’s dissolution on account of the potential security breach (“These Indians! These Indian-born Indians!” she was saying, raising her fists) —and I felt a surge of pride. Here, at last, were two tropical émigrés I wanted to identify with—the hooker and the heretic—dominating conversation the world over in the most unpredictable manner possible, bringing a nation that both had narrowly missed being colonised by to its knees.
Two decades later, Pamella Bordes is nowhere—having renounced her old self and fashioned a quietly successful career as a photographer—and Salman Rushdie’s gripping, gossipy memoir of the fatwa days is everywhere. I could not have predicted this, but clearly, I knew nothing. I could have not known that 1989 would be the year in which my world fought to turn itself inside out. The planet was preoccupied with publicly snuffing the last breaths of life out of communism while India was secretly plotting her own assault on socialism, and no one, certainly not anyone in the West, quite understood how insignificant scraps from the final battlefield of the Cold War would ignite other debris from the wreckage of utopia to form the defining problem of our time.
This is especially evident from the archives of Private Eye, the satirical fortnightly which serves as a kind of house journal of Fleet Street. Rushdie made two Private Eye covers, back to back, the first on March 3, 1989 (a solemn colleague of the Ayatollah says “Have you read the book?” to which the Ayatollah replies, “Are you mad?”) and the second on March 17, 1989 (a beady-eyed Margaret Thatcher greets a fully costumed Mickey Mouse with “How nice to see you Mr Rushdie”). Bordes got two covers of her own as well, on April 28, 1989 and February 2, 1990; and in the year that followed the announcement of the fatwa, it would not have been unreasonable to claim that both stories attracted a roughly similar amount of attention. And it might not be unreasonable to claim that had Joseph Anton—or whatever equivalent of it—been written in the mid-1990s, it would have been the kind of book heralded by free-speech liberals and anti-censorship activists and otherwise left sympathetically alone. Had it been written in the years immediately following 9/11 it would probably have become a war-on-terror classic; revered at the American Enterprise Institute and the White House, and nervously considered by the left. As such, written and published as it was a few months ago in 2012, after the world has turned several times over and after the pitch of the conversation has lost that first flush of unreasonable passion, it’s just pure gold. There’s a lesson in here for publishers and punters alike: sex scandals will come and go, but holy wars are written forever.
The current edition of the book that started it all is inscribed with what are surely the truest words ever to come out of publishing PR. You can’t make this up: Random House describes The Satanic Verses as Rushdie’s “most galvanizing book.” It must have certainly felt that way in South Africa in 1988. In the waning years of apartheid, as the ANC relaxed its calls for a cultural boycott of the country, a congress of ‘struggle’ writers—COSAW—and the anti-apartheid Weekly Mail put together a literary festival at which Rushdie was invited to speak, ironically as it would turn out, against censorship. On October 28, 1988, three days before Rushdie was due to arrive, the apartheid government galvanized against his book. From petition to decision, the deed was done in four days flat, and The Satanic Verses became the very last work of literature to be banned by the departing regime. The festival organisers were plunged into crisis; Rushdie’s invitation was rescinded; and a brief war broke out between Nadine Gordimer, who didn’t think it worth risking the author’s life to honour a principle, and J.M. Coetzee, who uncompromisingly honoured it in the Weekly Mail, lambasting the “madness of settler apocalyptics” and lamenting the fallout—the “smiles in the mosques” and “chuckles in the corridors of Pretoria.” (“In retrospect,” he would later write, “I think Gordimer, in her prudence, was right, and I was wrong.”)
The apartheid government weren’t the only ones galvanizing. In Rushdie’s account, the decision to rescind the invitation came from within. People who qualified as ‘Indians’ and ‘Coloureds’—two of the numerically minor racial categories in operation at the time, both with significant Muslim representation—were part of the struggle too. He writes of a telephone conversation with a concerned South African who described himself as a “liberal, modern person”, who urged him to stay away for his own safety and for the “well-being of the anti-apartheid movement.” Nadine Gordimer called, “agitated and distressed” about plans to “kill him and bomb his meetings and attack those who had invited him.” Fatima Meer, among the highest-standing Muslims in the ANC all through its underground years, called the book “a malicious attack on his ethnic past”—referring to the author—and said, “In the final analysis it is the Third World that Rushdie attacks, it is the faith of the Third World itself.” Two of the country’s oldest minority activist organisations, the Natal Indian Congress and the Transvaal Indian Congress—both of which Mahatma Gandhi helped found and were closely aligned with the ANC—exerted all the anti-Rushdie pressure they could. COSAW did not want to upset its allies, much less its numerous Muslim members—and it didn’t help that the Weekly Mail was popularly perceived as being run by Jews. Finally, a compromise was reached: Rushdie called in to the meeting from London and got to say his piece.
