Throughout human history, the apostles of purity, those who have claimed to possess a total explanation, have wrought havoc among mere mixed-up human beings.
The recent knife attack on Salman Rushdie was not only appalling, it also shook many of us out of a sort of complacency regarding his situation: thirty plus years after the pronouncement of the Iranian Fatwā against the author of The Satanic Verses, when all the noise and the danger seemed to have died down and Rushdie had been moving around freely and publicly for more than a decade, this assassination attempt came as a complete surprise. In this country at least Islamic terrorism1 seemed to have receded behind the Christian fascist terrorism of the various crazed MAGA/conspiracy cults. Well, no—we are indeed at a historical moment when the indiscriminate rise of a range of totalitarianisms cannibalistically feeds on itself, or rather on the young (mainly male) gullibles in need of some, no, of any kind of reassurance, no matter how irrational, spurious or idiotic, at a moment of impending disaster and planetary crisis.
Early that afternoon I had walked along the Narrows, listening to the Belgian philosopher Vinciane Despret on France Culture Radio. When asked about the human need to create stories, she said that it is very important to make up stories, to tell tales, as “that means to open possibilities.” She then quoted what Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal on January 18, 1915: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” Despret commented thus:
…yes, dark, and those were dark times indeed, but dark here also means opaque, which means we can’t see all the possibilities the future holds, and so the fact that the future is dark also indicates that it holds a lot of possible openings and it falls upon us, we owe it to ourselves, to try and create, cultivate & nourish those open possibles rather than, for example, tragic futures. We have that responsibility and so what we tell of the present and of the past will nourish some open possibility for the future.
When I came home an hour or so later the news of the stabbing of Salman Rushdie reached me—and that concept, that idea, that necessity of creating stories to open possibilities for the future Despret had outlined, immediately came to mind because it is exactly what Rushdie’s Satanic Verses had tried to do—no, had done. And it is exactly because he dared to do this that the powers of the fake and blinding “light” of religious obscurantism vowed to shut him down. Fascism is all about narrowing and closing down the possibilities of rich, meaningful existence, which is always an existence not based on any one single source of “light” as the supposed single truth, but open to viewing, enjoying and connecting with a multitude of different light points—the stars in the night sky, say, or the numberless human and non-human lives we live amidst and meet during our life on this planet.
Rushdie’s original condemnation was based on the spurious accusation of “blasphemy,” which, as the punk rock band NOFX once put it, is “a victimless crime.” Or as Adam Gopnik recently put it in the New Yorker in response to the stabbing of Rushdie: “Blasphemy is not a mighty category demanding respect but a pitiful invention of those who cannot tolerate having their pet convictions criticized.”Outside of the Rushdie condemnation, I had given thought to the concept of blasphemy only in relation to the poet Paul Celan, who in 1960, talking with Nelly Sachs and after she had indicated that she was a believer, responded that he hoped “to be able to blaspheme … to the very end.” To which she nodded and said: “We just don’t know what counts…” In her Meersburger Prize acceptance speech, Sachs also said explicitly: “Everything counts. Everything is ferment, that works. And we—smoking from error—try, well or badly—we try again and again.” For the poet, the writer, the thinker, “to blaspheme” (always defined by someone else) is one mode for gaining insight into what counts, and for talking to and about the world, in our attempt to try and find out “what counts” for us.
Paul Celan’s statement thus remains a necessary insight and stance. Poets, writers, artists, citizens of the world, do not let yourselves be silenced by the various fatwas or book-burnings, orchestrated by power-hungry totalitarian or would-be totalitarian pseudo-leaders. The reason they do this is because they know the danger complex, multi-valence, open-ended thinking puts their fake claims to authority in.
I had hoped that I would never need to bring out what I had written about, or rather for, Salman Rushdie, back in the spring of 1989. But here we are, September 2022, and even if Salman is no longer on a breathing machine and it looks like his life is not in imminent danger from his wounds—though we do not yet know of possible sequels—it is important, especially given the political situation in a country playing with the possibility of an authoritarian anti-democratic regime already set on book-burnings and racist/supremacist terrorism—yes I mean these not-so-“United” States—take over from the imperfect though working (in the sense that its workings can be improved by its citizens actions in the voting booths) democracy it has been.
