We are made of pieces and fragments

I am ready to resume reading in public.

Banned Books Week in America, promoted by the American Library Association and Amnesty International “in common support for the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those that some consider unorthodox or unpopular” , is held annually during the last week of September.

In pre-pandemic days, I would support this work by volunteering to read at events at bookstores or public libraries.

Today more than ever, this support must be affirmed and expressed.

I’m ready.

I often read excerpts from Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”, making sure to include passages that some Muslims have condemned as blasphemous.

Typically, these passages referred to a character named Mahound, who critics mistakenly considered a blasphemous portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad. Mahound only appears in the book as a character in the dreams of another character, the delusions of Gibreel Farishta, a character who believes himself to be the Archangel Gabriel and is later diagnosed as mentally ill.

In Gibreel’s dreams, Mahound is a businessman with identity and belonging issues turned prophet trying to save Jahilia, a town famous for gambling dens and brothels, from corruption.

“The city of Jahilia is built entirely of sand, its structures formed from the desert from which it rises. It is a sight to admire: fortified, with four gates, the whole is a miracle wrought by its citizens, who learned the trick of transforming the fine white sand of the dunes of these abandoned parts, – the very stuff of inconstancy… and transformed it, by alchemy, into the fabric of their newly invented permanence.”

Such words were written by a gifted writer, born in Bombay into a Muslim family, who now lives in New York. In 1989, his novel, “The Satanic Verses”, earned Rushdie a death sentence from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for allegedly being anti-Islamic and insulting the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad.

Last week, Khomeini’s death sentence prompted a religious fanatic to try to assassinate Rushdie. Fortunately, Salman Rushdie survived the assault and his attacker was arrested.

I’ve read “The Satanic Verses” twice, and as I understand it, despite its reliance on early historical accounts of Islamic history, it’s neither blasphemous nor anti-Islam.

But that’s not the point.

The fact is that even if it is profanity and anti-Islam or against any religion, institution or government, the author has an inalienable right – unfettered by societal, religious, governmental or group conventions of interest – to create it and have it published.

An inviolable right, affirmed in the words of the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine:

“Das war ein Vorspiel nur; dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen: It was only a prelude; where they burn books, they end up burning people.”

When I was last in Berlin, Germany, I read these lines – written in 1823 by Heine – inscribed on a plaque in Bebelplatz where an empty underground library commemorates the public burning of 20,000 books on May 10 1933 in many university towns across the Reich by the Nazis to “purify” and “cleanse” German literature and culture. Among the burned books were works by Heinrich Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and Albert Einstein.

“History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas…” Helen Keller, whose books were also burned, replied: “…You can burn my books and the books of the best minds of Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to invigorate other minds.

I believe that even blasphemous works must be protected, protected even when they make us uncomfortable, protected even when freedom of expression is used to strike at disenfranchised and marginalized people who have no media platforms on which they can respond.

Today’s discussion of the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie in Chautauqua is also a reminder that America itself is increasingly limited to a sanctuary for free expression and a forum for the free exchange of ideas. – especially for unorthodox or unpopular ideas.

Today, just as Rushdie’s Muslim critics ignored the dream sequences and were unable to enter into his metaphors and parables, we are faced with incapable American ayatollahs, unwilling to understand and accept the ambitious values ​​of our constitutional republic.

Unable to accept that all Americans are created equal.

Today, the intimidation of artists and ideas in America is more sophisticated than deadly fatwas, assassinations and book burnings.

It comes by using public funds to support religious institutions, denying equitable access to resources and opportunities.

We are witnessing a pernicious push to cleanse America of its pluralistic roots, to resist multiculturalism, to refuse the foreigner.

We are witnessing the racist adoption of replacement theory and the ignorant denunciation of critical race theory, attempts to impose a caste system on communities of color.

We are witnessing Khomeini fatwa to be replaced by preachers, politicians, pundits and petty bureaucrats ignorant of their faith while some of their ignorance purge libraries and curricula of books and resource materials that do not fit their vision of a Christian nationalist homeland evangelist and white supremacist.

We are witnessing an America that is about to deny the vision of the Founding Fathers that a secular worldview is the best guarantor of religious freedom, that no one is favored above the law.

“What is being expressed is a malaise with a plural identity,” Rushdie said in 1989 and remains true today. “And what I say to you – and I say it in the novel – is that we have to accept this. We are becoming more and more a world of migrants, made up of pieces from here, from elsewhere. We are here And we never really left wherever we went.’

We are made of pieces and fragments.

We are here.

There is a story of a woman who lived in Medina during the formative days of the Muslim community in Arabia.

Every day as the Prophet Muhammad passed by her house, she threw trash at him.

The Prophet never replied or retaliated.

One day, when the woman did not show up and there was no one to litter her, the Prophet went to her house to visit her, inquire and see if she was okay.

Who, I wonder, will be knocking at our door?

Who, I wonder, will ask if we’re okay?

Robert Azzi, photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be contacted at [email protected] His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.

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