Row flares over Rushdie visit

The planned arrival in South Africa of Booker Prize-winner Salman Rushdie has been greeted by members of the local Islamic community with responses ranging from welcome to outrage and threats of violence. Rushdie, the Indian born writer, whose most recent novel Satanic Verses was shortlisted for the 1988 Booker Prize, is due to give the keynote address at the Weekly Mail Book Week this month. He was invited early this year on the basis of his international literary reputation as one of the finest contemporary English language writers and for his ant-racism and anti-censorship views.

A fortnight ago, Rushdie published a ‘surrealist’ novel, Satanic Verses, still not available in South Africa.  It has stirred up considerable controversy and has already been banned in India and the Middle East.  A call has been made from Saudi Arabia to local Muslims to ensure that the book is banned and Rushdie is stopped from coming here.

Mahomed Choonara of the Africa Muslim Agency in Lenasia has called the work a "sacriligous, satanic and blasphemous” novel. Saudi Arabia's Islamic Conference, says Choonara, has "called for the total banning of Salman Rushdie in any Middle East country and for the destruction of his books which only foment hatred, hostility and being a product of a sick mind … “Our demand is that the book Satanic Verses be totally destroyed."

Rushdie's topic for his keynote speech at the book week was titled: “Wherever they burn books, they will also in the end burn people.” Poet Ahmed Essop told the Weekly Mail this week that though he had not read the book and could not comment on its contents, “ I feel Rushdie's voice should be heard on the issue of censorship and the controversy surrounding his book. Threats, censorship and bannings,” said Essop, “are part of totalitarian regimes. By having the book suppressed, the opportunity for scholars and critics to examine the work is lost. Knowledge cannot be furthered in this way, only ignorance and misconceptions."

This opinion has been expressed by a number of prominent local and foreign Muslim individuals and organisations, including London academic Tariq Ali, and, in South Africa, the Muslim Judicial Council and Call of Islam. The Judicial Council, while expressing “anger at the intended presence of Rushdie” and denouncing the contents of Satanic Verses, also condemned “the current smear campaign against the Weekly Mail from sections of our community … and the threats against the Weekly mail and others connected to the book week.”

The council, at a Special General Meeting this week, also resolved to communicate its: unequivocal support for the Weekly Mail as it fights its own battle for survival against an oppressive regime for consistency espousing the cause of justice. The Weekly Mail had certainly not shown sufficient sensitivity to the religious sentiments of Muslims in South Africa”, said a statement issued by the Call of Islam…

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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