In the fall of 1988 at the Toronto International Festival of Authors I witnessed what may have been the first public (vocal) attack on Salman Rushdie, as he was on stage with some of us other invited writers and a man in the audience suddenly jumped up and started screaming something against “Solomon Rushdie”—Rushdie didn’t answer for awhile but the man kept repeating his verbal attack until finally Rushdie said that he was not “Solomon” Rushdie and the man was ushered out of the amphitheater. It was, if I remember correctly, late September, the very month that The Satanic Verses had been published.
None of us present that evening thought that this was more than an isolated incident, which could of course repeat, but we didn’t think much more about it until a few months later: on February 14, 1989, came the Iranian fatwa (of which he is reminded every year at that date by the Iranian government sending him what he calls an “unfunny valentine.”) Not only had I liked Salman on the two occasions we met, but the idea of someone being condemned to death because of something he had written was so outrageous that I—living upstate New York at that time—felt I had to do something, at least for the understanding of the book in question. I thus wrote a talk/lecture including readings of the “offensive pages” of The Satanic Verses, which I gave on several occasions at universities and poets’ gatherings during the spring of 1989. Here it is, somewhat abbreviated, with the relevant pages from the novel I read on those occasions indicated by page numbers, referring to the 1988 Viking hardcover US edition.
Tonight I will talk about and read a few pages from Salman Rushdie's latest novel, The Satanic Verses. There is no way of pretending that this is just another literary shop-talk session. Everybody in this room is aware of the context in which we are approaching The Satanic Verses. It is a context of book-burnings in England and elsewhere, of hurt religious feelings, of censorship, of intolerance, of a death sentence against the author pronounced by a foreign head of state, and of people actually dying in the streets, in Islamabad, in Bombay. Before anything else, I feel therefore the need to make my own stance clear:
— I am not here tonight primarily as a scholar, critic, or literary commentator.
— I am here, tonight, first of all as a writer myself, and thus as the colleague of a man sentenced to death for having expressed his thoughts in writing.
— I am also here tonight as a politically engaged citizen who believes that in matters such as censorship and intolerance one has to take a stand.
— Finally, I am here tonight to bear witness for friend Salman Rushdie, for whose deep sincerity and honesty—both the man's and the writer's—I have the highest esteem.
What I want to talk about concerns several distinct, though linked, areas: It concerns The Satanic Verses qua novel, i.e. as literary artifact. It also concerns the reception of the book, and the ideological misuse that is being made of it. A third area has to do with the inevitable shadow this affair, and its widespread reporting in the media, is bound to cast over the whole of the Muslim world, by reinforcing the West's worst prejudices concerning Muslim culture.
I will try to link and illustrate these various levels of my talk through selected passages from The Satanic Verses. Ideally I would have preferred to simply read the book. There has been all too much talk about the book—which has not been allowed to speak for itself, and that not only so in those countries that banned it.
The Satanic Verses is the third in a series of novels that started with Midnight’s Children (1981) and Shame (1983). Midnight’s Children, which won Rushdie the Booker prize, was a huge success and brought its author to the forefront of a new generation of "British" writers—Anglo-Indian, in Rushdie's case, as he was born in Bombay and lived there and in Karachi, Pakistan until he was sent to England at age fourteen, where he was educated, started to write and still lives, albeit under more than strange circumstances right now. It is interesting to note, by the way, that the most powerful renewing energies for British literature in this young generation of “British” writers emanates from its multi-cultural constituents —Rushdie for one, but also Timothy Mo, a novelist of Chinese descent, while much energy in recent "British" poetry has been generated by the Anglo-Caribbean writers.
Midnight's Children is a dark, hilarious, politically loaded, epic parable of India since independence; its main character, a "midnight's child" i.e., someone born at the exact moment when India became independent in 1947 (Rushdie's birth-year also), goes from the bright hopes of childhood to a disabused, cynical adulthood, a figure functioning somewhat like a metaphor for the country's aspirations as well. The political aspects of that book already caused a furor in India, and Indira Gandhi, who had declared a very undemocratic emergency rule in 1975 and was sharply attacked in the book, actually thought of suing Salman Rushdie.
