Freedom Vs. Fatwa


Last Friday, author Sir Salman Rushdie was stabbed at a literary event in New York. The attack culminated the many years of harassment by religious fundamentalists over his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. When the book was published, Muslims took umbrage over its contents and demonstrated their feelings through public protests and book burnings. Several countries banned the book, Iran synthesised the rage into a Fatwa. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, head of the theocratic regime of Iran, sought a soft target after an attritional war with Iraq (and the resultant economic fallout had brewed domestic disaffection against him) and capitalised on the ongoing controversy. According to his own son, Ahmed, he never even read the book. Yet, he would go ahead and pronounce a fatwa on Rushdie in 1989—and on Valentine’s Day too—and urged Muslims worldwide to assassinate him for the promise of martyrdom, paradise and a bounty that steadily increased to three million dollars.

Rushdie went into hiding and those who wanted to take his life redirected their rage on bookstores, publishers, editors, translators and several others associated with the production and marketing of the book. By the 30th anniversary of the book, the memory of those events had mostly receded from the public domain. Reading the reports of the frenzy that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses would have been amusing if an attack on someone’s life were not involved. In retrospect, all the hysteria over the book seemed like the rage of people who did not have better things to do with their time. Even Rushdie himself thought events had overtaken the death threat. In a 2019 interview, he mentioned that the controversy had largely faded and those who would have him killed had moved to other targets. Ironically, the assailant that would eventually get close enough and harmed him was not even born when The Satanic Verses was first published.

While it raged 30-plus years ago, the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses became a litmus test for free speech, the free exchange of ideas and information as a universal heritage of humanity. The language of fatwa—despite its original meaning as an opinion on or an interpretation of Islamic law by a formal authority—became an internationally recognised lexicon of mindless indignation and a civilisational threat, a return to primal origins where barbarous people arrogate the power over other peoples’ lives to themselves. The Satanic Verses was banned in South Africa and Nigeria—under General Ibrahim Babangida’s regime. While South Africa would officially rescind the ban in 2002, I doubt that of Nigeria was ever revisited. Events might have overtaken the ban, but the vestigial effects of indulging the sentiments of those who claim religious disrespect is still very much with us in Nigeria.

With the attack on Rushdie, we are once again back to evaluating how liberal freedom—an ideal for many societies—is threatened by fatwas. The agents of repression never give up; they are always lurking in the shadows and waiting to strike. Unlike the last century though, one does not quite need a supreme leader to mobilise the primal energies of people who have no control over their emotions; these days, they are self-motivated. Water packaged into 50cl sachets is probably the cheapest item in 2022 Nigeria, but death threats have become even cheaper. The age of the internet has democratised death threats that issuing it has become almost recreational. Wanna be Khomeinis, lacking the wit to sensibly respond to any issue of the day, now merely bring out their phones and type out a death threat.

Death threats have now become the laziest means of contributing tension to public discussions, an easy resort for those moved by a public issue but cannot conjugate their own thoughts into any reasonable language. Beyond cranking out a few words on a keypad, death threats do not require much effort. In the pre-digital era, one at least had to either get someone’s phone number or meticulously craft a threat letter from newspaper cuttings. These days when you can easily reach the target of your ire online, making death threats is a default response for some. Comedian Debo Adedayo (aka Mr Macaroni) does not think the Lekki toll gate should be reopened? Send him death threats. Singer Femi Kuti has an opinion on next year’s general election? Grab your phone and make death threats. Someone does not like actor Eniola Badmus for whatever reason? Send death threats. Comedian Damilola Adekoya (aka Princess) outed a paedophilic colleague? What other response can anyone have to such a significant event than issue death threats, their own version of fatwas? Sending them has become a cheap activity for those loungers who perpetually roam the pathways of the internet seeking whom to devour. That must be the only thrill-seeking exercise they get every day.

We might come a long way from Khomeini’s fatwa because death threats are no longer as sensational but they are still no less of a threat. Probably 99.9 per cent of these threats are made by people, who are merely venting personal frustrations, but those impacted by these trolls are still right to worry about personal safety. One can never tell who will hide under the cover of those public death threats to harm one, which is why these low-budget Khomeinis must not be taken lightly. Anyone whom they threaten should not merely stop at making a video to explain themselves to the public or inform their online followers of the threats. They should also gather their evidence and report to law enforcement agents. Those affected should also endeavour to report online harassment to social media organisations; those companies have processes of suspending or shutting down the accounts of those who abuse the privilege of the platforms.

Meanwhile, Rushdie has—so far, thankfully—survived the knife attack. At 75, he is no longer a young man but I sincerely hope that he pulls through this traumatic incident. I wish for him to bounce back in ruddy health and live many more years, each day serving as a middle finger to those who assumed the task of defending God from his literary prowess. It must pain those who wanted him dead that a book—and its controversy—that had shifted into the recesses of contemporary history is making a resurgence in the market. The Satanic Verses is a bestseller all over again. The generation that did not read the book—and might never have—is now reading and buying for others. Let us now see which regime can successfully ban a book in a digital era. Even younger generation Iranians will read it to inquire what got the Khomeini’s goat. The book will live forever; those who want to see Rushdie dead will be forgotten.

More than the book’s contents that caused the furore, the controversy about The Satanic Verses should always remind us that the freedom to express our God-given imagination cannot be taken for granted; we will not win if we allow them to cower us into silence.

Hopefully, Rushdie’s attacker, too, lives long enough to learn that there is no fighting for God. If convicted, this assailant should—from his cramped prison quarters—learn that those who rush to defend the integrity of an eternal God by killing their fellow humans are the ones who disrespect God. Properly speaking, the very claim of religious blasphemy itself is blasphemous. Blasphemy is a sin contrived by humans who fear that the light of inquiry will upset the fa├žade of their convictions. God cannot be diminished by the words of humans. An infinite God does not need any human defender. Humans can say what they will, but God will still be God and humans will remain mortal.

If God were angry with Rushdie, God would have killed him a long time ago. Rushdie has lived because God is not moved by the opinions of men. God is not that insecure; humans are the ones with the problem. They are the ones who resort to murder and death threats because challenging their pet convictions expands their small minds. Even God would respect a mortal who takes the things we call sacred seriously enough to joke about them far more than God would care about the worship of a person who cannot use their God-given mind to even interrogate what makes what we call sacred, sacred.