Salman Rushdie’s scheduled appearance at a gathering of leading thinkers in India has, once again, ruffled a few feathers. The author will deliver an hour-long address Friday as part of a two-day conference in New Delhi on Asia’s future, organized by India Today media group. But Rushdie’s inclusion — to give a talk entitled “The Liberty Verses: I am What I am and That’s All That I am” — has come at the cost of the gala dinner keynote speaker, Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan.
The former cricketer-turned-prime ministerial hopeful has announced at the eleventh hour he would no longer be attending. An official statement from Khan’s party says: “He [Khan] expressed his regrets to the organizers but stated categorically that he could not even think of participating in any program that included [Salman] Rushdie who has caused immeasurable hurt to Muslims around the globe.”
Muslims across the world consider Rushdie’s 1988 book the “Satanic Verses” blasphemous. Iranian spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death fatwa against the 64-year-old India-born British author while extremists in both India and Pakistan – where the book remains banned even after two decades – continue to peddle anti-Rushdie sentiments. Two months ago, he was forced to cancel a visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival following alleged death threats by Muslim extremists.
Khan’s last minute no-show is not entirely surprising. The leader of the Pakistan Movement for Justice Party is perceived as a moderate voice in the country’s politics and has been accused of a pacifist approach to extremist sentiments in his country, including a call for peace with the Taliban. With his popularity on the rise, Khan may now be toughening his image and keen to avoid any political fallout from sharing a platform with Rushdie. At the Kolkata Book Fair in January, he labeled Rushdie’s writing “painful” to the Muslim community. The Booker-winning author responded on Twitter: “30 yrs ago @ImranKhanPTI was a fan at my 1982 Delhi lecture and 100% secular. Now my work “humiliates” his “faith.” Which is the real Imran?”
It seems Khan has given his answer.