The second book, Shame, is set in an imaginary Pakistan and its politics are even more explicit. Rushdie comes down hard on the military rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq—who appears in the novel in the guise of a character called Raza Hyder—and his use of Islam and Islamic law for repressive purposes. In an episode cited by reviewers both in England and here in the US, a simpering foreign journalist asks Hyder if he has a “point of view about the allegation that your institution of such Islamic punishments as flogging and the cutting-off of hands might be seen in certain quarters as being, arguably, according to certain definitions, so to speak, barbaric?” Hyder replies: "We will not simply order people to stick out their hands, like this, and go fataakh! with a butcher's knife. No, sir. All will be done under the most hygienic conditions, with proper medical supervision, use of anesthetic etcetera." You will not be surprised to hear that Salman Rushdie was instantly proved right in his evaluation of the Zia regime: the book was banned in Pakistan.
The Satanic Verses, which one can easily read as the third volume in a trilogy, that is a huge, I would like to say, vedantic, frieze of a multicultural bildungsroman—is set for the main part in contemporary England, though framed by a journey from, and a journey back to, India, and more specifically Bombay. True to his own multi-layered cultural background, Rushdie combines in his novelistic art the narrative techniques of Indian and Arabian story-telling and those techniques and concerns of contemporary western, so-called postmodern, fiction. His is, in his own words, a “stereoscopic” art. Western critics most often label him as a practitioner of “magic realism,” as does Michiko Kakutani in her New York Times review of The Satanic Verses, explaining the origin and need for magic realism as follows:
It is no coincidence that magic realism—which combines heightened language with elements of the surreal—has tended to flourish in troubled areas of the world, or that many of its practitioners have sought to describe calamitous events that exceed the grasp of normal description. The transactions between the extraordinary and the mundane that occur in so much Latin American fiction are not merely a literary technique, but also a mirror of a reality in which the fantastic is frequently part of everyday life—a reality in which military death squads have effectively turned the word “disappear” into a transitive verb.
But it would be a mistake to assimilate Salman Rushdie completely or exclusively with Latin American or third world “magic realism.” His multicultural imagination draws on, and synthesizes, possibilities and modes of expression from a dizzying field of literary inventions. A.G. Mojtabai, writing in the New York Times Book Review, tries to explain the book's palimpsest of styles to western readers unfamiliar with Salman Rushdie's work, by saying that:
In its entirety, it resembles only itself, but there are, in its parts, strands and shades of resemblance: to Sterne, for one, in the joys of digression; to Swift in scathingness of political satire; to the fairy and folktales of the Brothers Grimm, to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Arabian Nights, Thomas Mann's Transposed Heads and the work of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Günter Grass, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Italo Calvino, Saturday Night Live and Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—to name a few!
Indeed, one could add half a dozen other “sources” of Salman Rushdie's craft, but I will restrain myself. It is in fact this rich splendor of means and materials which is often cited as a criticism of Rushdie's work, in that it violates the canons of Western Aristotelian literary decorum.
Let's now turn to the novel itself. A brief summary of the main plot-line: At the opening of the book two actors fall from heaven when the 747 Air India Jumbo jet, en route from Bombay to London, is blown up by terrorists. Gibreel Farishta is an ailing star of those Indian movies known as theologicals (he has played the whole panoply of Hindu gods, demiurges and culture-heroes) who, after a metaphysical crisis, has gone to earth, and is now trying to find Alleluia Cone, an English mountain-climber, the only woman to have done the highest Himalayan peak, with whom he has fallen in love. Saladin Chamcha is also an actor—or rather a voice impersonator: he dubs a “1001 voices” for English radio and TV—who is returning to London and his English wife after a short, unpleasant stay in Bombay, the city of his birth. Chamcha is the extreme version of a classical Anglo-Indian figure: the Indian who has only hatred and contempt for his "uncivilized" country and who tries to be more English than the English.
