What is freedom of speech? What are the boundaries, if any, that fiction should be contained within? What position does the artist hold in society? Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, and the 'Rushdie Affair' that followed its publication, have brought these important questions to the forefront of debate. What has also been highlighted by the Affair is the entire religion of Islam - the faith of a billion followers world-wide. Questions have been asked about its place in modern society, about its supposed staunch authoritarianism, its violence and its narrow-minded views. In September of this year we will see the tenth anniversary of the publication of the novel. No doubt there will again be wide coverage of the issue in the media. Yet whether this coverage will be directed against Islam, as before, or whether a fair study will be made of both sides of the argument - that is the religious (Islam) and the secular (the West) - remains to be seen. Arun P. Mukherjee, in the essay 'Whose Post-Colonialism and Whose Postmodernism?', states that:
Without the knowledge of ... cultural apparatus, the readings generated by postmodernist critics are necessarily uninformed ... I have read few Euro-American critiques that really understand the hurt and anger The Satanic Verses has caused in the part of the world I come from. In this part of the world we tend not to notice the hurting capacity of discourses. (World Literature in English, Vol. 30, No. 2/1990, p.4).
In the cultural apparatus within which Muslims are brought up nothing is more sacred then Islam. The Satanic Verses therefore caused hurt and anger to Muslims that it seemed the West just could not understand. To add to this Muslims saw the media turn against them during the Rushdie Affair; it was the first time they had received so much coverage in the popular media, and this coverage spoke of 'us' and 'them' - Muslims understood that they were seen as an 'Other'. News and current-affair features, chat shows, the tabloids as well as the quality papers, carried articles that showed Muslims as alien because of their inability to assimilate into British/Western society. With the Bradford book burning of January 1989, and the Ayatollah Khomeini's infamous fatwa of February in the same year, a new angle was brought to the debate; Muslims were seen as narrow-minded 'fanatics' and 'fundamentalists' (a new 'dirty word') because of their 'anti-liberal' and 'anti-democratic' nature. I believe that this has wider implications - the anti-Islamic sentiment in the West was reborn. To begin with, it may be useful to briefly summarise the main events of the Rushdie Affair.
On the 26th of September 1988 Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, was published in London by Viking/Penguin (For the chronology of the Rushdie Affair refer to Steve MacDonough's (ed.) The Rushdie Letters, Brandon, Kerry: 1993, and M. M. Ahsan and A. R. Kidwai's (eds.) Sacrilege versus Civility, The Islamic Foundation, Leicester: 1991). The Editorial Consultant of the publishing company, Mr. Khushwant Singh, had warned them that the novel would cause offence to Muslims, yet they chose to ignore this warning - maybe underestimating the hurt and anger the novel would cause. Within two weeks of the novel's publication Viking/Penguin had received thousands of letters and phone calls requesting the novel to be withdrawn due to its offensive nature - which they chose to ignore, issuing no statements. On the ninth day after the publication of the novel, on the 5th of October 1988, the Government of India, Rushdie's country of birth, announced that it would be banned in that country - much to the author's dismay, as the novel is partly directed to it. Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore and Venezuela followed India's example in banning the novel over the next few months. Peaceful protests against the blasphemy of the novel were also held in London, Bradford, Islamabad, Tehran, Bombay, New York, Dhaka, Istanbul and Khartoum in this period; some of these turned violent as the protesters clashed with the authorities, and these clashes resulted in numerous deaths and hundreds of injuries. On the 21st of October British Muslims handed over a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures to Viking/Penguin calling for the withdrawal of the novel, the publishing company responded by stating that the offence has been due to a "misreading of the book", and that any moves to cease publication of the novel would be "wholly inconsistent with our position as a serious publisher who believes in freedom of expression" (Letter and press statement issued by Penguin reprinted in Ahsan and Kidwai, Sacrilege versus Civility, Appendix 1, pp.318-20). Two more events took place that have now come to characterise the Muslim position in the Rushdie Affair. The first of these was the symbolic burning of a copy of The Satanic Verses by Muslims protesters in Bradford on the 14th of January 1989. This event gave license to Western critics to portray Muslims as barbaric and uncultured, as Rana Kabbani observes in A Letter to Christendom, the event "matched the traditional Western image of them, making it easy to label them as primitive fanatics not civilised enough to appreciate the value of free speech" (Rana Kabbani, A Letter to Christendom, Virago, London: 1989, pp. 8-9). The image of the burning book has come to represent Islam's intolerance, and it is therefore significant that two major studies of the Affair, Appignanesi and Maitland's The Rushdie File, and Ruthvan Malise's A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Wrath of Islam - the title is itself revealing - have front covers that show burning copies of The Satanic Verses. This event was followed by the fatwa of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini on the 14th of February 1989, whereby Rushdie was sentenced to death. Again the media reported on the 'violence' and 'oppression' of Islam. The word 'fatwa', which simply means 'ruling', has now in Western eyes become the sinister Islamic 'death sentence'. These two events initiated in the West a new crusade against Islam, but this time it was not in the name of Christianity, but in the name of democracy, and freedom of speech. The Rushdie Affair therefore saw Islam emerge as the enemy of Western 'liberal' and 'democratic' values.
