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Why all the fuss?

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Thursday, 5 July 2007

In 1981, an advertising executive turned author named Ahmad S. Rushdie published his second novel. Midnight's Children is a terrific read, a wonderful journey into the lives of ordinary Indians and how independence and partition affected them.

It's perhaps Rushdie's best novel. Or so I've been told. You see, despite being a child (or at least grandchild) of the Indian partition, I've actually never read the novel. In fact, I've never read any of Rushdie's novels, including his fourth, best selling (and I've been told, his worst) The Satanic Verses (let's call it TSV from now on).

Now, this might have been one very ordinary novel. Yet thanks to Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, TSV became Rushdie's biggest seller. So big a hit that the British government was forced to show its appreciation by throwing in a few security guards to keep Rushdie company.


And how many Muslim protesters actually read TSV? No prizes for guessing. The great Muslim mathematicians of yesteryear didn't invent the zero just to make arithmetic easier.

Strangely enough, TSV was regarded by some over-sensitive Muslims as a work of blasphemy. Which begs the question: how on earth can a work of fiction be regarded as blasphemy? Heck, it isn't real. It's just fiction. You read it knowing it doesn't describe real events. Nor is it meant to.

But then, where does fiction end and reality begin? Or vice versa? I ask myself this question each time I scan the opinion pages of some of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers. So much fiction in such a small space!

Some days back, Murdoch's only Australian broadsheet (he prefers tabloids), The Australian, published an article by a woman who would like to be Salman Rushdie if only she could write better. Irshad Manji is a Canadian Muslim writer who thrives on controversy and is desperate to get a fatwa to improve her own book sales.

Her major claim to fame is that she rediscovered the concept of ijtihad (roughly translated as independent juristic reasoning), a claim she shares with Osama bin Laden and a host of other Muslim controversialists.

Manji's article laments the recent response of some Pakistani lawmakers to the recent award to Rushdie of a Knight Bachelor for his services to literature. What on earth made them so angry? Were they jealous Rushdie could still be regarded as a bachelor despite being married to a Bollywood actress and swimsuit model?


What made Manji particularly upset was that Pakistani MPs spent so much time worrying about Rushdie and so little time focusing on issues of poverty and women's rights. Quite wisely, Manji did not blame Islam but rather "hypocrisy under the banner of Islam". I doubt many Muslims would disagree with her, though that didn't stop cultural warrior sub-editors at The Australian from giving this article the headline "Islam the problem".

In fact, I'm not aware of any time during the thousand-year-plus Muslim renaissance when Muslims had a problem with allegedly blasphemous books. Muslims almost turned blasphemy into an art form.

On the eve of the Crusades, one Syrian Muslim scholar named Abul Hasan al-Ma'arri (his surname indicating he was from the town of Ma'arra in Syria) was told about these nasty uncivilised European crusader thugs who even resorted to cannibalism. And his response? "There are only two classes of people in this world - those with lots of religion but little intelligence and those with lots of intelligence but little religion."

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First published in The Christchurch Press on June 29, 2007.

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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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