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Salman Rushdie and the Magical Realism of Terror on Art

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The background: January 2012, A thriving local Indian literature festival, the Jaipur Literature Festival, which gets visiting authors like Irvine Welsh and J.M.Coetzee every year, attracted global attention because an Indian expat author, Salman Rushdie, though invited was not allowed to visit. Thanks to a combination of political and religious interventions, including that by an Indian right-wing Sunni Islamic movement, which routinely issues fatwas against Indian Muslims; most of these edicts are largely ignored.

Somebody on Twitter said that India, a country filled with literates and semi-literates, is up in arms over a book. Satanic Verses, like most Salman Rushdie books, is full of erudite allusions and features magical realism. It is a book that's banned in the country, and hence, not legally available to be purchased and read. Even if it was, how many would actually read this book? In fact, how many who oppose Salman Rushdie's visit to India would have read it?

I happened to read a book called The Information Diet by Clay Johnson sometime back. In the book, Johnson talks about the importance of the information we consume and how it shapes our point of view. The author happens to have managed high-profile political campaigns in the U.S., including that of Barack Obama in 2004. It is quite plausible, that he understands the importance and value of perceptions shaped by information dissemination, pretty well. While the book itself is not great, some aspects do hit home, especially in the light of the Salman Rushdie controversy that's raging in India. A controversy that has reared its head at various points in the last two decades, since the book was first published in 1988. In his book, Clay Johnson talks about accessing information regarding a contentious issue directly from the source, as compared to second hand analysis. In this case, it would bode Indians well to read the book themselves, rather than rely on Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa nearly two decades ago!

But let's face it, those Indians who oppose Salman's visit to his home country are not doing so, because of the book itself. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movement has highlighted in the last year, more than anything else, that the 'top' 1% makes the decisions for the rest of us. Be it major corporate calls, political moves or ideological stands. It is this 1% decision that traps 99% of people. And usually, the 1% has vested interests in those decisions. Ask 99% of Indians if they care about Salman Rushdie's visit to India and they really won't. Including India's millions of Muslims. Among the 1% of those who oppose it, less than 1% would have actually read the book, and the remaining folks are just raising the issue for political gain.

India, as one of the largest democracies in the world, has divisive politics on prominent display every time national or state elections are in motion. The political party that holds a majority in India's national parliament, unfortunately, has not had a stronghold in one of the biggest north Indian states of the country, which is crucial for its power balance. Elections in that state are underway, and incidentally, the state has a huge Muslim population and these potential voters need to be appeased if the local, existing government needs to be toppled. It is clear, in more ways than one, that Salman Rusdhie's visit to India failed to be realized because of divisive politics in the country.

When taken India's present situation in context, it is not hard to understand the ruckus over a book that is printed and sold in countries like Egypt, Turkey, post-Gaddafi Libya and 50 other nations with a Muslim population. From a larger, historical point of view, so-called provocative books and writers have always been the target of not just ideologists but also those who stand to gain from the attention that supporting such a move gets. Right-wing evangelists for instance, stand to strengthen their following, when they scream from the rooftops about the 'satanic' nature of Harry Potter. The ban of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer is another example of America's puritanical minority, in the early part of the 20th century, attempting to decide what is and isn't morally fit reading material.

Unfortunately, Salman Rushdie's reign as a literature genius with a Muslim heritage has come at the wrong time in history. The latter part of the 20th century has seen the rise of Islamic extremism like never before. It is not just people and politics that have been adversely affected by it. Larger socio-political changes don't just influence art but also impact it in varied, complex ways. Islamic terror has also led to the terrorism of freedom of speech in art, specifically, concerning the depiction of that religion. A series of cartoons in a Danish publication, Jyllands-Posten, portrayed the Prophet Mohammed in an unflattering light. The criticism of the Prophet is viewed by many Muslims as worse than God, as it is mentioned so in the Quoran. The cartoons created a huge uproar among Danish Muslims. This controversy led to the widespread reprinting of the cartoons in publications across the globe, as a result, offending many more Muslims. The Danish cartoon controversy led to the bombing of the Danish embassy in Pakistan, and arson in embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. This is just a small example of the rise of Islamic terror on the global freedom of speech in art.

Pardon the use of an old cliché, the pen is mightier than the sword, in this context.

The question is, is it so? Not in the short-term, but let us not forget the enduring quality of literature vis-à-vis the limited nature of extremism. Religious extremism is not new in the history of mankind, and we know that is doesn't last. It is interesting to take into account what Rushdie himself says about the transient quality of extremism. "In the eye of history, Islamic fundamentalism is a short-lived phenomenon... Soviet Communism lasted for seventy-odd years. In the eye of history, it (seventy years) is nothing. In a human life it is far too long. The politics of radical Islamism started during the Iranian revolution in 1979. It's has already had a quarter of a century."