Two days after Khomeini's fatwa, Anthony Burgess, in an article for The Independent, entitled 'Islam's Gangster Tactics', stated that:
I gain the impression that few of the protesting Muslims in Britain know directly what they are protesting against. Their Imams have told them that Mr Rushdie has published a blasphemous book and must be punished. They respond with sheeplike docility and wolflike aggression. They forgot what Nazis did to books ... they shame a free country by denying free expression through the vindictive agency of bonfires... If they do not like secular society, they must fly to the arms of the Ayatollah or some other self-righteous guardian of strict Islamic morality.
I quote this particular response because Burgess represents a whole section of the British community; the literati, who hold a powerful position in that they have influence over the way in which the rest of the British people see issues. Two important points which I hope to investigate in my essay are also brought up in Burgess' argument. The first is what has been described as 'cultural chauvinism' by some (I would argue) more enlightened critics; the view held by many Western observers that the Muslim reaction was due to them being ill-informed, because they hadn't read or understood the book - the position also held by Penguin, as stated earlier. The same critics pointed to what they believed was a great irony, in that the community for which Rushdie wrote the book rallied against it - which to Muslims illustrated the lack of understanding they had with regards to their community in Britain. The second point is the view held by Muslims that the Rushdie Affair manifested 'racism' against them, as demonstrated by Burgess' suggestion of repatriation for British Muslims who hold on to their faith. Yet 'race' was not the issue during the Rushdie Affair, the Muslims who felt ill-treated came from many different races - instead religion was the issue, and the term 'racism' as used earlier has been replaced by a new word, 'Islamophobia', which will be referred to in more detail in the conclusion of this essay.
The Anti-Islamic Tradition
It is important to establish that before the Rushdie Affair there was already a well established anti-Islamic tradition in the West, especially in literature (for an excellent detailed discussion of anti-Islamic works in the medieval period see N. A. Daniel's Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh: 1960, for Orientalism see Rana Kabbani's Imperial Fictions: Europe's Myths of the Orient, Pandora, London: 1994, and for an overview see Asaf Hussain's Western Conflict with Islam: Survey of the Anti-Islamic Tradition, Volcano Books, Leicester: 1990). Rushdie's novel was by no means the first work of literature that insulted Islam, and its fundamental beliefs, as Kabbani points out, "No one should suppose that Islam and the West coexisted amicably until Rushdie came along to sour our relationship ... there have been tensions between them since the seventh century - that is, since Islam emerged as a political and ideological power able to challenge Christendom" (A Letter to Christendom, p.1).