The two men fall in unison from the debris of the jet and, magically, survive the fall, washing up on the coast of England. But during the fall, they are metamorphosed: Gibreel now sprouts a halo while Chamcha is growing horns, goat feet, and a goatish hair cover on his body. Gibreel is taking on the exterior attributes of his namesake, the archangel Gabriel, and Chamcha those of Shaitan, Satan. When the English immigration police discovers them, they arrest Chamcha and Gibreel does not lift a hand to save him: this betrayal is one of the central themes of the novel. Both men eventually make it to London, where Gibreel finds Allie Cone, tries to restart his cinematographic career, but is continuously battling against and defeated by his mental illness—diagnosed at one point as “paranoid schizophrenic”—in that his psychotic persona changes from the gentle archangel Gibreel into that of Azrael, the Exterminating Angel. Chamcha finds his English wife has taken a lover—an Indian and old friend of Saladin's—and is pregnant by him; his career is in ruins. He goes through a formidable identity crisis as he hides out in the bosom of the South London Asian community, and finally revenges Gibreel's betrayal by ruining the latter's relation with Allie Cone.
The last chapter of the novel finds both men back in India, Chamcha at the side of his dying father and rediscovering and accepting his Indian roots, just as he rediscovers his first love; Gibreel to play out the last act of his demented career. This little plot summary however belies the complexity of a novel overflowing with subplots and sub-sub-plots. Most of these emerge as what the book calls the “serial dreams” and ravings from the demented mind of Gibreel/Azraeel, and one of them, taking up exactly sixty-seven pages of the 547 page long book, concerns the visionary prophet-founder of a new religion.
But before we try to approach that, the most contentious section of the book, let me read you a couple pages from the opening chapter, so that you may get a sense of Rushdie's style: here are his two characters hurtling down to earth (reads pp 6-8). Now, in those early pages there is already a foreboding of The Satanic Verses of the title: Gibreel seems to hear Rekha Merchant—we will learn later on that she is his rejected mistress who committed suicide by throwing herself and her children out of a Bombay high rise, and will haunt him on her Bhokara flying carpet throughout the book—singing verses related to “Al-Lat.” Al-Lat was one of the pre-Islamic goddesses of Mecca, in fact, the most powerful one, a kind of earth-mother goddess figure and the patron deity of Mecca, who is overthrown by monotheistic Islam.
This has landed us in the heart of the most contentious chapters — the ones for which Salman Rushdie has been accused of blasphemy. They tell the story (and, by the way, Rushdie is very careful throughout the book to point to the fictional nature of his creations, as shows the often repeated formula “Kan ma Kan / Fi qadim azzaman” — “It was so, it was not / in a time long forgot” which is the equivalent of our western “Once upon a time”) of a visionary prophet who founds a new religion in a desert city made out of sand called Jahilia, which is an Arabic word meaning darkness, ignorance and which used to refer to the times before Islam, i.e. before the light or enlightenment which the Prophet brought. Jahilia corresponds to our Western use of the term “Dark ages”.
Now, there is no doubt that the fiction re-presents the story of the foundation of Islam, that Mahound is—and is not—as the formula has it, the prophet Mohammed. It is these chapters that were declared blasphemous by fundamentalists—months before Khomeini jumped on the band-wagon and upped the ante. I will later try to show that what lies below the “religious” clamor is in each and every case political manipulation, but for the time being, let’s look at the religious aspects. But first of all, I would like to say that, for me, freedom of speech includes the freedom to blaspheme—in fact blasphemy is simply a term for condemning someone else's opinion by appealing to an absolute arbiter, a transcendent truth that may not be questioned, under penalty of death. My own tradition, the Christian one, is strewn with the corpses of “blasphemers.” But let's pretend for a moment that blasphemy is a valid concept: how does Rushdie's novel “blaspheme?”
The fundamentalists' objections seem to revolve around five essential points: First of all there is the name of the fictionalized visionary/prophet: Mahound. This name was used in medieval times in Christian literature—passion plays and the like—to refer to a demon or devil and philologically seems to be a conflation of Mahomet and hound (as in Hounds of Hell). Rushdie acknowledges that this name was used in a derogatory way once upon a time, but, he says, “my novel tries in all ways to reoccupy negative images, to repossess pejorative language,” and on page ninety-three explains: “To turn insults into strengths, Whigs, Tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn; likewise our mountain-climbing, prophet-motivated solitary is to be … Mahound.” The very fact that the novelist enters his fiction at this point to include this explanation in the book, shows how careful he was to avoid any misinterpretation of the “blasphemy" type.
