Salman Rushdie attack prompts muted reaction in India and Pakistan

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA</span>
Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

The literary world and public figures across the globe have expressed shock and outrage after the author Salman Rushdie was attacked at an event in New York.

But in Pakistan, an Islamic republic, there was a deep silence from celebrated writers and politicians following the attack on the author, while in India, where Rushdie was born, it is a bank holiday this weekend. Apart from some liberals expressing horror at the stabbing, reaction has been muted.

The author, whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was stabbed in the neck and torso as he was about to give a lecture in western New York. He remains on a ventilator after being attacked on stage in western New York state on Friday morning and his spokesperson, Andrew Wylie, said that the author may lose an eye following the attack.

Rushdie has been accused of blasphemy in the Islamic world for his book The Satanic Verses.

The book caused huge controversy as some Muslims accused the text of blasphemy and of mocking Islam. This also sparked protests across the UK by British Muslims.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, with even unproven allegations provoking mob lynchings and violence.

Related: Who is Salman Rushdie? Author whose book The Satanic Verses made him a target

Salman Taseer, a governor of Punjab, was killed by his security guard in Pakistan’s capital in Islamabad, in 2011. Taseer had called for reforms to the blasphemy legislation and promised to help Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy after an argument with a Muslim woman.

As even talking about Rushdie’s attack can bring condemnation and death threats, many dare not speak out.

Veengas, a journalist and founder of a non-profit news organisation the Rise News, tweeted: “Some are still thinking about whether to tweet on #SalmanRushdie – you call yourself an author, journalist, and activist but have no courage to condemn the violent action. Your silence describes everything. Sane minds won’t encourage violence regardless of who you are.”

The Guardian tried to contact writers and novelists for their reactions, but most did not respond.

Cyril Almeida, a journalist, said in the fog of the Iranian fatwa, many had forgotten that some of the first protests against Rushdie were in Pakistan. But matters have largely been overtaken by the assassination of Salman Taseer.

“The Asia Bibi episode unleashed a wave of bigotry that has swept over society to the point that, today, one of [Pakistan’s] biggest parties in terms of votes polled is a party founded on a single point agenda of having blasphemy laws ferociously enforced. In this environment, few activists or writers dare to speak even in the narrowest and most cautious of ways,” said Almeida.

A few condemned the attack on Rushdie on social media, albeit with caution. Mehr Tarar, a writer, said in a tweet: “Salman Rushdie, excl Satanic Verses, is one of the greatest writers of all time. Attacking someone for his novel – written 33 years ago as an atheist, non-believer in Islam or something else he wrote – makes no sense at all. Our Islam doesn’t allow anyone to be killed for their views.”

More than a hundred people reacted to her tweet. One responded: “I respect you a lot, but don’t indulge in this matter. If I were there, I could have done worse.”

India was the first country to impose a ban on The Satanic Verses in 1988. There has been no statement from the Indian government or the main opposition, the Congress party. The Congress party was in power when the book came out and quickly decided to ban it. Natwar Singh, external affairs minister at the time, defended the ban on Saturday, justifying it as necessary to avoid law and order problems.

Singh told the Indian news agency the Press Trust of India what he told the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, when asked what he thought about banning the book: “All my life I have been totally opposed to banning books, but when it comes to law and order, even a book of a great writer like Rushdie should be banned.

“The entire Muslim world is going to flare up. We have a large number of Muslims and apart from that, what the book contains at this time is not acceptable.”

Conservative Muslim groups and clerics were outraged by the book, despite for the most part not having read it, and burned copies as part of street protests, demanding a ban.

Gandhi was accused by the Bharatiya Janata party, which is now in power, of “pandering” to the most regressive elements in Muslim society for the sake of votes, without caring about freedom of expression.

Rushdie, in angry letter to Gandhi, accused him of capitulating to a handful of Indian Muslim politicians and clerics who were “extremists”.

Decades later, the Hindu nationalist BJP is in power and has been accused of marginalising and targeting India’s Muslims and eagerly grabbing opportunities to attack some of them as terrorist sympathisers who will do anything to defend Islam.

As a result, conservative Muslim groups have chosen not to make a statement on the attack on Rushdie, fearing the BJP may round on them for supporting violent acts.