The father of anti-Islamic polemics was John of Damascus (675-749), and he began the tradition of ridiculing Islam and the Prophet (peace be upon him). He claimed, in his book De Haeresbius, that the Quran was not revealed but created by the Prophet (peace be upon him), and that he was helped by a Christian monk, Bahira, to use the Old and New Testament to create a new scripture. He also claimed that the Prophet (peace be upon him) created verses of the Quran to fulfil his own wants, and these were usually to do with lust and sexual deviancy. Others followed John of Damascus in spreading ideas that portrayed Islam as an inferior religion, such as Peter the Venerable (1094-1156) and Martin Luther (1483-1546), works by figures as well-known as Chaucer, Gower and Dante also contained anti-Islamic elements. All of these figures added to the myths surrounding Islam; the revelations received by the Prophet (peace be upon him) were claimed to be no more than epileptic fits, and eventually the Prophet (peace be upon him) was seen as simply the disciple of Satan and the anti-Christ. The language of these works always referred to the Prophet (peace be upon him) as the 'impostor', the 'pretender', and the 'deceiver' - soon he was referred to as 'Mahound', the devil incarnate (the name Rushdie chooses for his Prophet (peace be upon him), of which more will be said later).
This sentiment was again revived in the nineteenth-century, when the East again became a favourite subject in the West. Richard Burton (1821-1890), William Blunt (1840-1922) and Charles Doughty (1843-1926) were all major figures in studies of Islam and the East, or Orientalism, but again they provided the West with a distorted view of Islam - presenting the Muslim people as lacking in morals, and being preoccupied with sex and violence. In fiction these pseudo-scientific ideas were given life. In Richard Burton's The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night (London, 1885-88), for example, we are provided with the image of Muslims as lacking any decency; Princesses go to visit black lepers to satisfy insatiable sexual appetites, men have they limbs chopped off for being unfaithful, and there is a general preoccupation with sex. In William Beckford's Vathek (Penguin, Harmondsworth: 1995), we are provided with the story of an unjust Caliph (Islamic ruler), who sacrifices fifty children to satisfy his greed. Both of these writers use the works of Orientalists, through detailed footnotes, to support their stories, what Byron Porter Smith, in Islam In English Literature, calls the "grotesque scheme of substantiating the incidental features of an imaginative work by means of an apparatus of learned notes" (Caravan, New York: 1977, p.127). Anti-Islamic literature created a version of Islam that was far removed from the real Islam, but there was a purpose behind this misrepresentation, as N. A. Daniel observes in Islam and the West: The Making of an Image:
[the] West formed a more or less invariable canon of beliefs about Islam; it decided for itself what Islam was, and formed a view materially different from anything Muslims would recognise ... The important thing was it suited the West. It corresponded to need ... it gave Christendom self-respect in dealing with a civilisation in many ways its superior. (p.270)
In Imperial Fiction: Europe's Myths of the Orient, Rana Kabbani further expands on the reasons why Muslims and the East were portrayed in this manner, and concludes that:
If it could be suggested that Eastern peoples were slothful, preoccupied with sex, violence, and incapable of self-government, then the imperialist would feel himself justified in stepping in and ruling. Political domination and economic exploitation needed the cosmetic cant of mission civilisatrice to seem fully commendatory ... The image of the European coloniser had to remain an honourable one: he did not come as exploiter, but as enlightener. (p.6)
Where does The Satanic Verses fit in to all of this? Already we can see that the text echoes ideas that have been circulated in anti-Islamic propaganda since even the early days of Islam. His text again gives life to the theories of the Orientalists. The actual 'Satanic Verses' that is at the core of Rushdie's novel is a favourite subject that recurs in anti-Islamic literature (see the work of Theodore Noldeke, William Muir and W. M. Watt). It has been used time and time again in attempts to discredit Islam, and Rushdie is simply the latest to revive the story, and bring attention to it. Through this discussion of the anti-Islamic tradition I wish to illustrate that the Rushdie Affair, and the negative image of Islam and Muslims it manifested, did not simply emerge from nowhere. There remained in the West, from this long history of anti-Islamic propaganda, a feeling of distrust towards Muslims, and the Rushdie Affair allowed these feelings to be brought out into the open, to be articulated into words, and to be formulated into fresh arguments as to why Islam is an inferior and outdated ideology that needs updating - that in its present form Islam, and its followers, both do not have a place in modern Western society (a view that was expressed many times during the Rushdie Affair).
In an interview in the Indian newspaper India Today, Rushdie was asked about the characters from Islamic history in his novel, to which he replied:
I have changed names. I have given the name of an Egyptian temple, Abu Simbel, to the leader of Mecca. I have not called the cities by their names ... the image out of which the book grew was of the prophet going to the mountain and not being able to tell the difference between the angel and the devil. The book is also about the wrestling match which takes place between the two. ('Madhu Jain interviews Salman Rushdie', India Today, 15th September, 1988.)
