CAN the world's Muslims ever pay back the immense debt of Britain's Tony Blair?
As it is, they remain infinitely indebted to the British leader for his role in promoting what his friend and chief ally George W Bush calls 'human dignity, freedom and democracy' in the Muslim world.
Today thanks to Blair, Bush and their coalition of the willing, there's so much freedom, democracy and human dignity in the Muslim world — from Palestine and Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan — that it does not know what to do with these invaluable gifts of the West.
And now this parting gift from Blair to one of their own has almost overwhelmed the world's 1.6 billion believers. The knighthood to Salman Rushdie only goes to prove how much Blair, Britain and the West care for Muslims and their concerns and sensitivities.
The British leader's thoughtful gesture has given a new lease of life to a disgraced writer the world had almost forgotten and who's of late been bending backwards to reclaim the limelight that once chased him.
Besides, it serves Iran's Ayatollahs right too. How dare they take on 'our boys' in uniform, parading them before the world like a prized catch?
And now Blair and the rest of the British establishment pretend to be shocked by the reaction the canonisation of Rushdie has generated across the Muslim world.
Actually, it is hugely gratifying for men like Blair to see the angry believers take to streets expending their collective energy on yet another dead and long forgotten non-issue.
This even as the Muslim countries battle some of the world's most serious problems from crippling poverty to acute hunger to a shocking lack of basic healthcare. Can you blame then those who see a method in the madness and 'Western conspiracy' to keep the volatile Muslim world forever on the boil? Surely Blair's Britain couldn't have forgotten so soon the inflamed protests last year over the Danish outrage against the Prophet?
Why is it so hard for the West to comprehend the plain and simple fact that we Muslims haven't 'progressed' enough — at least not as much as our Western friends — to take liberties with what is sacred; we can't play around with our revered icons and beliefs in the name of freedom of speech.
I know we have been here before. But you need to underscore the fact at the cost of repetition that Muslim reverence is not limited to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. All the messengers of God including Abraham, Moses and Jesus, of course, are held in similar esteem.
In fact, you are not a believer if you do not believe in all the prophets and all the books that came before the Last Messenger.
Which is why it's such a shame that the West should constantly encourage and spur on — if not sponsor — these desperate attacks against all that is dear to us.
Indeed, there has been a long history of vilification of Islam by the West that goes way back in time — long before Rushdie's Satanic Verses and Danish cartoons happened. Anyone with a little familiarity with European literature would know what I am talking about.
From Italian poet Dante to English essayist Carlyle, casual contempt for Islam and Prophet has been a recurring motif in European literature and discourse for centuries. Just visit Google and see for yourself!
If there had been any doubts about the European view of Islam, they were cleared by Pope Benedict himself who put his words into the mouth of a Byzantine king to abuse the Prophet.
One wouldn't mind these frequent attacks on our religious icons and beliefs so much if they had been part of serious criticism and debate about Islam. In fact, Quran repeatedly calls for debate about Islamic teachings.
Also, Muslims have no issues whatever with the freedom of speech and creative or intellectual freedom as championed by the West. In fact, it's this spirit of intellectual pursuit and scientific inquiry that was at the heart of phenomenal Muslim progress in the first thousand years of Islam.
The European renaissance itself owes a great deal to the pioneering efforts and groundbreaking achievements made by Arabs and Muslims in science, mathematics, geography, medicine and so on in preceding centuries.
The Greek philosophy that forms the core of European enlightenment is the Muslim world's gift to the West; Arabs had translated Greek texts and classics into Arabic long before the West woke up to their richness. So you see it's not as if Muslims suffer from some pathological aversion to creativity and intellectual freedom. And we are not abnormally sensitive to criticism either. Healthy criticism is always welcome. Sincere attempts to hold a mirror to Arabs and Muslim societies are appreciated too.
What repels us is not Western freedom — as Bush and Blair claim — but the intellectual hooliganism and depravity that drive self-serving and irresponsible men like Rushdie and Danish cartoonist. But more disgraceful than these cheap theatrics by publicity-craving individuals is their lionisation by the West.
So all over again, Rushdie is being painted in the Western media as the epitome of freedom and someone who's facing the wrath of his 'intolerant' people for telling the 'truth' as it is.
However, the TRUTH is Rushdie's book is neither a great work of literary brilliance, nor a serious critique of Islamic teachings. Why it is not even a good yarn. I may not qualify to be part of the Booker prize jury. But as a student of literature, I know enough to conclude this book is nothing but an obscene attempt to rake in big bucks and do it real fast by stoking religious sentiments.
But we are least interested in literary evaluation of this satanic book or the literary stature of its Lucifer of an author.
What is unacceptable to us is the despicable assault on the Prophet and his family. Rushdie's apologists have repeatedly claimed that Muslims are baying for the author's blood without even reading the book. But you don't have to dive into a pile of shit to know if it is indeed a pile of shit. You can smell it from a distance, you know!
Nonetheless, let me confess that I am one of those few faithful who have indeed read or tried to read this cheap rag of a book. And trust me, it was one of the most appalling books I've ever read. Not just because its sick author draws parallels between the Prophet's household — how can I even say it! — and a brothel! If this is freedom, we are better off without it!
Okay, the West may not have any problems with this. For the Church-weary West, nothing is sacrosanct. Not even the sweet Jesus, or his most pious Mother or the word of God itself. But we certainly are not prepared to accept this trash in the name of creative licence. For God's sake, how can anyone defend this rogue?
And Britain, that fabled beacon of hope, liberalism and religious tolerance, has come forward to confer on him one of its most coveted honours!
Interestingly, it wasn't long ago that the newly-minted knight Sir Salman was reviled by much of the British establishment for his views on the UK royals and for being a drag on the exchequer. In fact, this is precisely why an embittered Rushdie had run off to New York to take refuge with his Indian girlfriend. And now the self-same author is being reclaimed by the British establishment and West as their own. Being an Anglophile most of my brief life, I hate to say this. But the West loves men like Rushdie because they are loathed by the Muslims. Or rather because they loathe Muslims.
Aijaz Zaka Syed writes a weekly column on the Middle East and Muslim world affairs. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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