The story of this unlikely congruence of white supremacists, Muslim fundamentalists, and earnest revolutionaries is narrated by Peter McDonald in his wonderful book on the consequences of apartheid censorship, The Literature Police. Indian and Coloured people were the apartheid-era’s swing-vote; people whose sympathies could be courted by the left and the right, and frequently were. In 1984, under tremendous international pressure to display some evidence of their humanity, the ruling National Party—the Nats—devised a tricameral parliament. It was a neat little trick. Indian and Coloured people now had official seats at the table, though in reality, very little power. Nadine Gordimer’s conspiracy theory, McDonald relates, is that Indian puppets in government were responsible for whipping up mass consensus on Rushdie. She went further, blaming a pact between what she called “Muslim extremists” and the apartheid government for creating the fire-storm the festival organisers faced. The truth is unclear, because not all notes on the censorship file survived the journey to the archives, but what is clear is that Gordimer was under-reporting the struggle within the struggle, and that despite the numerous South African Muslims who publicly stood up for Rushdie’s right to speak, the country was easily hoodwinked by the loudest voices on the block—the retrograde Muslim Judicial Council and the Council of Muslim Theologians—into believing they spoke for the whole block.
One of the loudest voices on the block belonged to a charismatic, self-taught, seventy-year-old evangelist from Verulam in what is now KwaZulu Natal. ‘Sheikh’ Ahmed Deedat had turned a childhood grudge at not being able to hold his own against Christian missionaries into a lifelong vocation. With early assistance from the Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia, he turned his vocation into an empire. (Deedat’s Durban base, the Islamic Propagation Centre International, until recently, had the words ‘Bin Laden’ prefixed to its name). His appeal was obvious: he spoke English fluently, his speeches were colourful and coherent, his message was always on-point, ans he could summon obscure passages from the Quran on call. He had the easy, vernacular charm of a street-fighter. His grey beard gave him authority; his sassiness and salty tongue made youngsters feel he was one of them; and that he invariably had a dark, frightening and violent lesson to impart didn’t really seem to matter.
On October 1, 1989, one year after the South African ruckus and several months after the fatwa had been declared, Deedat rented the Royal Albert Hall in London to rally his troops. And in this instance, he had a curious message for his followers. He skirted over Islamic objections to the book—as though Rushdie’s sins in that direction were a foregone conclusion—and concentrated instead on why Britain and the rest of the world should be offended, offering what would turn out to be a masterclass in secular dissimulation. “I can’t read The Satanic Verses in my own country,” he began, informing the packed auditorium that the book had been banned at home—by the apartheid government, mind you—because it was “racist.” The proof? Rushdie said “Niggers eat white man’s shit”. (These words, of course, appear in The Satanic Verses, and in italics, as racist graffiti drawn on the walls of a low-income English council estate, or at least the dreamlike approximation of one.) But Deedat was on a roll. He made reference to all manner of Gods, he scoffed at his audience for being racial cowards, and he appealed to their patriotism—their British patriotism. He had a British passport, he told them, proudly holding it aloft—”I am one of you.” And this, he said, was what Rushdie thought of their mutual countrywomen: “White women—never mind fat, Jewish, non-deferential white women—were for fucking and throwing over.” This is what he called “our Maggie”: a bitch. Rushdie said British people “fuck their own sisters”. (And by the way, he used the word “fuck” fifty-two times in his book.) Rushdie said Londoners are “bastards”. He claimed to have had sex with the Queen of England.
It was heady stuff, and even though Deedat didn’t offer any practical pointers that night, his audience of six thousand—among who only one person had apparently read the book—exploded with mirth. (The lesson would follow shortly in a lecture entitled “Should Rushdie Die?“—to which the seventy-minute-long answer was yes, and had something to do with his fate being encoded in his surname.) The genius of Deedat’s critique, however, was the worldly nature of his appeal—and to appreciate his foresight as well as the forgotten nature of that time, one only has to imagine the impossibility of a similarly chummy recruitment message, replete with Biblical allusions, street slang, and a passionate defence of the West, emerging from some Taliban hideout today.
