When the Knife Replied to the Pen

Before we begin here, google ‘Worst attack on the literary world’. The searches will take you to the horrific event that took place on the 12th of August this year in Chautauqua, New York.

But was this attack on the literary world or just a person who has been misunderstood? How strong can the power of the pen be that the writer receives violence in the real world for an imaginary world he created?

Have the instigators of violence and the followers of the ‘religious laws’ even been in that imaginary world?

All of this might be sounding distorted right now. Let me unfold the story of a writer who is facing the consequences of writing a book that very few have read.

Salman Rushdie’s second novel won the Booker Prize in 1981 and was awarded ‘the best novel of winners’ on its 25th and 40th anniversary. ‘Midnight’s Children’ depicts the transition of India from British colonial rule to independence and partition. Postcolonial, postmodern, and magical realism are used to set the backdrop for the narrative.

Although not all Indians were a fan of this book despite it being a literary pinnacle, this is not the controversial book we are talking about which was banned in India and many other countries. Moreover, this is not the book which resulted in a Fatwa ordering Muslims around the world to kill the writer with a bounty of over $3 Million.

The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s fourth novel was inspired by the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Akin to Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s characters were based on real-world events and individuals and filled with magical realism. This one revolves around the Satanic Verses (words of ‘satanic suggestion’ which the Islamic prophet Muhammad mistakenly claimed to be a divine revelation).

Most would wonder, “How offensive can the book even be?”.

Farag Fauda was an Egyptian professor, writer and philosopher who penned critical articles and satires of Islamic fundamentalism. He was accused of blasphemy by Al-Azhar which had thereby adopted a fatwa and was called ‘enemies of Islam’. When his assassin was asked what writings of Fauda he had read and what exactly pushed him enough to use violence, he said that he didn’t know how to read.

Saying “no offence” after making an offensive comment saves you from social backlash but how are disclaimers of a ‘fictional’ book treated in the real world?

Iranian Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, the one who issued the fatwa calling for the killing of Rushdie (and everyone involved in the publishing, let me add) never read his book. Four months after issuing this in 1989 he died along with the authority to call off the fatwa.

Had The Satanic Verses been published in 2022, would the Fatwa still have been issued? Free speech is called for all around the world but how much tolerance do people hold? Where is the line drawn?

The fatwa held so much power that even the translators were targeted. Several translators who merely would’ve conveyed a form of literature from one language to another were assassinated.

Did you know there’s a fatwa against AR Rahman? All because he gave music to a movie, Muhammad: The Messenger of God, whose title can be used in a bad way if people don’t like it. Twisting anything into being offensive? Not an art these days.

In 1998, then President of Iran Mohammad Khatami, another devout follower of Islam said that the whole Rushdie affair should be considered finished.

Thirty-three years down the line where information is at everyone’s fingertips, a 24 year, educated youth from USA who hardly read two pages of Rushdie’s book chose the path of violence and tried to give justice to a fatwa that should’ve been irrelevant at this point.

The pen is the most powerful weapon but this stabbing incident of Rushdie rattles the thoughts of any writer with strong opinions even in an imaginary world.

The question is not if stabbing him was right or wrong. It isn’t on any level, mostly philosophical. The question is if writers are safe when they create art. It is whether society even in this age is tolerant enough to create a conducive environment for writers to express themselves with no fear.

Salman Rushdi

Pratyusha Pathak

TY BSc. Economics

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