Another bone of religious contention is the novel's title: The Satanic Verses. The direct reference is to a story according to which, at a early point in Mohammed's career, he received verses that accepted three Meccan goddesses—among them Al-Lat—into Islam as female intercessionary archangels, in an effort not to put off the polytheistic citizens of Mecca, at a moment when he and his few companions were as yet powerless. Later the archangel Gabriel told Mohammed that these verses had been “Satanic verses” falsely inspired by the devil in disguise, and they were removed from the Koran. But Rushdie's use of that story cannot—even theologically—be given as blasphemy: it is in fact recorded by early Islamic historians, and foremost by Al-Tabari, one of the canonical Islamic commentators. Only a frightened and thus intolerant fundamentalist version of Islam will call this use of the story blasphemy. As Rushdie says in an article published after the first public burnings of The Satanic Verses in England:
Gabriel consoled Muhammad, however; earlier prophets had experienced similar difficulties for similar reasons, he said. To my mind, Muhamed's over-coming of temptation does him no dishonour; quite the reverse. The archangel Gabriel felt the same way, but the novel's opponents are less tolerant than archangels.
Later Islamic commentators expunged—not to say censored—this tradition from the canon, in an effort to make Muhammad appear as a perfect being. And it is exactly here that a theological battle could indeed arise: Islam has always insisted that the prophet Muhammad was a man—in opposition and clear contradistinction to Christianity's basic claim that its prophet, Jesus, was in fact God.
But these Satanic Verses refer not only to this Islamic story. In the novel's palimpsest they also—and centrally—refer to the doggerel insinuating that Allie Cone is unfaithful, which Chamcha makes up and mutters over the telephone to Gibreel, thus ruining the one relationship that may have saved Farishta's sanity, and extracting vengeance for the early betrayal. The novel is clear about the fact that it is Chamcha's doggerel that constitutes the real evil “satanic verses.”
But, to my mind, the most scurrilous attack on the book is the one that claims that Salman Rushdie presents the prophet’s wives as “whores.” What in fact happens is that in a Jahilian brothel, twelve “whores” take on the personas of Mahound's wives as a business stratagem, when they notice that their customers, the grumbling men of Mecca, are fascinated, obsessed with Mahound's real-life—but invisible—wives. Except for the very moving death scene of Mahound—where Ayesha appears—Mahound's wives do not appear in the book, nor are they in any way attacked or sullied. The brothel scene is indeed highly irreverent, deeply Rabelaisian, but is not a scene that could by any stretch of the imagination be constructed as theologically “blasphemous.” In fact, what this accusation seems to be an alibi for is a dislike, not to say hatred, of reactionary Muslims for Rushdie's clear critique of Islam's treatment of women. There is a militant feminist aspect to his writing that is indeed bound to upset traditionalists.
More interesting is the question of the nature of the word and of writing. According to Islamic tradition the Koran is the word of god, dictated by the archangel Gibreel through the prophet Mohammed and set down, immaculately, by the prophet's scribes. In Rushdie's fiction we are introduced to one of these scribes, Salman the Persian. This, by the way, shows one of the novel's many palimpsestic qualities, or, in another language, the polysemic play of the signifier. Salman the scribe is—and is not—Salmān al-Fārisī the actual historical figure, a Companion of the Prophet, just as he is—and is not—a fictional invention by the novelist, just as he is—and is not—the novelist himself through the coincidence of their first names and there similar occupations as scribes, writers.