When the Pakistani horror film Zibahkhana (Hell’s Ground) was released in 2007, it became an instant classic. Omar Ali Khan’s tight, clever and blood-spattered tribute to the Hollywood schlock-horror cinema of his youth was feted by genre fans as far and wide as Denmark and Brazil. Within Pakistan, unfortunately, aside from a few wildly successful private screenings, it had an aborted run—its theatrical release coincided with Benazir Bhutto’s shocking assassination, and it fell by the wayside as the nation shut down. What was surprising, however, was that it made it past the Pakistani censors at all—for the killer in the film turns out to be a disturbed young man draped in a shuttlecock burqa. The man-in-burqa routine is as old as the burqa itself, and has long been a staple of South Asian comedy and farce, but this was different. This was the ‘burqaman’—a cross-dressing pathological serial killer decked out in the universal marker of Pakistan’s state religion, in a film guaranteed to be seen around the world. At a screening of Zibahkhana a few years ago in Bangalore, the film scholar M.K. Raghavendra made an insightful remark. He was grateful for having watched it, he said, and more so for it having been made in Pakistan—for if Zibahkhana had been an Indian film, it would have never made it out of the gates. He was right, of course. Pakistan-bashing may be a time-honoured and widely permissible filmic tradition, but when it comes to Islam, the censors, whether serving a secular government or not, tend to treat domestic Muslim sentiment as a powder keg waiting to explode.
Authenticity counts for something; the confidence that authenticity bestows counts for even more. But our secular governments and their minority subjects, trapped in a death volley of mutual charges of inauthenticity, have trained each other to play it safe. (It used to be that despite the heft of the Hindu right, Hinduism was given more room to play, but this too is changing—and just as chillingly). The point is not so much whether an Indian film like Zibahkhana will ever be cleared for public viewing; it is that a film like it will never be made in this country. How then did an Indian Muslim writer acquire the cred to create something as brazen as The Satanic Verses? One source of Rushdie’s authenticity is surely the location and time of his childhood—wealthy, worldly Muslims growing up in 1950s Bombay did not know how to cower. Another source of his authenticity is the secret that lay in plain view for all to see. Until the publication of his memoir, for anyone who didn’t look too closely, Rushdie was an Indian who migrated to Britain, and that was that. In Joseph Anton, Rushdie opens up about his family’s migration to Pakistan in 1965. While Rushdie was being educated in England, his parents and his sisters were charting a new course in Karachi, surrounded by relatives and friends who had undertaken the great trek back in 1947. Things did not go well for them, and his family slid into a genteel decline. One sister left for London, another for Berkeley, his father died, and Rushdie’s mother and youngest sister stayed on in the country all through the fatwa years, right to their very ends; aided by loving cousins and companions, they came to no harm.
Despite all this—or perhaps because of it—Rushdie is no fan of Pakistan: his exact words are, “Pakistan sucks.” In his own description, he is an Indian from Bombay and always will be, which is both an incontrovertible fact and—in light of his parents’ subsequent choice of longitude—a determined act of self-invention. Then there are the stories that circulate among members of his extended family in Pakistan, stories that cement the gaps in Rushdie’s account of his immediate family’s selves, homes and nations: the house his father bought on a whim in Karachi in 1947 which invited the Indian government’s wrath upon him even though he hadn’t intended to leave Bombay; the fifteen-year-long harassment his family faced from that selfsame government for being suspect of wanting to leave, a harassment that eventually drove them to leave—first to London, and then Karachi; the towel factory his father invested in immediately upon arriving in Pakistan that went to pot, setting in motion the gradual depletion of his considerable finances; the lasting anger of relatives close and far who felt they had been served up as comic caricatures in Midnight’s Children; the rumour that Benazir Bhutto, memorably sent up in Shame as “the Virgin Ironpants”, was in fact his middle sister’s closest childhood friend and therefore doubly wounded by the description; the discreet changing of the nameplate on the home in Defence from ‘Rushdie’ to ‘Ahmed’ when the protests began in 1988; and the fact that he financially supported his mother and his youngest sister single-handedly for the better part of two decades, though all the bad times.
Pakistan is the arsenal of authenticity that Rushdie has never used, whereas anti-Rushdie hysteria is the arsenal of authenticity that Pakistan has practically used up. Election after election, to this very day, denouncing Rushdie is political shorthand for patriotism. Call it bukkake by the book; here, more than anywhere, he remains an enduring orgasmatron in the infinite circle jerk of competing pieties. And it isn’t just the state who bounces on this bandwagon—the film industry climbed on board with an epic feat of imagination called International Gorillay (Gorillay is guerillas rendered in Punjabi). Its cult status is well deserved: the ‘Rushdie’ of the film is a slippery hedonist whose devious plot to bring down Pakistan hinges on opening up a chain of discotheques and casinos in partnership with Mossad; he hides his pious prisoners in his lair somewhere in the Philippines and tortures them by reading aloud a blood-curdling horror story called ‘The Satanic Verses’; his chief opponents are a determined group of brothers whose preferred method of slipping by unnoticed in present-day Manila is to disguise themselves in Batsuits; and just when you think the battle may be lost, a quartet of jerkily levitating Qurans sizzle his head with divine laser beams from on high, restoring happiness in the land.
