Decades after a fatwa on his head, Salman Rushdie was stabbed not by those whose sentiments were hurt with the Satanic Verses (even if they hadn’t read the book) but by a young man who was not even born in that era and who grew up in the West.
This young man would possibly speak with a flawless American accent and have western inflection in his demeanour unlike the thick accented, bearded men who were clamouring against Rushdie in the late 1980s. This has been established in the case of many such incidents where the attackers have only a marginal association with their faith that instills within them values of patience, gratitude, and humility. Instead, they have a stronger connection with an ideology that rests on perceived grievances and perpetual victimhood.
Phil Gurski’s books, including The Threat from Within, are an excellent read on this thesis, that it is less about faith and more about perceived grievances.
Yet, human beings resort to generalisations and stereotypes, as it is convenient to draw patterns. Indeed, it is an easy or lazy route to making sense of the world. Such tendencies to generalise and otherise are exploited by charismatic leaders and magnified by populist governments that engage in communal politics. This includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi under whose watch India descends into Hindu chauvinism that draws on past grievances against long dead warriors from Central Asia, Persia, and Afghanistan in the age of imperial empires, and channels all that rage against the socio-economically vulnerable Indian Muslim minority. Similarly, under former Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan was able to further constrict the space for the already marginalised Ahmadi community to the extent that they are being treated as Jews under Nazi Germany prior to their final liquidation.
What is unfortunate is that the socially upward mobile classes bring such prejudices when they migrate to western countries. It is not uncommon to find anti-Ahmadi prejudice among some Pakistanis in western countries just as some in the Hindu diaspora channel Islamophobia and Hindu chauvinism. Such orientations lurk in western spaces and go unchallenged as the focus of western social justice activists remains on white supremacism.
It is only in a matter of time that such unchallenged prejudices flare up, as in the case of Hadi Matar who stabbed Salman Rushdie even if he was far removed from the protests of the late 1980s when he was not even born. In other words, like intergenerational trauma, perceived grievances infect generation after generation, and people commit heinous actions when the opportunity presents itself.
People rationalise and justify their heinous actions because the “other” (be they Ahmadis of Pakistan or Muslims of India) are dehumanised through the state where the leaders remain complicitly silent in the face of the calls for genocide. While the greater responsibility is that of the state, individuals bear some responsibility to cut through the bigoted narrative that furthers prejudice and hatred of the other. They need to go beyond the ugly stereotypes and get to know the other.
In Rushdie’s case, people need to recognise that there is more to the writer than the Satanic Verses. As a classical liberal, he is critical of jihadis and Hindu nationalists alike. He criticizes Islamophobia and Islamism alike. In an older interview, he expressed:
“The decision to treat all Kashmiris as if they’re potential terrorists is what has unleashed this, the kind of “holocaust” against the Kashmiri people. And we know ourselves, from most recent events in Europe, how important it is to resists treating all Muslims as if they’re terrorists, but the Indian army has taken the decision to do the opposite of that, to actually decide that everybody is a potential combatant to treat them in that way. And the level of brutality is quite spectacular. And, frankly, without that the jihadists would have had very little response from the Kashmiri people who were not really traditionally interested in radical Islam. So now they’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, and that’s the tragedy of the place. … And really what I was trying to do was say exactly that the attraction of the jihad in Kashmir arose out of the activities of the Indian army.”
In essence, Rushdie speaks truth to power be it against Islamic chauvinism or against Islamophobia. To confine him to the Satanic Verses dehumanises him and we should resist such tropes.
It is a lesson that Pakistanis and Indians alike would do well to learn as their respective societies descend further into a nightmare for minorities and as they immigrate their prejudices to western countries. One hopes Rushdie triumphantly returns to uphold that most fundamental classically liberal idea of freedom of expression that is increasingly being choked by Muslim fundamentalists, Hindu nationalists, and the uber woke crowds alike.