In the novel, Salman the scribe develops doubts about the godly origin of the transmission and tries to test the prophet by changing words and sentences. I'll read a section of this story, and it will, I think, become clear that what Rushdie is doing in his fiction is honestly putting forward the doubts and questions any man or woman who is not an unconditional, fanatic believer will entertain at one or another moment of his or her life. Here is the context: Mahound is on his way back to conquer Jahilia where Baal, the poet who twenty-five years earlier, on the instigation of a Meccan grandee, had written a vicious satire on the prophet, is returning home, now a written-out, bloated middle-aged man full of fear, and finds Salman, the Persian scribe, hiding out in his room:
read pp. 363-368
Later on in this chapter the Prophet will deal much more kindly and generously with the doubting scribe than the Ayatollah with the novelist. In fact, and in contrast to the screams about blasphemy, Rushdie's prophet/visionary emerges in a very positive light. The novel’s thrust is not a blind or vicious attack on religion. As Rushdie puts it himself:
The Satanic Verses is not, in my view, an antireligious novel. It is, however, an attempt to write about migration, its stresses and transformations, from the point of view of migrants from the Indian subcontinent to Britain. This is, for me, the saddest irony of all; that after working for five years to give voice and fictional flesh to the immigrant culture of which I am myself a member, I should see my book burned, largely unread, by the people it’s about, people who might find some pleasure and much recognition in its pages. I tried to write against stereotypes; the zealot protests serve to confirm, in the Western mind, all the worst stereotypes; of the Muslim world.
The South African novelist Nadine Gordimer picks this up when in her review of the book she writes that “anyone who actually has read […] this highly complex, brilliant novel, knows that dominant among its luxuriant themes is that of displacement. Mohamed and the Muslim faith are the novelist's metaphors for, among other human dilemmas, spiritual dis-placement in the colonial experience.”
The dark light, the darkest pages in the novel concern political abuse of religion. For Rushdie's aim is not to attack religion or the origins of Islam, but to expose political excesses in our own days. The major part of the novel and its essential themes are set in London’s Asian émigré community. And the enemy, in Rushdie's eyes, is racism and Thatcherite England. It is an incredible, bitter irony that right now it is Thatcher and the English police, whom Rushdie loathes and reviles here and elsewhere, who are by circumstance forced to “protect” the novelist, trying to save his life. A bitter irony, if only because Rushdie sees the job of the writer in such political terms. As he has written elsewhere:
It seems to me imperative that literature enter such arguments, because what is being disputed is nothing less than what is the case, what is truth and what untruth, and the battleground is our imagination. If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians it will be one of history's great and most abject abdications. There is a genuine need for political fiction, for books that draw new and better maps of reality, and make new languages with which we can understand the world. It is necessary to grapple with the special problems created by the incorporation of political material, because politics is by turns farce and tragedy, and sometimes (for example, Zia's Pakistan) both at once.
This political dimension has always been an essential aspect of Rushdie's fiction, and his analysis of the use of religious fervor for political ends precedes the recent events by several years:
Autocratic regimes find it useful to espouse the rhetoric of faith, because people respect that language, are reluctant to oppose it. This is how religions shore up dictators; by encircling them with words of power, words which the people are reluctant to see discredited, disenfranchised, mocked.
Those words were prophetic, for that is the exact misuse made of The Satanic Verses. Let's quickly recapitulate the history of that misuse. The Satanic Verses came out in England early last fall [September 1988] and on October fifth his native country, India, decided to ban the book, a ban imposed later also by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa (of all places!) and, belatedly but all the more effectively, Iran. The political motives for the banning were, from the first, obvious. As Aamir Mufti explains it in the Village Voice, “Rajiv Ghandi's government apparently used the book to calm a religious conflict in northern India, concerning a structure that Moslems believe is a mosque but that Hindu groups say is the birthplace of the Lord God Rama.” In India—about eleven% of whose population is Muslim—the novel became (and I quote Mufti again):
…another shouting match between Indian Muslims and the country's anglicized, largely Hindu ruling class. The Muslim legislators who repeatedly met with the Home Minister to urge a ban represented every major political group in which Muslim's are represented, including the ruling Congress Party, the national opposition Janata party, and the sectarian Muslim League. […] By September, the Babri Masjif Coordinating Committee, a Muslim political group led by opposition parliamentarian Syed Shahabuddin, had decided to stage a march to the mosque/birthplace after Friday prayers on October 14. Hindu groups let it be known that they might go along as well....The Home minister and other officials tried to convince Muslim leaders to cancel the march. It is difficult to believe that after several meetings, "understanding" was not reached: On October 5, the government announced its ban on The Satanic Verses; on October 12, Shaha-buddin announced an indefinite “postponement” of the march.