The short arc of this strange film is an instructive lesson in the myriad opportunities presented by enemies of the God. On the film’s release in 1990, its director Jan Mohammad promoted his creation by unapologetically lashing out at Rushdie for insulting the Prophet. Later in the year, after a highly profitable domestic run, and after soaking up all the righteous money it could absorb, International Gorillay battled British censors for an international release—a move that Rushdie himself came out and supported. And by this time, the film’s producer, Sajjad Gul, had prepared a more palatable pitch for his global audience. “To me, it’s a satire on the whole issue,” he told the New York Times. “If it had been made in England or America, it would have been made by Mel Brooks. That’s how people should view it.”
Appropriately enough, it was in Pakistan I first encountered a shape-shifting, border-crossing phenomenon from Bombay called Zakir Naik. Virtually every single video store I visited in Lahore and Rawalpindi prominently displayed his packaged sermons, and overcome by his ubiquity, I succumbed. I was intrigued to discover a wholly twenty-first century missionary; a self-taught man-of-the-people on a relentless charm offensive, armed with a medical degree and blessed with a worldwide audience, courtesy Peace TV, a Saudi-funded television station he runs out of Dubai. And I was delighted to discover Naik learnt his trade at the feet of the master, Sheikh Ahmed Deedat—and had become his most successful protégé ever. They first met in Verulam in 1988—which makes their union exactly as old as The Satanic Verses—and the master devoted the next decade to shaping the servant in his image, with evident success. At one of their last meetings, a supine and severely diminished Deedat conveyed his appreciation to a tearful Naik from his hospital bed: “Zakir my son, I am proud of you, thanks to Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala you have made mincemeat of the Hindu, the Christian and the Jew. My son, you have achieved in four years what took me forty years!”
Like father, like son, Naik’s charm is utterly of his time—and of his country. In place of a potty mouth, Naik ramps up the humour; his coy homage to Deedat’s favourite expression is to mutter the acronym “Father Uncle Cousin King” with a wink and a pause. On the Rushdie question, he derides the Ayatollah for getting in on the game so many months after the book was banned in India (“I congratulated Rajiv Gandhi! He did the right thing!”) and then launches into a heartfelt disquisition on Rushdie’s misdemeanours against Hinduism, specifically, his portrayals of the revered Sita and Rama as wanton and drunk, and of the reviled Ravana as worthy. Twenty years after Deedat, Naik’s sermons end with exactly the same conclusion—namely, that Rushdie needs to die—but the blow is softened by a comparison of the ways in which a blasphemer can be sent on his way in Christianity and Islam, since, according to Naik, Leviticus offers only one option—stoning to death—while the Quran offers four. “In Christianity, there is no option,” he concludes, repeating his point, “and in Islam there are four options. You can choose.”
Double-speaking preachers are hardly extraordinary, and it’s almost a job requirement that they be clever and charismatic. Yet, what is extraordinary about Naik is that he dissimulated his way right into the heart of secular Indian news media. His articulation, his youth and his good looks—not to mention his medical degree—were taken for good sense, and he turned into some sort of ‘sensible face of Islam‘ on my television screen, being cheered on by the Hindi film director Mahesh Bhatt and appearing as a talking head on India’s most progressive news channel, NDTV. The apex of his achievement was to be interviewed by Shekhar Gupta, editor of the national newspaper Indian Express. In a March 2009 episode of Walk the Talk, a weekly programme Gupta hosts on NDTV, Naik was given a rousing welcome as the “rockstar of tele-evangelism”. Gupta, who is something of a right-winger, went on to say “He’s not preaching what you would expect a tele-evangelist to preach; he’s teaching modern Islam, and not just Islam, but also his own interpretation of all the faiths around the world.” It was all downhill from there: Gupta marvelled at his modern attire—a suit—and his modern medium of expression—cable television; he was heartened to hear Naik did not believe ‘Islam’ condoned the Bombay attacks of 26/11; he nodded meekly when Naik hinted that 26/11 might have been an inside job and 9/11 a giant conspiracy, and again when he suggested it was fine for Muslim girls to be kept away from schools if they were only going there to “lose their virginity”; and finally, having run out of ways to coddle him, Gupta forced the good preacher to describe his mission as “getting people from all religions together” and signed off.
