Why Pakistanis Are Talking About Salman Rushdie Again


By Malik Siraj Akbar

Salman Rushdie and his controversial 1988 novel The Satanic Verses have ignited a series of fresh zealous discussions in Pakistan, a country known for its love for conspiracy theories and controversies. We vividly remember books, such as The Satanic Verses and movies likeThe Innocence of Muslims that sparked violent protests in Pakistan, as well as in many other Islamic countries, where the Muslims insisted that the book and the movie had separately insulted Prophet Muhammad.

Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws recommend the death sentence for anyone who insults Muhammad.

While Rushdie may not even know what he has actually done this time to outrage that Muslim-majority country’s conservative commentators, Malala Yousafzai, the teenage campaigner for girls’ education, has indeed landed in hot water for even mentioning The Satanic Verses only once in her recently released autobiography I Am Malala.

Yousafazi, 16, was shot last year by the Pakistani Taliban for transgressing their restrictions in Swat valley on girls’ education. She openly campaigned for the reconstruction and reopening of more than 400 schools destroyed and closed down by the Taliban.

The right-wing commentators are manipulating a portion of Malala’s book in which she had described her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, as a strong believer in freedom of expression in the context of anti-Rushdie protests that erupted in Pakistan. Her father had implored fellow Muslims to respond to Rushdie’s “anti-Islamic” book with a better pro-Islamic account instead of protesting violently.

“My father also saw the book [Satanic Verses] as offensive to Islam but believes strongly in freedom of speech,” wrote Malala in her book and quoted her father as saying, “Is Islam such a weak religion that it cannot tolerate a book written against it? Not my Islam!”

I Am Malala
 is not only the autobiography of a courageous girl who was shot by the Taliban but it is an exposé of the Pakistani state’s deep-rooted connections with radical Islamists and social fault lines that lead to discrimination against women. The book tells the story a Pashtun girl who is profoundly perturbed by increasing radicalization of the Pakistani society which consequently curtails women’s freedoms and access to education. She explains how a young generation of Pakistanis is deeply disconnected from the rest of the world because their biased text books distort history and glorify wars in the name of Islam.

Malala offers her unconventionally candid opinion and criticism on several issues which are still deemed as taboo for public debate in Pakistan. By discussing her country’s internal policy failures and the army’s tolerance, encouragement and protection for the Jihadist elements, Malala has alarmed the nexus between the mullah (clergy) and the military in her country.

Ironically, books that often generate public reaction in countries like Pakistan are the ones that have even not been read by those who condemn the publication. This time, most Pakistanis have also not read I Am Malala for two reasons. Firstly, a significant majority of Pakistanis simply cannot read English. Secondly, the Pakistani Taliban have warnedbookshops not to sell copies of the book. Hence, this has made conservative commentators’ job easier to spread disinformation among the masses in a country with millions of illiterate but religiously passionate citizens.

The campaign in Pakistan against I Am Malala is spearheaded by Orya Maqbool Jan, a conservative columnist for an Urdu language newspaper; Ansar Abbasi, a journalist infamous for his orthodox religious views and rigid anti-American views and Syed Talat Hussain, a nationalist broadcast journalist.

On October 21, Mr. Jan, while writing in his article “Malala and her promoters” in Dunya newspaper, was the first columnist from the mainstream media to denounce Malala’s book on the charges that it had defamed Islam and Pakistan.

“If you read excerpts from the book,” he wrote, “you will wonder who has put such abusive words in this 16-year-old girl’s mouth against my religion, Pakistan and its people. The first person she has mentioned [in the book] is Salman Rushdie, who used disgusting language against our Prophet Muhammad, his wives and his family.”

Malala had blamed an unknown cleric allegedly linked with Pakistan’s intelligence agencies for instigating anti-Rushdie protests in Pakistan in 1988 while Mr. Jan, the columnist, described it “the worst lie of the history.”

Unlike their English counterparts, the Urdu media have phenomenal accesses to and influence over millions of Pakistani readers and viewers.

On October 24, Jang, Pakistan’s most circulated Urdu newspaper, published a provocative column by Ansar Abbasi, who heads the newspaper’s investigative team.

In his article, “Is it the same Malala?”, Abbasi said he wished Malala had not written the book because it had hurt the feelings of the Muslims.

“Describing the Satanic Verses as an issue of freedom of expression is one such topic that has caused tensions between Muslims and the non-Muslims… we curse upon such freedom of expression that ridicules our Prophet,” he wrote.

Mr. Abbasi published a follow-up column in the same newspaper on October 28 wondering why the Pakistani media did not expose the “anti-Islam” portions of Malala’s book. He insisted that the media should openly debate why it was wrong for Malala to say her father believed in Rushdie’s right to free expression.

In both of his articles, Mr. Abbasi has questioned Malala’s commitment to Prophet Muhammad and Islam as he absurdly whines that the teenage girl did not use “Peace Be Upon Him” or (P.B.U.H.) each time she mentioned Prophet Muhammad in her book in order to show respect for Muhammad.

The debate over I Am Malala is gradually shifting from newspapers to news channels. On October 26, Mr. Jan and Abbasi, both critics of Malala, bullied Pervez Hoodbhoy, a prominent liberal intellectual, so much that he had to quit the live show.

I Am Malala provides the Pakistanis another opportunity for self-reflection. Malala did bravely survive the Taliban assault and managed to escape from her country in in the wake of a Taliban warning to target her once again if she returns to Pakistan. However, her battle is not over. Now, she has been pushed into totally different, or even unpleasant, media warfare against the pro-Taliban writers.

Few writers, such as Khaperai Yousafzai, a columnist for The Baloch Hal, have rebutted the conservative propaganda against the teenage girl in what she billed as right-wing’s “Malala-phobia”.

“This is very typical of writers like Orya Maqbool Jan to manipulate public sentiments in the name of religion,” she wrote in her article on October 22, “they attack a women’s character or accuse her of being anti-Islamic when they actually fail to support their arguments with facts and logic.”

World governments, writers and intellectuals must not leave Malala in lurch. They have to stand by her side as the pro-Taliban media in Pakistan seems to be intentionally preparing a very dangerous blasphemous case against Malala which could potentially jeopardize her safety, even in the United Kingdom where she currently lives. (Courtesy: Huffington Post)

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