This interview was published on the 15th of September 1989. In a Channel 4 television programme, The Bundung File, which was recorded on the 27th of January, and broadcast on the 14th of February 1989, Rushdie was again asked about the extent to which the novel is based on the Quran, and Islamic history. His reply was:
Almost entirely. Almost everything in those sections - the dream sequences - starts from an historical or quasi-historical basis, though one can't really speak with absolute certainty about that period of Mohammed's life ... [with the Prophet] there seems to have been a brief flirtation with a possible compromise - about monotheism - which was rapidly rejected ... For a writer, that conflict is fascinating and interesting to explore. So that's what I was doing, exploring. (Salman Rushdie, in an interview in Channel 4 programme The Bundung File, repr. in Appignanesi and Maitland's The Rushdie File, Forth Estate, London: 1989, p.28.)
Yet in his open letter to Rajiv Ghandhi, written as a response to The Satanic Verses being banned in India, Rushdie states that:
The section of the book in question (and let's remember that the book isn't actually about Islam, but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay) deals with a prophet who is not called Muhammed living in a highly fantasticated city ... in which he is surrounded by fictional followers, one of whom happens to bear my own first name. Moreover, this entire sequence happens in a dream, the fictional dream of a fictional character, an Indian movie star, and one who is losing his mind at that. How much further from history could one get? (Open Letter to Rajiv Ghandhi, repr. in Appignanesi and Maitland's The Rushdie File, p.44.)
This shift in Rushdie's position is one of many that occurred in the years following the publication of his novel. It is also one example that demonstrates the hypocrisy of the many arguments he has offered in his defence.
Rushdie's earliest responses to the Muslim outcry was one which painted a bleak picture of them as dark and evil. In 'Choice Between Light and Dark' he states that he tries to break taboos surrounding Islam, and it is for this that "the novel is being anathematized, fulminated against, and set alight" by Muslims, who represent "the contemporary Thought Police" ('Choice Between Light and Dark', The Observer, 22nd January, 1989). He also states that, "I tried to write against stereotypes; the zealot protests serve to confirm, in the Western mind, all the worst stereotypes of the Muslim world", and concludes with the image that "the forces of inhumanity are on the march ... Secular versus religious, the light versus the dark ... the battle has spread to Britain, I can only hope it is not lost by default. It is time for us to choose". In his open letter to Rajiv Ghandhi, in interviews, in various short articles written for national newspapers, Rushdie reiterates this image of Islam and Muslims. Yet after the fatwa Rushdie's position changes. With a huge shift to his position he understands that he has, unintentionally, hurt the feelings of Muslims. It is in his essay 'In Good Faith', that Rushdie sets forth the most detailed exoneration of the contents of his novel, and it therefore deserves close attention.
'In Good Faith' addresses itself to the "great mass of ordinary, decent, fair-minded Muslims", with the hope that "a way forward might be found through the mutual recognition of mutual pain" ('In Good Faith', Imaginary Homelands, pp.393-414). In the essay Rushdie argues that The Satanic Verses has now become two novels, one that is imagined to exist from what has been said by Muslims about the novel, and the one that he wrote. He then provides us with a list of these misreadings:
What they have trouble with are statements like these: 'Rushdie calls the Prophet Muhammed a homosexual.' 'Rushdie says the Prophet Muhammed asked God for permission to fornicate with every women in the world.' 'Rushdie says the Prophet's wives are whores.' 'Rushdie calls the Prophet by a devil's name.' 'Rushdie calls the Companions of the Prophet scum and bums.' 'Rushdie says the whole Qur'an was the Devil's work.' And so forth.