Getting people from all religions together is kind of what the government of India had in mind as well when it first confronted The Satanic Verses. For the ruling Congress Party, that sentiment translated to ‘Are we doing enough to keep the Muslim vote?’ which meant in turn that India banned the book on October 5, 1988, a mere ten days into its life, famously becoming the first country in the world to do so. It is less well known that South Africa was the second country in the world to ban the book, though the processes that led to the book’s banning in both countries were remarkably similar. Weirdly, the Indian ban was invoked by the Finance Ministry, which prohibited importation of the book into the country under the Customs Act of 1962. (Possession of the book itself was not a crime, so if it magically materialised and fell into your lap, you were fine.) More weirdly, the Finance Ministry issued a press release stating that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work”—which led Rushdie to call it his strangest good review, foretelling Naipul’s dementedly funny dismissal of the fatwa as “an extreme form of literary criticism”.
The standard narrative of the events leading up to the ban is this. Hardline Muslim organisations in India began mobilising around the book at about the time it was published in the UK, and the loudest and hardest line belonged to one Syed Shahabuddin, who happened to be a sitting Member of Parliament at the time. Strident Shahabuddin had long since secured a place for himself as the nation’s voice of Islam; only a few years earlier, he had effectively slapped Muslim women all over the country by pressuring the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to strengthen Muslim personal law in matters of alimony relating to divorce, a move that entrusted all decision-making around alimony to the hands of men, overruling a civil law judgement that provided a fairer outcome to the women affected. The ‘Shah Bano case’ as it came to be known was met with outrage all around, but the Congress—at least in its own eyes and Shahabuddin’s—had officially ‘done something for Muslims’, and was licking its lips at the prospect of doing so again.
All this is believable and true. And yet, like in South Africa later that very month, there were also more earnest and well-intentioned efforts to ban the book. Prominent among these was the opinion of Sikh historian Khushwant Singh—a legendary writer, Congress confidante, and secular strongman—whose warning bell for The Satanic Verses rang loud and clear. As a consulting editor at Penguin, Rushdie’s publisher, Singh was given the manuscript in advance, and he wrote in the Illustrated Weekly of India that the book deserved to be banned—becoming the first respectable intellectual to come out and say so. But as Rushdie reveals in Joseph Anton, it was another article that started it all. Shahabuddin did not actually read The Satanic Verses; his opinion of the book was formed solely on the basis of an article he read in the fortnightly magazine India Today. The author of that piece was the journalist Madhu Jain, who happened to be visiting Rushdie at his home in London when the bound proofs of his new book were delivered to him. She asked for a copy and got one. Nine days before the book was launched in London, she published her review. It was headlined “An unequivocal attack on religious fundamentalism”, it misquoted him saying, “My theme is fanaticism”, and it ended with the ominous words, “The Satanic Verses is bound to trigger an avalanche of protests.” What was this, Rushdie furiously writes, except “an open invitation for those protests to begin”? Twenty years later, Rushdie’s fury at the review subsided but did not disappear. Given the scale of subsequent protests, he eventually came around to thinking that even if that review had not been written, something else was sure to have sparked the fire sooner or later.
With the publication of Joseph Anton, Madhu Jain was pushed into the spotlight. In a short essay in the weekly news-magazine Open and in an interview with the Times of India, she disclosed, for the first time, what really happened. Jain admired Rushdie: she was on his side. “Worried about the reaction of Muslim fundamentalists to some of the passages in the novel, I wished Salman to say that it was not just Islamic fundamentalism but fundamentalism of all kinds that he was against,” she said. “Unfortunately, the editor of the books pages of the magazine at the time, who later went on to edit a national daily, plucked some of the more volatile extracts from the novel—those about the Prophet’s wives—and inserted them into the book review.” The blaring headline was not her choice either—it was devised by the same editor. Jain tried to explain this to Rushdie but was never forgiven. And who was this unnamed editor who spiked the review that started it all? None other than Shekhar Gupta, the man who would learn to love Zakir Naik and American corporations and Hindu governments in equal measure, hereby inaugurating a long innings as the confused champion of scatter-shot right-wing secularism.
Spare a thought for secularism. One month into the life of The Satanic Verses, only two states anywhere in the world had taken decisive action against the book and they had done so for purely secular reasons. One country—independent India—was officially secular, and the other—apartheid South Africa—was a Christian state on the cusp of a secular transformation; while for all its faults independent India was never a white supremacist occupation, the countries were twentieth century creations both—modern, mongrel republics with multitudinous faiths, races and persuasions to reconcile—and call it opportunism if you will, or just plain goodwill, but they did ban the book.
