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Aysha Taryam: A word written is a word feared
February 05, 2012
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As a writer I dream of a world where words are not imprisoned, a world where all forms of literature are celebrated not mourned. Yet for every book festival held somewhere in the world there is a book burning being planned. Words when collected and arranged in a specific manner become a force to be reckoned with. This meticulous selection and arrangement transforms the word into a weapon capable of instilling fear in the bravest of us. For words are ideas, and an idea is a contagious infliction.

Throughout history numerous books have created massive conflicts between people and ripped holes into well-knit societies. The most infamous of all is Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which translated into English means My Struggle. Published in 1925, Mein Kampf is an autobiographical work of Hitler’s childhood life and political ideology, written while he served a four-year jail sentence in a Bavarian prison. It is a 700-page documentation of the psychological make-up of the world’s most abhorrent leader. This book was heavily circulated in Nazi Germany and was even given as a wedding gift, by the Nazi Party, to every newly married couple.

After the Second World War, and in an effort to cleanse itself of the acts of horror committed by Adolf Hitler, the publication of Mein Kampf was halted indefinitely in Germany. Austria went as far as adopting a ‘Prohibition Act,’ banning and criminalising the existence of the Nazi ideology in any form. The German state of Bavaria, which holds the copyright to this book, has fought against its publication, which has limited its distribution extensively in Europe. The idea behind the ban is that this book is capable of influencing people and once again igniting the Nazi racist ideology.

Based on the German copyright law Mein Kampf will enter public domain in 2016, 70 years after the author’s death. Currently the book can be found in different countries around the world and excerpts of it are available on the Internet. I remember buying my copy of Mein Kampf, which is published by Mariner Books in New York, ten years ago, curious to delve into the mindset behind such atrocities. I approached it just as one would the mass published autobiographies of serial killers of the likes of Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy.

From the onset, Hitler’s preface clarifies his reader niche by writing:

“I do not address this work to strangers, but to those adherents of the movement who belong to it with their hearts, and whose intelligence is eager for a more penetrating enlightenment.”

Taking this into account, I assume Hitler would have no objection to the banning of his book and the restriction of its readership, for were it read openly the mystery around it would soon be dispelled.

History cannot be erased no matter how dark or sordid the events. It exists for us to learn from and arm ourselves with its trials and tribulations. It is understandable that the victims of Hitler’s heinous crimes would not want to relive them, but Mein Kampf is a historic document which when dissected with an impartial eye reveals the mindset behind the insanity.

The ban on this book was upheld in consideration of the emotional impact its widespread release would have on Jews around the world. There were outcries from Jewish communities calling the republication and distribution of this book ‘insensitive and crass.’

If being insensitive to a certain race or religion is enough to get a book banned in Europe then why was the ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in India frowned upon by the world? Comparing only the works of literature and not the writers who penned them, both works are gravely offensive to a great portion of the world’s population.

Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses published in 1988 is a work of fiction inspired by the life of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). The lead character, Mahound or ‘The Messenger’, receives verses of the Holy Quran, which are later revealed to be given to him by Satan.

In Rushdie’s so-called dream vision narratives, which attempt to shake the faith upon which Islam is based, Muslims around the world were aggrieved. The implication that the Quran or verses of it were indeed the work of the devil was seen as not only offensive but hits at the foundation of what the Muslim nation holds sacred. The book went on to create a massive controversy, the book was banned in Muslim countries all over the world and Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. The fatwa was later dropped but the ban on his book is still enforced to this day.

At the time only a handful of authors, one of whom was the late Roald Dahl, spoke out against Rushdie saying:

“Rushdie knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise. This kind of sensationalism does indeed get an indifferent book on the top of the bestseller list but in my mind it is a cheap way of doing it.”

Yet although The Satanic Verses is viewed by millions as being insensitive and insulting to the Muslim nation, people have failed to reach the universal agreement that Mein Kampf has achieved, with regard to its banning. To this day authors and readers alike are still split on the issue.

Last month Salman Rushdie was scheduled to appear at the Jaipur Literary Festival but then cancelled it due to the uproar this news induced in the people of India. Authors around the world condemned the people’s reaction, for the people of India are expected to accept the work on the basis of freedom of speech and understand that it is not meant to insult, but to entertain them.

Two books, both hold within them words, offensive, hurtful words, yet one is condemned, suppressed while the other is critically acclaimed and widely available.

As hard as one might fight to set the word free we should never underestimate the power it holds. Should this power fall into the wrong hands its tremors will be felt the world over and for years to come. If we wish the word to become an unstoppable force then we are left with only two choices: either to move out of its way or be crushed by it.
 
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