What Rushdie actually does is provide a parody of the Muslim arguments as to why the novel caused them offence. In my study of these Muslim arguments I have not found the majority of these arguments. He simplifies them in an attempt to belittle them; what Muslims object to is not that "Rushdie says the Prophet Muhammed asked God for permission to fornicate with every women in the world" but that a character states that he gets "God's own permission to f**k as many women as he liked", or not that "Rushdie calls the Companions of the Prophet scum and bums" but that a character describes them as "f**king clowns". One of the major factors that caused Muslims pain was not that Rushdie insults Islamic figures, but the harshness with which he deals with them, as Webster observes:
It is such extreme language, which is potentially the most violent and the most insulting registers available to Western writers, which, in the pages of The Satanic Verses, is brought into conjunction with some of the most sacred traditions of Islam. (Richard Webster, A Brief History of Blasphemy: Liberalism, Censorship and 'The Satanic Verses', The Orwell Press, Southwold: 1990, p.93).
The word "fuck" may be used commonly in fiction, even when dealing with religious figures, but what Western critics do not appreciate is that Muslims can not agree that it is acceptable to use such words when dealing with ideas that they hold sacred. They are shocked by Rushdie's use of such language, and as Ahsan and Kidwai make clear; "the freedom to insult is matched by the freedom to feel insulted"(Sacrilege versus Civility, p.39). The use of such words against ideas that they, in the words of one critic, feel an 'unwestern seriousness' towards, is new to them, and can not simply be seen within the Western framework; pamphlets have been written dealing specifically with this subject by Muslim critics (see for example Ahmed Deedat's The Satanic Verses Unexpurgated, IPC, Birmingham: 1989). Rushdie's simplification also attempts to portray Muslims as unable to understand the techniques used in fiction, yet as this essay hopefully illustrates, criticism of the novel has been made by Muslims who are well aware of the conventions of literature.
Rushdie then moves on to the character Salman the Persian, and attempts to explain the reasoning behind his discontent, and statements made by him such as the new religion provides "rules for every damn thing". This character questions, according to Rushdie, the "validity of religion's rules", and he himself then puts forward a question:
... are all rules laid down at a religion's origin immutable forever? How about the penalties for prostitution (stoning to death) or thieving (mutilation)? How about the prohibition of homosexuality? How about the Islamic law of inheritance, which allows a widow to inherit only an eight share, and which gives a sons twice as much as it does the daughters? ...
Here Rushdie simplifies Islamic rules, and therefore misrepresents them, making them seem barbaric. For example, the rule of 'mutilating' thieves does not apply to every thief; a poor man who steals food out of hunger is not punished. It only applies to criminals who steal out of greed for wealth. Similarly, the law of inheritance gives the sons twice the amount it does the daughter because the son will have to share this inheritance with his wife and family. The daughter does not have to do this, the money is hers to do whatever she wishes, and her husband has no right to it. It is unlawful for the father or mother to give the son more than the daughter while they are alive. Overall both men and women receive an equal share of inheritance wealth in an Islamic state. Rushdie ignores the complexity of these rules, and the reasoning behind them, and instead does the opposite to what he claims to be do; "write against stereotypes". He provides the stereotypical image of Muslims as violent, and oppressive to women. In another essay, 'One Thousand Days in a Balloon', Rushdie discusses his conversion, and then rejection of Islam:
Suddenly I was (metaphorically) among people whose social attitudes I'd fought all my life - for example, their attitudes about women (one Islamist boasted to me that his wife would cut his toe-nails while he made telephone calls, and suggested I found such a spouse) ... ('One Thousand Days in a Balloon', Imaginary Homelands, p.437).
Here he provides anecdotal evidence to lend support to his claim that Muslims are oppressive to their women. He therefore again affirms the stereotypical image of Muslims. In his essay 'Is Nothing Sacred?', where he explores the place of literature, Rushdie states that "the most secular of authors ought to be capable of presenting a sympathetic portrait of a devout believer" ('Is Nothing Sacred?', Imaginary Homelands, p.417). Yet in Rushdie's own work, both fiction and non-fiction, we see none of this.