In Pakistan, the situation is even clearer: with the election of Benazir Bhutto, a westernized female in the eyes of the Islamic fundamentalists who were the major losers of the elections, anything that could galvanize the religious fervor of the people was useful. Thus it was that the announcement of the American publication of The Satanic Verses was immediately exploited by the fundamentalists, resulting in the storming of the US Cultural Center and the ensuing deaths. Ironically—and contrary to some misleading reporting—Rushdie is no great friend of Benazir Bhutto's: on a purely political level, the opposition to Bhutto could very well have used his devastating review of her hagiographic biography of her father, Ali Bhutto, as a weapon against her. But religious fanaticism, and the lives sacrificed on its altar, are much more powerful weapons than political arguments.
We don't have the time to go into the details of other bannings, or into the exact political stratagems behind the book burnings in England. In fact, at this point, I would like to focus elsewhere and discuss the shadow these events have thrown over the Islamic world. The dangerous fact is that the short-cuts and ideological conditionings of the western press and TV—through which we get out information concerning all these events—inevitably tend to present the events surrounding the Rushdie affair in a context where an “enlightened, tolerant, democratic West” is pitched against an “obscurantist, zealot, reactionary and intolerant East/Orient/Islamic world.” This is a false view and can only lead to a deepening of the prejudices already harbored in the West concerning the Islamic countries and the rest of the Third World.
I finished rereading the novel and heard about the first Iranian reactions, in the town of Maní in the Yucatan: a town infamous as the site where Fray Diego de Landa, a Spanish Franciscan zealot, burned nearly all the books and documents of the Mayan civilization. In a way this put the current book-burnings and the ensuing death-sentence in perspective, while simultaneously making them even more saddening. If you study history carefully, you will discover that the West, especially in its Christian garb, has a far worse track-record for intolerance, zealotry and mindless destruction of human beings and their creations, than the Islamic world. With relatively few exceptions, tolerance in literary matters, and even in religious matters, has in fact been a hallmark of Islamic culture, from the days of the prophet to today. Let’s note that, except for the aforementioned countries, the major part of the Muslim world—for example Indonesia, the most populated Muslim country, or the countries of the Maghreb—has not reacted with the hysteria reported in the Western press.
Contemporary examples of books that are as, if not more, “blasphematory” than The Satanic Verses are also worth mentioning. Let me cite just one: The Hadiths of Abu Hurayrah by the Tunisian writer Mahmoud Messadi, written in the fifties, published in the sixties, well-known and read not only in the Maghreb but also the Mashreq. The novel has been praised by the likes of Taha Hussein, and is taught in the official school curriculum in Tunisia. This book uses the form of the Hadith—i.e. the Sayings of the Prophet—and has as its main character Abu Hurayrah, a close companion of the Prophet, and the transmitter of the majority of the Hadiths. The novel draws heavily on such “decadent” western thinkers as Nietzsche (the title could in fact be translated as Thus Spoke Abu Hurayrah, though that would be over-determining it) and other contemporary existentialist philosophers. Abu Hurayrah, in Islamic terms is clearly a mulhid, an atheist, who in one scene, for example, is seen fornicating in the Kaaba—the most holy place of Islam—and who attempts to demonstrate the futility of religion throughout the book.
What I want to say with these examples is that what we are seeing now is a degeneration, a misuse of religion for political purposes, and that we should be careful not to make the mistake of taking these local reactions as the baseline of all Islamic or Arabic culture. Ayatollah Khomeini's reaction fits exactly what Rushdie said above about the misuse of religion for political purposes. Not only is he using religious feeling to shore up the ruins of his reign and to find himself again in the forefront of “revolutionary Islam”—after the debacle of the Iraq/Iran war had tarnished that image, and started forces inside Iran endangering his vision of where that country should go—but also the suppression of The Satanic Verses on religious grounds serves to hide the real reasons for that suppression—which is strictly political. The last extract from the novel that I will read, will, I hope, show you exactly why Khomeini and all other theocratic rulers cannot allow a book such as Rushdie's to exist.
- A problem excellently addressed by the Tunisian-French writer and thinker Abdelwahab Meddeb in his 2002 book The Malady of Islam (translated by myself and Ann Reid, Basic Books, New York 2002).