Muslim spiritual and intellectual leaders contributed new perspectives on the current production of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children in a panel discussion last night.
While Rushdie has misrepresented Islam in the past and offended many worshippers, they said, the Muslim community is cautiously optimistic that the sensitive and critical atmosphere of the current Midnight's Children production may help to repair the past damage.
Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid, Professor Amir Al-Islam, and Ghazi Khankan delivered articulate, impassioned addresses to a small but eager audience at the event in Riverside Church.
The speakers focused not on Midnight's Children but on Rushdie's later work The Satanic Verses. The publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 angered many Muslims and led the Iranian government of the Ayatollah Kohmeini to issue a fatwah calling for Rushdie's death.
Expressing concern over Rushdie's representations of Islam, the panelists issued a call for greater religious tolerance and understanding.
Abdur-Rashid, appearing on behalf of the Harlem Shurah and the Islamic Leadership Council of New York, served as the event's moderator, introducing the other speakers as well as giving his own remarks. Two other scheduled panelists were unable to attend.
The panelists expressed grave concern about misguided perceptions of Islam in America and around the world, a problem rendered particularly acute by the present political climate and the military campaign in Iraq. Abdur-Rashid began the evening's discussion by introducing Khankan, who is the executive director of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"We have recently been faced with an assault on Islam," Khankan said, adding that Islam is "one of the most misunderstood religions" and that Mohammed is "one of the most maligned" religious figures.
Khankan proceeded to list a litany of public figures who have branded Islam as "a religion which breeds hatred."
"The assault came from people such as none but Mr. John Ashcroft," he said. He also criticized "televangelists such as Pat Robertson."
Khankan then reflected on the history of such perceptions of Islam. He focused particularly on The Satanic Verses, which, he said, "ridicules and distorts Islamic beliefs and portrays them in the most vulgar language."
"Reading [the book] was really a traumatic experience for any Muslim," he said. "It added new strengths to the prejudice and woeful ignorance against Islam in the West."
Of particular concern to Muslims, according to Khankan, were two chapters in Rushdie's novel containing dream sequences with a religious theme.
In strong terms, he described the chapters as deeply offensive to their religious beliefs. The chapters ridiculed the prophet Mohammed, his family, and his three companions, according to Khankan. He said that the prophets companions are described as "stupid," "drunk," the "trinity of scum," and on many occasions, as "fucking clowns."
"Rushdie ... chose to ridicule the prophet," Khankan said. "We do not relish vulgar attacks on our religion and our revealed personalities."
All three panelists spoke at length about Islam's commitment to the principles of free speech and expression, emphasizing that their denouncement of Rushdie's novel was entirely in line with those values. However, they criticized Rushdie for his insensitivity.
"In expressing our opinion, we must not ridicule or debase [those of others]," Khankan said. "We uphold the right of free expression but believe such rights should be exercised with responsibility." Professor Al-Islam echoed Khankan's sentiment.
"The freedom to express yourself is the raison d'etre of Islam," he said.
Al-Islam shifted the discussion in a more positive direction, speaking in uplifting words about the opportunity for reconciliation.
He said that he had initially supported the fatwah condemning Rushdie, but later changed his mind and hoped that the Iranian government would do the same.
"I would like for them to forgive him," he said, noting that forgiveness is a central principle in Islam. "I think [Rushdie has] learned something from that experience--I hope he has."
Nonetheless, Al-Islam agreed with Khankan's harsh criticism of Rushdie for The Satanic Verses.
"He demonizes and denigrates and marginalizes the world of Islam," Al-Islam said.
Abdur-Rashid concluded the event by reading a statement issued by Muslim spiritual leaders in New York, whom Columbia contacted during the planning of the Midnight's Children festival.
In the statement, the religious leaders reiterated that their primary concern with The Satanic Verses had stemmed from their perception that the novel contained satirical sections purporting to represent Islamic beliefs. They said that they had reviewed the script of Midnight's Children and were relieved to find that it did not misconstrue the doctrines of Islam in the same fashion.
While they criticized Rushdie's personal attitude toward Islam, they hoped that the Midnight's Children Humanities festival would present an opportunity for productive dialogue, which would in turn foster a deeper understanding of their religion.
Al-Islam agreed. "I'm very optimistic," he said