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Fly in the ointment

 

A poem written by an Al Qaida terrorist stirs up outrage in Kerala, reports T Satisan
T SATISAN | Issue Dated: August 25, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Kerala | Ode to the Sea | Ibrahim Al-Rubaish | ABVP | Muslim League | Sangh parivar | Calicut University |
 

Literary controversies are not new to Kerala and rear up their heads every now and then. Naturally, the noise is bound to become shriller when a prescribed university text book contains a poem authored by a leading Al Qaida terrorist.

In the normal course of things, it is a university’s prerogative to select the syllabus but as a recent controversy reveals, even that may have its limits.

No one took much notice of a text book approved by the Calicut University for its BA Course syllabus until they came upon a poem in it entitled “Ode to the Sea”.  Prima facie, it did not look much different from scores of similar prescribed poems.  The catch lay in the author’s name. It was penned by Ibrahim Al-Rubaish alias Ibrahim Sulayman Mohammed Arabaysh, a Saudi national accused under serious charges of terrorism.

Expectedly, Sangh parivar organizations like BJP-affiliated ABVP and Vidyabhyasa Samrakshana Samiti (VSS) or Save Education Forum, were the first to protest. ABVP students staged dharnas, campaigns and agitations in colleges that come under the Calicut varsity. As the protests gathered momentum, Vice-Chancellor Dr Abdul Salam met Sangh activists and promised necessary action after an inquiry.

And, he kept his word – the poem was taken out of the course. The vice-chancellor appointed MM Basheer, Dean of Faculty of Language and Literature, as head of the inquiry committee. The inquiry concluded that ‘‘it is a good poem from the literary point of view. However, given the controversial background of the author, including the poem in the degree syllabus goes against ethical values. Hence it is better to remove the poem from the textbook”.

In a state where the CPM and the RSS have been locked in a no-holds barred battle for decades, the Left was predicted to hit back and they did. The CPM and Muslim League along with a cackle of human rights activists joined the chorus seeing in the withdrawal ‘‘dark hands of Hindu fascists’’. According to them, it was the poem that mattered not its author. The right to express, they said, cannot be negated.

Author Ibrahim Al-Rubaish alias Ibrahim Sulayman Mohammed Arabaysh is a reported Al-Qaeda terrorist, said to be still active in the Arabian Peninsula. Sangh activists allege that in the international media, Rubaish is portrayed as the new religious ideologue of Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. He was caught by US army on the Pak-Afghan border in 2001 and spent five years in Guantanamo Bay, one of the 11 Saudis among a total of 85 held on charges of promoting and ordering terror worldwide. He had completed a degree in Islamic Shariat Law from the Saudi University. In 2006, he was transferred to Saudi according to the decision to send all prisoners to the jails in their countries of origin from where he escaped in 2009.

During that time, CNN had reported the death of Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command and one of the founders, Saeed Al-Shihri. He was reported to be killed in a US attack in Yemen. CNN said the death was confirmed by Ibrahim Al-Rubaish through a video message. He continues to be listed as one of most wanted terrorists in Saudi and is now the mufti (chief justice) of Al-Qaeda. In 2013 Rubaish issued a fatwa to kill the Saudi King, branding the king’s permission for allowing co-education anti-Islamic!

The poem in question was reportedly written by Rubaish during his incarceration at Guantanamo Bay and was slipped out by his US-government appointed lawyers. Now, he lives in an Al-Qaeda hide out and leads operations when required.

Noted writer-orator Hameed Chendamangallur, known for his opposition to Islamic fundamentalism, told TSI that the quality of the poetry should be the criterion to judge it before including in the syllabus; let the author be Al-Rubaish or Nathuram Godse. According to him, Muslim organizations and Sangh Parivar accept literary works if it suits their ideological motivations – otherwise not.

Jamaat-E-Islami’s Malayalam mouth piece “Madhyamam” published articles against the withdrawal of the controversial poetry. Naturally, they had kept mum when Ayatollah Khomeini issued fatwas against Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin had to flee India on similar charges.

BJP leader PS Sreedharan Pillai says there is no harm in reading a poem; the author’s bio data is another matter. He says Rubaish was not a tourist to Afghanistan but a history sheeted terrorist and including his poem would be detrimental to communal harmony, especially when India is a declared target of Al-Qaeda. ‘‘If Bin-Laden had penned a poem, will the varsity include it in the syllabus? There is mystery about the poem’s copy right and how it became part of the syllabus,’’ points out Pillai.

CR Murugan Babu and TV Aravindakshan, editors of ‘Literature and Contemporary Issues,’ which contained ‘Ode to the Sea,’ a prescribed third semester text, say they were unaware of the author’s status although they knew that Rubaish was sent to Saudi from Guantanamo. Both of them are known leaders of the CPM-affiliated college teachers’ association.

Not surprisingly, it was the CPM and Muslim League which led the attacks on the vice-chancellor. Their argument was simple - creativity of the writer is of paramount importance. Sangh parivar leaders were quick to question the Left’s silence when a poem by respectable Malayalam poet, Mahakavi Akkitham, was doctored to pacify Islamic fundamentalists before being included in a school text a few years back.

In highly literate Kerala, such controversies occur from time to time. Last year a text book was withdrawn because it contained details about the military campaigns of Tippu Sultan in Malabar. Conventional Malabar history claims Tippu had attacked, destroyed and looted several temples and had carried out widespread proselytisation wherever he went in Kerala. It is reported that withdrawal of the poem had caused serious differences of opinions within the University Syndicate. Well, add another chapter to Kerala's intellectual ferment.  

tsatisan@sundayindian.com

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017