Rushdie then moves on to explain how he insults the Prophet's (peace be upon him) companions as a reflection of them being persecuted in their own time, how the whores take the names of the Prophet's (peace be upon him) wives to illustrate the "opposition between the sacred and the profane worlds", and of how the term Mahound is used as an act of "reclaiming language from one's opponents" (which has already been discussed earlier in this essay). What Rushdie does in the essay is actually create a third novel; one which, if read properly, does not actually offend Muslims at all. Through simplifying Muslim arguments against his novel, through simplifying what is actually in the novel and through offering simple arguments, which I personally do not find convincing, he attempts to deny the complexity of the whole issue. What I also find interesting is that Rushdie believes his intentions will somehow convince Muslims that their arguments are wrong, as Webster echoes:
By far the most surprising aspect of his argument is the manner in which Rushdie evinces a seemingly complete and unquestioning faith in the reliability of artists' intentions as a guide to the work of art they have produced ... [he therefore] disregards ... almost the entire history of twentieth- century literary criticism. (A Brief History of Blasphemy, p.89).
It is worth noting that after Rushdie has provided a vindication of his novel, he goes on to attack those who have opposed him. He claims that Rana Kabbani "announced with perfect Stalinist fervour that writers should be 'accountable' to the community". What Kabbani actually does do in A Letter to Christendom is provide ones women's view of the Rushdie Affair, and to continue where she left off in Imperial Fictions, in discussing how Rushdie has taken over Western methods of portraying a barbaric East. The word "accountable" is wrenched from this framework and Kabbani is accused of Stalinism on the strength of this one word, Rushdie again does not acknowledge the complexity of her argument. Similarly Brian Clark is attacked, who, Rushdie states, "claiming to be on my side, wrote an execrable play ... entitled Who Killed Salman Rushdie?, and sent it along in case I needed something to read". Brian Clark defended himself in the letters column of The Independent on Sunday, and stated that the play, in reality entitled Who Killed the Writer?, was sent to Rushdie to show him how it was in support of his predicament. Clark was shocked by "a letter from Mr Rushdie's agent saying that if we intended production we should send him a formal note so that he could 'establish Salman's legal rights'". The conclusion of Clark's letter again highlights Rushdie's hypocrisy:
The irony of Mr Rushdie wishing to suppress a play because it offended him was so obvious that it became clear to me he could not be thinking well. I decided not to go ahead with production. No note was sent. It is hard now not to feel that my act of self-censorship was misguided. (Brian Clark, 'Who Killed the Writer?', The Independent on Sunday, 11th February 1990, repr. in Sacrilege versus Civility, pp.99-101)
The Muslim Response
It is easy to list the instances in the text where Rushdie offends Muslims (and the discussion of these instances above is only a partial one which deals with the major points where Muslims took offence), but it is more difficult to put into exact words the extent to which Muslims were hurt by this representation of Islam; of its founder, key members of its history, and its institutions and practises. Several Muslim critics have attempted to do this; Dr. Zaki Baddawi equates the book to "a knife being dug into you - or being raped yourself" (Sacrilege versus Civility, p.35). Sardar and Davies state that "it is as though he has personally assaulted and raped every single believing Muslim man and women" (Sardar and Davies, Distorted Imagination, p.165). Professor Ali Muzrui discusses the analogy given by Pakistanis he met in Islamabad, "It's as if he has composed a brilliant poem about the private parts of his parents, and then gone to the market place to recite that poem to the applause of strangers" (Ali Muzrui, 'Novelist's Freedom vs Worshippers Dignity', Sacrilege versus Civility, p.210). The sexual imagery of these complaints is commented on by Richard Webster, who states that it "helps to locate the obscenities of The Satanic Verses in a human context and to convey ... Muslims feelings that in the novel Islam is the victim not simply of criticism and satire but an act of cultural rape" (A Brief History of Blasphemy, p.95-6). Professor Muzrui's observations also reveal something deeper in the Muslim grievance, Rushdie's use of his 'inside/outsider' position. Rushdie has extensive knowledge of Islam and Muslims, having been brought up in that environment, yet in adulthood he rejects Islam, and chooses to adopt Western values as his ideal. He then uses the knowledge he has of Islam to hurt Muslims where it hurts most. He has been called a cultural traitor, in that he betrays the secrets that he knows - he exploits what he understands Muslims hold most sensitive. As Timothy Brennan suggests, his "revisions of the historical and mythical narratives of Islam ... were the work of one who knew all the pressure points and who went about pressing them" (Salman Rushdie and the Third World, p.144). I would argue that a person without the insider knowledge of Islam that Rushdie has could never have written a novel as offensive to Muslims as The Satanic Verses.
