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Tenuous Ties: PEN, ZP Dala and Salman Rushdie

Opinion | Umm Abdillah | Radio Islam Programming | 2015.04.14 | 24 Jumadal Ukhra 1436H



Maverick trickster or suffering artist? High priest of the freedom of expression or incorrigible attention seeker? Visionary revisionist or trouble monger?Borrowed lines set an apt curtain raiser for theatrics Salman Rushdie, PEN America, Books Live South Africa and prominent media personalities have been trying to sell us the last 3 weeks. In this inflammatory narrative, ZP Dala, an absolutely unknown (until 3 weeks ago) South African novelist, is the diegetic manifestation of her idol Salman Rushdie. The largely Islamophobic narrative has been hackly weaved through a web of deception, half-truths and lies, told in a hundred different ways to create but one villain – buffoonish and hapless orthodox Muslims and their leadership – the Ulama. Even the 3 men who allegedly beat Dala for admiring Rushdie’s writing style have escaped scrutiny in the second chapter of this unfortunate event.


It started with claims that Mrs. ZP Dala had been assaulted by men who were offended by her admiration for Salman Rushdie. Up to now there has been no clarification on who assaulted her, what they wanted from her, even if they were Muslim, merely a “she said” and ominous supposition narrative. Then, in a statement released by PEN America last Saturday and promoted by Books Live South Africa and others we were told: “Members of the local Muslim community in Durban, South Africa, have ostracized Dala, putting her under extreme pressure to renounce her statement about Rushdie’s work, to repent for her “sins,” and to make a public vow of religious loyalty to Islam. When she continued to refuse to make a religious vow or other statements inconsistent with her personal beliefs she was admitted to a mental institution.”


To fill the coffers you must stay relevant


The PEN group of organisations is known globally for their efforts to defend writers endangered because of their work. Banned content is their specialty, especially inflammatory material and blasphemy viz. – the opium of intellectuals.


The rhetoric expressed in the above press release is alarmingly resonant of a similar tale woven by PEN for Rushdie when he openly converted to Islam on the 24th of December 1990. PEN alleged it was under duress. The perversion aside that Rushdie is a former president of American PEN and winner of the 2014 PEN/Pinter Prize, PEN’s now focus on Dala’s mental health and her own admission she is heavily drugged and suffers from anxiety & paranoia is a little too close to the resurrection of The Rushdie Report – which was commissioned in Britain in order to obtain a clinical view of Rushdie’s mental state.


Back to the present. Following the statement from the US chapter of PEN, authors Salman Rushdie and Neil Gaiman were joined by activists in South Africa, including Imran Garda and Zackie Achmat, in loaded statementsblanketly vilifying Muslim leaders and the Muslim community of Durban.


Adding more fuel the fire, the English chapter of PEN released a statement, which quoted Dala as saying she was drugged till she couldn’t walk, and harassed by her community beyond measure.


The Lies


The writer herself took to Twitter <@zpdala> on Sunday night to clarify the lies about her situation. She admitted she had checked herself into St Joseph’s mental healthcare facility, “NOT dragged there kicking and screaming”, that she was diagnosed with PTSD, was recognised by a few people and thus decided to leave. She couldn’t, because her doctor was on leave and a locum was not authorised to discharge her, per hospital policy. She also tweeted about how her words were being twisted: “After being harrassed by a journo about “The Satanic Verses” I admitted it befuddled me. He reported that I expressed admiration for it!”


The Jamiatul Ulama categorically condemned the attack on her. Further, to question the authenticity of Dala’s, PEN American and Pen English, and the Books Live reports is “not hounding, victim-blaming, or prickly defensiveness” as alleged by novelist and TV personality Imran Garda, rather, an exercise in sifting fact from fiction. As we’ve seen, this tale has been manipulated unjustifiably to malign an entire community.


She’s now at home and released yet another statement thanking PEN for “mobilising so quickly and working so hard to secure her release from St. Joseph’s psychiatric hospital.”


The Voices of Satanic Dissent


People sometimes ask what was offensive about ‘that one’ book? In “The Satanic Verses” Rushdie devoted chapters to a Prophet Mahound [a conflation of ”Mahomed” and ”hound” – a derogatory name used in the past by Christian writers to vilify Prophet Muhammadﷺ  (peace be upon Him)] who, on the basis of divine revelations, founded a new monotheistic religion in the hedonistic city of Jahilia. The names, descriptions, remarks and experiences of their central characters, the themes explored and the sequence of events leave little doubt that he had Islam, Makkah and its founder in mind. The title comes from a fictionalised lie that Prophet Mohammmed ﷺ (peace be upon Him) accepted three local deities – Laat, Uzzah and Manaat – to appease the pagans of Makkah for personal financial gain, and then deleted that section from the Quran known as the satanic verses.


When it was published in 1988, Muslims resented that their Prophet ﷺ(peace be upon Him) had been called an impostor who made up his revelations as he went along and made deals with Jibreel (as) to delete parts of the Quran as he saw fit. They were deeply offended that he had been called ‘a smart bastard’ and a debauchee who, after his wife’s death slept with so many women that his beard turned ‘half-white’ in a year. They resented too that his revered sahaba (ra) were called ‘those goons ‘those f…… clowns’, the ‘trinity of scum. Muslims were affronted that though a work of fiction, The Satanic Verses had mockingly reduced the Quran to a book of ‘spouting’ rules about how to ‘fart’, ‘f…’ and ‘clean one’s behind’. They also felt distressed by the brothel scene in the book in which twelve prostitutes increased their earnings by taking the names of the Umahaatul Mu’mineen (ra), and pretending to be Mahound’s wives.


Final Word


We love satire because it allows us to be sneaky, naughty and powerful behind the veil of poetic license and creativity. What more, it absolves us of the responsibility of any disastrous fallout. This isn’t an article on the harms of satire, the admiration for satire, or the loss to the right to free speech – bear in mind the Arabs were master satirists, thus Islamic tradition including the Quran and ahadith of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ are replete with delectable allegory. Of such examples: the reason for the final revelation regarding banning alcohol and the hadith of Umm Zara’. Nonetheless, the take home from this post are the implications of open admiration of controversial artists, especially those who have contested the Divinity of Allah and the Finality of the message of the Prophet ﷺpeace be upon Him . Then, there’s the collusion with agendanists to deliberately malign an entire Muslim community based on lies.

Lastly, there’s the fact that we all have religious contentions. There’s a manner and method to address them. Personal grievances can’t be rationalised as a means to harangue an entire community because 3 men did something wrong.

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