It is a surprisingly difficult call, writing about the stabbing of Salman Rushdie in western New York. What can one say beyond saying that it is simply wrong, wrong, wrong — despicable, barbaric, heartbreaking, tragic — but what is the point of multiplying adjectives? The world was a crappy place even before this happened. It is even crappier now. I am pretty much a free speech fundamentalist — almost, most of the time, and such an event merely reinforces that belief. Well, almost.
But it is impossible to finesse that “almost” in the context of the murderous attack that might well leave Rushdie with significant physical damage: One eye gone, liver compromised. Or, indeed, to seek to derive some ironic consolation from the fact that at least his voice is back — practically as soon as he got off the ventilator. As Aatish Taseer reported, Rushdie is back to talking, and joking. Free speech indeed — but at what cost!
But if I am forced to gloss that “almost”, I’d have to enter a few caveats — even as I recognise that now is not the time for caveats and reservations: Now is the time for sorrow, for lamentation and deep, deep condemnation. There is nothing — repeat, nothing — to be said in favour or defence or even mitigation of this horrific act of violence. However, beyond the sorrow and the condemnation, there is a However. And if you hold a gun to my head, it is into that difficult terrain that I must now venture.
There is a complex negotiation — an uncertain and shifting border — between free speech and hate speech. Thus, what is free speech to one, may well appear like hate speech to another. And it is practically impossible to think about that ambiguous border without engaging with the inequalities of power in the world — and, indeed, with the inequality of the access to free speech. After all, the “free speech” of the celebrity-with-a-megaphone is not quite comparable with the free speech of the forgotten millions who are free to whimper and to beg.
The right to free speech means nothing unless it includes the right to be heard, recognised, acknowledged. Then again, it is practically impossible, particularly in India, to think about the fraught possibility of free speech without engaging with the question of “hurt religious sentiments” and “hurt feelings”. And so, inevitably, one comes up against yet another opposition, that between the right not to be insulted and humiliated and mocked in one’s deeply held beliefs, and the equally important right to blasphemy, to ridicule and to satire. After all, if one is forced always to be pussy-footing around people’s beliefs and pieties — surely infinite, particularly in diverse, hybrid, harsh societies which inevitably leave large numbers with hurt, and inflammable, sensitivities — one might as well say goodbye to free speech. Much more than free speech, it must be goodbye to the possibility of any culture that aspires to be more than merely cosmetic and decorative, goodbye to linguistic creativity and vivacity, because risk-taking is of the very nature of creative language and of culture.
My own preference in the matter must be clear enough by now, but I do not think that there is any directly philosophical resolution of this difficulty. One is forced to engage with the deep inequalities of power within particular societies and, surely, in the world as a whole. After all, the racist braying of the Western media in the context of the blonde and blue-eyed Ukrainian refugees in the early days of the conflict, was an eloquent demonstration of the fact that the vast majority of the world that is not blonde and blue-eyed, and still washes up at the hostile borders of the West, had simply become invisible. And was certainly illiterate, certainly in no position to respond to what was being “said” in unmistakable terms. I fear that in such contexts of inequality, violence — horrific, “staged” violence — might well be the “free speech” of the powerless, of those who, having been s**t upon for centuries, must now be condemned to invisibility and silence. The undeniable suffering of the Jews of Europe was heard, and addressed, in the form of the creation of the state of Israel. The suffering of the people of Palestine, on the other hand, remains unaddressed and unheard, except in the form of random, and futile, acts of violence.
It is critical not to abandon nuance here. Thus, there is, always, the violence of the powerful — and if there is ever to be any global “reconciliation”, that is something that the colonising West, and the globalising West, the long history of gunboats and “sanctions”, so to speak, will have to acknowledge. Then again, victimhood comes in many flavours, and claims of victimhood, legitimate or imagined, cannot be allowed to confer immunity or sanction violence, whether in Palestine, or to the lynch mobs that disfigure my own society — or to would-be assassins in New Jersey. But is it even possible to begin to understand the “rage” of Islam without taking into account the long history of treachery and betrayal and torment that has been visited upon the peoples of the Middle East by sundry Western powers. To imagine that this “rage” — which springs to the defence of the defence of the Prophet in ever uglier and more grotesque forms — has its roots exclusively in theological texts is to connive in the suppression and denial of that unforgivable history.
It is to deny the suffering of those damaged societies whose populations still suffer the inertial (and also intended) persistence of those centuries of exploitation. The mad mullahs uttering dire imprecations, and their “liberal” mockers, cheering on the “humanitarian interventions” in Iraq and Afghanistan, are both parts of a shared economy of amnesia and misdirection.
In this economy, the comprehension, and the address, of a phenomenon that rightly (or, minimally, also) belongs in the domain of history, is seamlessly transposed into the realm of theology, of wrangling about Sharia and Hadith, where both sides — the mockers and the mocked — can play their appointed roles, locked in an embrace of mutual, hostile dependence. And leave the harsh, unjust world, undisturbed. And seething with rage. Salman Rushdie is, sadly, collateral.
The writer taught in the department of English, Delhi University