Spare a further thought for the journey of these secularisms. It is perfectly fair to suggest that Indian secularism started out sincerely—indeed, as did Pakistan’s, at least as evidenced by Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s opening words at his country’s first Constituent Assembly meeting in 1947, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan …You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” (The sentiment quickly disappeared, as did the speech, which has been expunged from the archives of Radio Pakistan).
South African secularism traces its roots to a surprising source: racism. The Nats, who won the vote in 1948, and would keep it through the better part of the twentieth century, built a system out of loosely organised sentiments, policies and practices. They called it apartheid, and it may have been the country’s first official exercise in multi-racialism. By the 1980s, apartheid multi-racialism was in need of an update, and a tricameral parliament was the state’s strategic response. (Black people had already been consigned to their own equally powerless sovereign units in the ‘Homelands’). The ANC’s response to multi-racialism was non-racialism, and it was an emotional masterstroke, all the more for being sincere. And it was from these histories, unwittingly or wittingly, that South African secularism emerged; as an unintended consequence of the apartheid state’s mobilisation of minorities, as a residue of the resistance agenda, and as an afterthought whose implications neither the state nor the struggle had the time to understand.
Of course, what followed with The Satanic Verses would overshadow everything that had happened in India and South Africa. As the weeks progressed, in quick succession, the book was banned in Bangladesh, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, followed by a host of other Islamic states, and a few non-Islamic ones too. Four months after the first wave, the Supreme Leader of Iran fought the fog of medication and caught up with those revolting Sunnis (and how)—propelling his Shias ahead of the curve and defining the rest of Rushdie’s life. Understandably, Joseph Anton is a book whose main preoccupation is the morbid preoccupation this theocrat had with its author. Ununderstandably however, commentary on the Rushdie affair still fixates on why the Islamic state is to blame for everything that happened, never mind that it was the calamitous action of a secular state that precipitated and blessed the worldwide crisis that ensued.
And what of The Satanic Verses in India and South Africa today? The 1988 importation ban remains in place in India and no domestic publisher has dared give it a go, though Rushdie has been generally welcome to visit the country for several years now—except, as he recently found out, when a secular government is in power and when the country’s largest state is about to go to the polls. Earlier this year, Rushdie was “strongly advised” to skip an appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival by the Congress-led government in the state of Rajasthan on mysterious “security concerns”, coincidentally, only one month before elections were due to be held in the state of Uttar Pradesh—which sends in some 20% of the parliamentary headcount, and where the Congress hoped to win. (He could not be physically banned because as a government recognised ‘Person of Indian Origin’ he did not require a visa to enter the country). The Darul Uloom Deoband, among the nuttiest and most nationalist Islamic seminaries in the state, whose previous excursion in the media was as the site of a major scandal—a television crew bribed its administrators into issuing fatwas against credit cards and double beds, and filmed the operation—noticed Rushdie’s inclusion in the Jaipur programme, and cranked it up loud enough for the Congress to hear. As it turned out, the party had tin ears and was routed, coming in fourth, trailing even the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, whose Hindu mobs only twenty years ago had led the destruction of one of the oldest mosques in the state—the Babri Masjid—and a subsequent massacre of Muslims; oddly enough, it seemed as if thirty five million Muslim voters in crushingly poor Uttar Pradesh cared more about their prospects for a better life than whether a man who wrote a book a long time ago would be allowed to spend an hour on a stage at a gathering of literature fans in a city far away.
In February 2002, the fourteen year old ban on The Satanic Verses was technically lifted by a brand-new law in brand-new secular South Africa. Like with all transitions, there were gaps between the old and the new, and one of those gaps was the status of books banned by the apartheid regime. As South Africa’s justly celebrated constitution came into being in 1996, so did a whole set of revised laws, including the Films and Publications Act of 1996, which created a Film and Publication Board whose primary mandate was to protect children from pornographic media. In January, 2002, a library in the city of Cape Town wrote to this board, asking for the ban on The Satanic Verses to be lifted so it could acquire and hold the book—and the board complied. “Hundreds of books placed on the prohibited list under the previous regime are still technically banned,” a spokesperson at the time said, “Since we have not looked at a blanket unbanning, we take our cue from the public and access one book at a time.” Six months later, after a flurry of petitions, protests and threats of extreme violence—led by many of the same organisations who had fought Rushdie in 1988, save for the revolutionaries, who now ran the country—a flustered Film and Publication Board changed its tune. “Several recent media reports have suggested that the controversial book The Satanic Verses by acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie has been ‘unbanned’….Such reports are misleading and inaccurately reflect the status of all publications within the Republic of South Africa,” the board declared in a press release in July, 2002, disclaiming responsibility for the decision, and denying there had been one at all. “The Films and Publications Act of 1996 effectively repealed all banning orders against books and publications…The Satanic Verses has thus been legally available in South Africa since 1996, and the recent outcry against the book seems unprovoked.”
