Satanic Verses: Freedom of speech does not offer right to blaspheme


The unbanning in South Africa of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, published by Viking Press in 1988, has reopened the deep wound felt by the Muslim community. The outrage expressed by the Muslims throughout the world for the obscene and vulgar insults hurled at the religion and its most revered personages, eventually led to the deaths of 15 Muslims.

There is a distinct impression in the minds of Muslims that a campaign to distort the image of Islam and Muslims has been launched by the Western world. After the fall of the Soviet empire and with it, communism, the endeavour to equate Islam with imposition and aggression, while justifying aggression against Muslims, intensified. The war against the Islamic Republic of Iran, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya and Muslim groups fighting for freedom in Palestine, Philippines, Kashmir and Kosova have been declared as “terrorist” countries and organisations.

A climate of Islamophobia had been methodically cultivated by the global media to prime the general populace in the West into believing that Islam, as an ideology, spawns Muslims that are fanatical, radical, extremists and terrorists. The info-entertainment industry churned out films and documentaries such as Executive Decisions and Jihad in America that stereotyped the Muslims as violent and uncivilised rogues hell-bent to destroy America. The academic Samuel Huntington, in his book “The Clash of Civilizations” reinforced this spurious challenge to the West, projecting Islam as monolithic, intolerant of pluralism, misogynistic, fundamentalist and potentially threatening to other cultures.

The publication of the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, an “acclaimed Muslim” author of Indian origin residing in Britain, bolstered those vilifying Islam and Muslims. Given that previewers of the book’s manuscript warned the publishers that it would be extremely explosive, Viking-Penguin was rewarded for irresponsibly printing the novel. It was evident that even if Rushdie’s convoluted satirical style is construed as a literary device, it was clear that he went out of his way in using highly repugnant and revolting language to insult and distort Islam.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), whose example one and a half billion people aspire towards, is depicted as a lecherous “conjurer” of rules who had “no time for scruples”. He is called “Mahound” which, according to the Oxford dictionary means; a false prophet; a false god; a monster; a devil; heathen. He is also attributed with fabricating the Qur’an (totally against Islamic belief). It is false imputed that the Qur’an, which has been preserved in its original form to this day, was freely manuscribed. The Archangel Gabriel is reduced to being a “pet” obeying its master.

The wives of the Prophet Muhammad, who are reverently called the “Mothers of Muslims”, are compared with prostitutes. So Rushdie calls the mothers of the 1,5 billion Muslims whores. Salman-al- Farsi and Bilal, two reputable early Muslims, are depicted as profligates. He also makes racist remarks calling Bilal a big black monster. Rules and practices having no basis in Islam are false attributed to it and real laws are ridiculed, not argued against.

But not only did he take liberties with Muslim’s sacred honour, Rushdie insults Jews and Christians as well. Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him), who is the father of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is described as a “bastard”. So is Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him). Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) is called “Hitler”, and the Virgin Mary (peace be upon her), a whore. He also refers to their mothers as “Harlots”. Because of its wild implications and virulent language, the novel constitutes an unprecedented assault on Islam, and, indirectly, on the Abrahamic religions preceding it.

Had Rushdie criticized certain Islamic doctrines and provided facts and philosophical analysis to prove the validity of his own theory as against the Qur’an, that would be legitimate, reasonable and meaningful. But Rushdie meticulously describes a supposedly fictional background, which is precisely the same as the very well documented Islamic history. He then depicts his “fictional characters” as the moral antithesis of those they were clearly meant to portray. This is nothing but vilification by proxy.

Whilst Islam encourages debate and supports freedom of speech and expression, they also exhort people to exercise this right responsibly In all civilised nations there are limitations placed on freedom. Many devout Muslims felt Rushdie had no right to poke fun at and twist into obscenity some of the most sacred symbols of Islam. Most Muslim countries, India and South Africa banned the book because the book is morally repugnant. The Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi denounced the book as blasphemous and offensive to Islam.

As Ali Mazrui, arguably the foremost Muslim thinker from the African continent and a victim of censorship stated: ” Targets, sources, and methods of censorship differ, but censorship is just as much a fact of life in Western societies as in the Muslim world…Censorship in the West is more polished and decentralised. Its practitioners are financial backers of cultural activity and entertainment, advertisers who buy time on commercial television, subscribers of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), influential interest groups including ethnic pressure groups, and editors, publishers, and other controllers of the means of communication”.

Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, chased the author of Spycatcher, Peter Wright, halfway around the world to censor and prevent the publication of his book. The British also banned the television to interview the IRA. Ali Mazrui had part of his documentary “The Africans: A Triple Heritage,” censored in America. Books and authors such as “Lady Chatterley’ Lover”, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Oscar Wields, Roger Garaudy, David Irving, Louis Farrakhan reveal widespread censorship throughout the world. Freedom of speech and expression must not be allowed to degenerate into a licence to smear, slander and blaspheme. The Film and Publications Board must seriously reconsider its decision and note that the right of every person ends where the right and dignity of others begin.

(Mr. Firoz Osman is Secretary of the Media Review Network, which is an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa.)