Rushdie’s book week visit stirs Muslim controversy

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 Satan 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 anti-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 Eastern 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 consistently espousing the cause of justice.

“The Weekly Mail has certainly not shown sufficient sensitivity to the religious sentiments of Muslims in South Africa,” said a statement issued by the Call of Islam. “However, we believe that the long-term interest of Islam is best served by intellectual debate and not by emotional tirades against authors or appeals for censorship. Let him say his say and we shall gladly respond to his slander and challenges.”

The fact that the book week, and Rushdie’s participation in it, were intended to highlight the issue of censorship was irrelevant, said Ebrahim Meer of the Islamic Council of Southern Africa: “Purely as a religious issue, the council severely and totally objects to the book and to bringing the author out to South Africa.”

“Islam is dogma,” said another member of the council. “It cannot be criticised or belittled. The man has no sense of responsibility. The Invitation extended to him by the Weekly Mail should be withdrawn.”

In a statement last night, the Weekly Mail editors said: “We are most perturbed to learn that Mr Rushdie’s book has caused religious controversy. We had no intention of offending anybody’s religious sensibilities. “However, we have invited him to highlight the issue of censorship and the situation in this country — and that need remains stronger than ever.

“We understand that some people disagree with his views and may even be strongly offended. We hope, however, that such people will recognise his right to express his own point of view. “Unfortunately, there are some people who are attempting to use this issue to attack the Weekly Mail and the Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw) and the principle of freedom of speech.

Cosaw, which is taking part in the book week, had also invited Rushdie to participate. Cosaw said in a statement that it “views with disgust the concerted campaign being waged against the visit of Salman Rushdie to South Africa. Cosaw firmly opposes any form of censorship, particularly when that censorship is imposed via threats of violence.” Several phone calls and loners threatening violence and even death were received by participants or organisers.

Writer Achmat Dangor said “the attempts by so called ‘Muslim fundamentalists’ to prevent Salmon Rushdie from coming to South Africa is shameful and tragic. The bitter irony that the purpose of his visit is to speak about censorship should not be forgotten, nor should it be overlooked that his detractors freely admit that they have not read the book which they claim denigrates Islam.”

Firoz Cachalia, publicity secretary of the Transvaal Indian Congress, said we would endorse (Rushdie’s) right to be heard even if we disagree with the contents of his book…as far as we are concerned, the Weekly Mail is one of the few newspapers prepared to stand up to the state and censorship.”

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