As I stated in the introduction to this essay, the burning of the novel in Bradford, and Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, have come to characterise the Muslim protest to the novel, within the West. They therefore deserve closer attention. Muslims were branded Nazis (see Burgess above, who was one among many to compare Muslims to Nazis) after one copy of The Satanic Verses was set alight in a peaceful march of protest in Bradford. The act became to Western observers proof that Muslims were, to quote, "barbarians", "uncivilised", "fanatics", "ignorant", "bloodthirsty bigots" and "medieval fundamentalists" (Sacrilege versus Civility, p.41). However, the book-burning was in fact a last attempt by them to gain attention after a largely ignored and unreported peaceful protest. As Bhikhu Parekh puts it: "Hardly anyone appreciated that the burning of The Satanic Verses was more an act of impatience than of intolerance" (Bhikhu Parekh, 'The Rushdie Affair and the British Press', The Salman Rushdie Controversy in Interreligious Perspective, ed. Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Edwin Mullen Press, Lampeter: 1990, p.75), and as Ahsan and Kidwai observe "the media knew very well that the Muslims' act of burning a copy of The Satanic Verses bore no resemblance to the Nazi burning of libraries and harassment of intellectuals and it was more in the nature of a desperate attempt to draw the attention of the media than an act of intolerance" (Ahsan and Kidwai, Sacrilege versus Civility, p.41). Several Muslim spectators also pointed to the hypocrisy of the media in condemning the book-burning and placing such emphasis on it, when only a few months earlier Labour MP's had burnt a copy of new rules on immigration on the steps of the House of Commons, with hardly any attention being paid to this act of anti-democracy. What interests me in the media's reaction to this incident is the manner in which all Muslims were judged by the actions of two or three individuals. As Parekh states, the reaction was "a wholly mindless anger first against all Bradford Muslims, then against all British Muslims, then against all Muslims, and ultimately against Islam itself" (Bhikhu Parekh, 'The Rushdie Affair...', p.76). The perfect example is formed to the arguments put forward by Edward Said in Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Routledge: London, 1981), where he discusses the manner by which the media creates an image of Islam as a single 'evil' uniform entity. All Muslims were the same in the eyes of the media, or so it seemed judging by the reaction it displayed to the burning of the novel. Khomeini's fatwa too supports Said's theory. The media took the fatwa to represent the views of all Muslims, yet Khomeini is a Shi'ite Muslim, and represents the views only of that group, which makes up ten to twenty percent of the Muslim population World-wide. Indeed, the majority of Sunni Muslims regard Shi'ites as non-Muslims, and there is irony in that Khomeini has written books that are almost as offensive to Sunnis as Rushdie's novel. Furthermore, his ruling applied only to his own state, Iran. There is a consensus among Muslim scholars that the ruling does not apply, and cannot be executed, outside of the state where it was made. Therefore Rushdie could not be subjected to the rulings of Iran in Britain. The media again avoided any attempt to investigate the complexity of this issue, and all Muslims were shown as supporters of Khomeini, ready to take Rushdie's life. Both of these incidents created in Western minds an image of Islam which was negative, and this was largely due to ignorance and misunderstanding, resulting from the Muslim position being ignored.
Srinivas Aruvamudan, in the essay 'Being God's Postman is no Fun, Yaar', states that:
The hypocrisy of Western secular expression has been attacked only by Muslims seeking to find a voice for their outrage - a factor that unfortunately discounts the credibility of their attacks in Western eyes. (Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie, ed. M.D. Fletcher, Rodopi, Amsterdam: 1994, p.189).
