The trouble with saying what you really think is that you've often underestimated the strength of people's reactions. Instead of receiving congratulations for your forthright expression of the truth, you suddenly get swept into a whole fresh controversy you never intended to instigate.
Such is the case. it seems, with Salman Rushdie and his Satanic Verses,the year's top-selling hardback book. Reportedly Dr. Badawi, an eminently reasonable Islamic theologian and influential leader in Britain, spent most of a shared railway journey trying to convince Rushdie as a friend that it would be madness to publish the book. But the author would have none of it He was convinced that the world was ready to hear him and made his motto "Publish and be damned." So he did, and he was. Badawi has now offered Rushdie asylum in his house.
In seems that Rushdie's offense is two-fold. He has blasphemed the Prophet and other great Islamic teachers and questioned the traditional account of the founding and early days of Islam; and he has abandoned the faith of his birth, Islam, and become what everyone now knows as an apostate.
Curiously, at the recent summit of Muslim countries it was the latter offense that was stressed the most, which suggests that the writer is being held up as a ghastly warning to others who, being assailed by doubts as to the authenticity or purity of their religion, may choose to follow his path. Perhaps this added persuasion will be needed to keep all within the fold, in view of the unsavory insights into the workings of modern Islam this whole episode has afforded us.
Putting heretics to death is nothing new, of course, as a glance at English history will soon tell us. I grew up as a choirboy in Westminster Cathedral, with the salutary reminder of John Southworth's body. Pieced back together after having been hung, drawn, and quartered, it now lies resplendent in ceremonial vestments inside a glass case in a side chapel dedicated to the Forty Martyrs, some of the four hundred or so men and women who were put to death for their beliefs during the sixteenth-century religious turmoil in England.
The spectacle of this historical period exercised a morbid fascination for me and my companions living at the choir school in the depths of that great establishment. Some of our favorite readings, in between angelic anthems, were the gory accounts given in pamphlets sold at the back of the cathedral of the various methods of torture and execution employed at the time.
What makes the over-zealous reaction to Rushdie's book so disturbing, then, is certainly not that it represents a break with tradition. The difference is that the goal posts have moved; no longer are we living in a society where everything revolves around religion and religious authority; no longer can one grow up secure in the knowledge that God created the world in seven days and who is there to prove otherwise! or that Christianity must be the true religion because there is no other; or that Mohammed must be the true prophet of God because nobody dares say anything else.
In the face of the endless barrage of contradictory and senseless propaganda released by our latter-day mentors the television, press, and secular education a child of today cannot even be sure whether it is right to be good or good to be right, or, indeed, what is right itself.
Small wonder that Salman Rushdie, born and educated in modern India, transported to England in his youth, cut off from his family roots, and hailed as a great writer, was moved to question the archaic assumptions of his childhood religion. Surely those with any intelligence in today's atheistic and impious world are going to be assailed by doubts as to the truth of their religion or any religion. And having decided that they do want to be religious, why should they feel bound by the religion of their family, the one they just happen to have been born into? And why should they not inquire into other traditions evaluate and compare, discuss and debate, even write books about their doubts if they feel so moved? Rushdie made a tactical error in publishing Satanic Verses: that is indisputable. Maybe he acted insensitively. But he is not to blame for doubting, or even for criticizing: he had the courage to say openly the secret thoughts that others suppress.
Two Vaisnava lessons come to mind from all of this. One is the importance of freedom of choice. Spiritual life cannot be forced. A society may force its cultural norms on its members, and those may often be quasi-religious, such as the acceptance of a particular form of religion as all-important, or, as in Britain today, the virtual lack of any meaningful religious values, both of which represent undesirable extremes. But true spiritual values cannot be compulsory: they must be freely accepted. Therefore, enshrined in the world's greatest book of spiritual instruction, theBhagavad-gita, are Krsna's words: "Thus I have explained to you the most confidential knowledge. Deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish to do."
Nowhere does Krsna approve of force in religious matters. He even goes out of His way to warn that the wise should not unsettle persons addicted to inferior activities. It is said, however, that Lord Caitanya. who is Krsna Himself on His mission of spreading the chanting of the holy names, did bring weapons with Him: His devotees and the holy names themselves. In other words, Lord Caitanya conquers not by force but by love, and He kills not the person but his ignorance and envy.
The second lesson is that there must be sound philosophy to back up one's religious faith. As Srila Prabhupada writes, "Religion without philosophy is sentiment or sometimes fanaticism." Religious leaders cannot simply demand of their followers that they must believe or else! It is the leaders' responsibility to give instruction and education that will satisfy the doubts of the people. If they cannot give satisfactory answers, then they will have to admit defeat, either because their teachings are faulty, or because they could not save their followers.
At no time has this been more of a necessity than the present day. Modern society influences everyone to challenge religion. Therefore the religious leaders of the world, whatever their persuasion, have to respond to this challenge in such a way as to convince the unfortunate people of this age of the absolute necessity of spiritual life. Moreover, they must themselves behave as spiritual examples, displaying all the qualities of true devotees of God, so as to inspire those thus convinced to find the strength of their convictions. This mood of a devotee is summarized in Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu's famous prayer.
One who thinks himself lower than the grass, who is more tolerant than a tree, and who does not expect personal honor yet is always prepared to give all respect to others can very easily always chant the holy name of the Lord.
Some Muslims have done a great disservice to true religionists by their display of intolerance in the name of religion, and they have certainly misrepresented much that is good in the Islamic tradition. By the arrangement of providence, however, good may yet come of their actions if people are encouraged to discriminate between what is true practice of spiritual life and what is simply religious opportunism and bigotry.
True religious life revolves around the principle of love: love for God and love for fellow man. In these times of doubt, fear. and suspicion, religious leaders could do worse than to demonstrate a little of this quality of love, taking Lord Caitanya's words as a starting point. The secrets of spiritual life in the age of Kali are clearly intimated: associate with others in a mood of humility and tolerance, and together chant the names of God. This will prove to be the solution to man's spiritual quest in these satanic times.