Unprovoked or not—and regardless of whether the book was freed by default or by design—the outrage was effective, and the board took it seriously, appointing a committee to decide whether the ban deserved to be reimposed. (The book had in fact been available in bookshops in South Africa for several years). McDonald writes in The Literature Police of the difficult problem committee members faced. They were duty bound by the constitution to uphold Rushdie’s “freedom of artistic creativity,” and yet, despite their individual objections to “the aggressive tone in which the complaints had been made” they nonetheless felt “sympathetic to the charge of blasphemy and of the severe hurt to the religious sensibilities of the Muslim community.” The committee’s final pronouncement, which was accepted by the board, consisted of three key points. The first was that however offensive, The Satanic Verses did not constitute, in McDonald’s description, a “word crime.” The second followed from the first: since the book could not be classified as a crime, the committee all but apologised for not being able to give it an XX classification, the severest category in the Films and Publications Act, which would have cut off all access to the book and criminalised its distribution. The third point constituted the decision; the committee gave the book an X18 classification, mandating that it “should not be for sale in public in South African commercial booksellers or any other commercial outlet, nor should it be available for borrowing from any municipal or public library.” And so it came to be that eight years into the life of one of the most progressive states in the world, under what is arguably the most thoughtful constitution anywhere on the planet, The Satanic Verses was classified as porn; wedged somewhere between Emmanuelle Vol. 6 and Bright Lights, Big Titties, but still, a whole shelf below the snuff film.
Here’s the thing with religious states: they’re honest. They set expectations low. There’s no pretence: no willy-nilly dangling of freedom and fulfilment and choice or possibility and fluidity and hybridity or pluralism and syncretism and secularism. But I don’t live in a religious state and I don’t want to, and I kind of really like all the sentiments in that last sentence, though I’ll admit the words themselves are glib and overused, and I don’t know anyone, especially anyone living in a religious state who looks at this outmoded entity as a polity worth emulating. I look at India and South Africa—mongrel nations riddled with imperfections both, nevertheless polities that started out embracing their impurities, and really meant to find a way to turn them into a celebration, and almost did, and then chose expediency and settled for the resulting mess, but still held on to the hope even while stashing it at the graveyard of good intentions—and I see a future which more or less everyone wants to have work out. And I wonder how the secular blueprint that charts this future was beaten down to something so brittle and flaky it could be broken by a mere book. Jabbing my finger at the bearded nations gives me no comfort. They did not let me down. It’s true; only love can break your heart—and the broken promise is the only betrayal that matters.
Time is everything. Pamella Bordes knew it: by sitting out a few news-cycles and becoming another person again, she knew she could engineer a total eclipse of her past. Salman Rushdie knew it. All he had to was stay alive and wait, and he knew he could return to being the man who made Midnight’s Children and Shame. And many sincere objectors who waded in to The Satanic Verses thought they knew it too. As they still do: it grows louder slowly, this chorus of concern whose chant is not now, why now, any time but now—and its extended versions, not here and not like that. (I suppose place and manner count for something too). He knew exactly what he was doing, they say, with just as much conviction as the God squad—somewhat forgetting that since the fatwa, Rushdie has had to suffer joint statements with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, regular appearances on Bill Maher’s television show, and, as he heartbreakingly recounts in Joseph Anton, whole evenings with the foremost deep thinker of our times, Bernard Henri Lévy; clearly, a future too ghastly for anyone to have planned to have.
Nevertheless, it’s an interesting hypothesis. What if? What if a fictional rendering of the story of Islam had been told in a time before Islam was marked, say in the 1970s, a time when terror was red and terrorists were pink? What if the storyteller had been the real McCoy, say, an Arab Muslim conventionally respectful of his faith and born and bred in a place as old as Islam itself? And what if the story had been drafted with deference to every major and minor religious sensibility? And what if it had been officially approved by the leading madrasa in the world, and backed by the governments of several Islamic states?
That story was, of course, told, and by just such a man; his name was Moustapha Akkad, and his tribute to the birth of Islam was a sprawling, budget-busting Hollywood film called The Message. Born and raised in Aleppo, Akkad moved to Los Angeles to study film at the age of twenty and stayed on, working with Sam Peckinpah and plotting his way up in the industry. He went for broke with The Message, spending years on the planning and the financing, and shooting two versions simultaneously, in English and Arabic, each with it’s own distinct cast. He cast Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas in the English version, and brought in Maurice Jarre to compose the music; he persuaded Muammar Gaddafi to finance the film and facilitate locations for his crew in Libya; and he received hard-won religious sanction for his script from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Akkad was well aware of the perils that awaited any film project called Mohammed, Messenger of God—his original title—and having already been chastised by the Muslim World League in Mecca, he took every care not to offend. Prophet Mohammad, his immediately family, and the first caliphs do not appear in flesh and blood anywhere in the film; the prophet is signalled only in slight, poetic nuances—a gust of air, a flickering shadow, or a muffled voice; and the opening credits clearly state the film’s strict adherence to this religious code.
Visually, it’s a stunning film: Akkad gave it the full Hollywood treatment, and it has grand, sweeping epic written all over it. Akkad was mainly interested in the story, the old-fashioned kind of story, and the film works because his characters are human beings all, full of frailties and quirks and passion and doubt. The Message went on to become a beloved token of the faith for children and adults alike; even Zakir Naik excitedly approved, calling it “one of the best movies I have seen on Islamic life”. Indeed, watching the film today, you would be hard pressed to think of it as anything but a beautiful spectacle of love and spirituality. But when it first released in 1977, it set off a storm of protest that dominated American headlines, culminating in a two-day siege siege in which over a hundred people were held hostage in Washington DC, leaving two people dead and several more wounded, including a young Marion Barry, who would go on to become Mayor of the district. The protesters who brought the city to a standstill were led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, a one-time leader of the Nation of Islam who had broken away to found his own movement, the Hanafis. Khaalis and his Hanafis had not actually seen The Message, but were under the impression that it depicted the prophet disrespectfully, and threatened to blow up the B’nai B’rith building in Washington unless the film was withdrawn. (They also seized DC’s City Hall and the Islamic Center of Washington). Unfortunately for Akkad, the hostage crisis dominated the opening of his film in the United States, permanently affecting its chances at the box office. He was baffled. All he had wanted was to bring his world to the whole world.
Here’s another what if: what if he was the proto-Rushdie? Akkad spent the rest of his life making movies. Two years after the debacle of The Message, he produced a low-budget slasher film on a lark—and hit jackpot. Halloween, which might just be Hollywood’s first foray into honour killings in the American suburbs, is best known for launching the career of Jamie Lee Curtis and inspiring the slasher genre; it also became one of the most profitable independent films of all time, spawning a long and lucrative franchise that lives to this day. Mainstream commercial success, however, only strengthened Akkad’s resolve to write his full self into the world, and he never gave up trying to make the big Islamic Hollywood epic. Tragically, the comparison with Rushdie took a twisted turn when Akkad was killed in November 2005 in an Al Qaeda attack; he was visiting Jordan to attend a wedding at the Radisson when bombs ripped through his hotel and two others in Amman, injuring hundreds and killing at least fifty seven people. It was a sad way for a good man to go. Al Qaeda had no beef with this unlikely ambassador of Islam: he had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Twenty years before that fateful trip to Jordan, Moustapha Akkad was fighting other kinds of unpredictable phenomena: sandstorms in the Libyan desert. When they came—and they did, unforeseen and without warning—actors covered their faces and stopped in their tracks, and crew-members rushed to shroud their equipment and props with plastic sheets. In the middle of all this physical and human chaos, Akkad was making not two, but three films simultaneously—the English version, the Arabic version, and a documentary on the making of both. In The Making of an Epic: Mohammad, Messenger of God, released the same year as the film, Jack Hildyard, who served as director of photography, accounts for the story’s most enigmatic character. “We used the camera as the prophet,” he says, “And all actors who are talking to the prophet looked directly at the camera. Sometimes the prophet had to move, stand up, or sit down, and we used our camera just like another actor in the picture.”
Akkad is a gentle, soft-spoken presence through the documentary, whether busy and bare-chested in the Libyan heat, or relaxing in a tweed coat and puffing on a pipe at the edit table. “Yes I would do it all over again,” he says towards the end of the film, “We were twenty eight different nationalities and cultures, we were able to bridge these different cultures and work with a spirit of cooperation and understanding, and I think if this film carried the same message I’d be even happier.” Despite the enormous financial and logistical difficulties he had to overcome in order to begin the project, he displays no bluster given where he’s come, to the point his dream is about to be realized. “It is a personal thing for me,” he says, leaning towards the camera with something like force, his face lit up with purpose. “Being a Muslim myself, who lives in the West, I felt it was my obligation, my duty, to tell the truth about Islam. I thought I could tell the story that would bridge this gap to the West.”
This essay by Achal Prabhala was first published in the inaugural issue of Chimurenga Chronic (available here), April 2013, following the publication of Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s memoir of the Satanic Verses controversy.