This statement is to some extent untrue. Muslims have indeed pointed out the hypocrisy of the West; of how Spycatcher was banned with no real controversy, of how Penguin themselves burned all copies of Sines' Massacre and declared it out of print, when they were told it was blasphemous, of how Jim Allen stopped the production of the play Perdition, which questioned the Holocaust, after protests by the Jewish community (see pages 37-8, of Sacrilege versus Civility). Yet non-Muslim observers, such as Webster and Parekh, have also pointed to the hypocrisy of Western secular expression, and they too, along with the Muslims, have not been deemed credible, and have largely been ignored. Therefore another broader question needs to be addressed; why was, and is, the Islamic critical response to The Satanic Verses, and the Rushdie Affair, or any critical response which attempts to understand the Islamic viewpoint, considered unworthy of proper attention? I believe that Aruvamudan's reasoning, that the responses are those of emotional 'outrage', does not provide a satisfactory answer - the fact that non-Muslims have done this already disproves his theory. Instead, I believe the answer to the question is more complex, and in some respects more serious. The Muslim critical response is ignored because it does not fit within the strict ideology of the literary class; they have their own 'fundamentalism', and to compromise this with ideas of understanding the Muslim viewpoint would be contradictory to these strict ideals. They simply do not wish to compromise this fundamentalism; and therefore a barrier is established, and two clear poles with regards to the positions on the Affair. I also believe that in some respects their writings are thought of as inferior. Many are new to criticising literature, and have entered the arena with the sole aim of defending the Muslim viewpoint. Nonetheless, this does not give an adequate explanation as to the manner in which these texts have been ignored, because they still would have warranted comment, even if it were only to state their inferiority. Shabbir Akhtar's Be Careful With Muhammed and M. M. Ahsan and A. R. Kidwai's Sacrilege versus Civility are both excellent texts that attempt to illustrate the Muslim viewpoint of the novel and the Affair. As the emotive preface to Akhtar's text illustrates:
An illiterate woman in Bradford went to see her teenage daughter's schoolteacher, who said to her: 'The Satanic Verses is brilliant! In Britain we like to read great literature.' She remained silent and returned home. This book is an attempt to explain that inarticulate believer's anguish. If it achieves anything more, it will be a bonus. (Shabbir Akhtar, Be Careful With Muhammed, London: Bellew Press, 1989, p.vii.)
The sheer number of articles by Muslims and non-Muslims which appear within Sacrilege versus Civility also illustrates the strength of the Muslim position, yet despite this the texts remain largely ignored. Even the most recent studies of Rushdie cling to the idea that the Muslims were simply irrational in their reaction to The Satanic Verses, and that they exposed themselves as the enemies of free thought.
The Western Response
One of the most surprising and serious manifestations of the Rushdie Affair was the Western response to the Muslim outcry. This essay has illustrated that some Western critics did make a balanced study of the situation, and thus produced a fair opinion on both the arguments against the novel made by Muslims, and the defence of it by Western critics. Yet the majority of Western critics do not follow this model; they have preconceived ideas about Islam, and this is reflected in their writings. A look at newspaper articles of the period, which is the forum where much discussion took place, including the publication of 'In Good Faith', reveals this trait.
Stephen Vizinczey, in The Sunday Telegraph, asserted with fervour that "what is at issue is the militant Islamic right to dictate to us what we can read, write, print, distribute and display" ('The New Appeasers Who Bow to Mecca', The Sunday Telegraph, 19th March, 1989). The editorial of The Times at one point urged the British government to stiffen laws against Muslim protesters, and while legislation was formed it recommended that "any Muslim troublemaker without full British citizenship should be expelled from the country" (Editorial of The Times, under 'A Greater Evil', 6th February 1990). In the same newspaper Clifford Longley states that Islam "knows how to treat minorities - but it does not know how to be a minority". He writes that Muslims need to accept the principle that "to punish [a man] for his religious thought, is one of the most abhorrent of crimes"; if they do this then "Islam has a healthy future as a Western religion", if not, then "it has no future here at all" (The Times, 29th December 1990). Longley, and The Times, therefore reflects Burgess' ideas about sending 'them' back to where they came from; they have no place in Britain as they are. Robert Kilroy-Silk, who regularly wrote articles for various papers about the Affair, is even more blatant about his ideas about British Muslims, who to him are 'resident Ayatollahs'. He states that "if Muslim immigrants cannot and will not accept British values and laws then there is no reason at all why the British should feel any need, still less compulsion, to accommodate theirs" ('Defending Ethnic Minorities', The Times, 17th February 1989). It is worth noting that Muslim protesters did not break any laws during the Affair, as Kilroy-Silk implies. The question of whether Muslims should have to adopt Western values in order to be accepted by Western society is a more serious point, which I intend to look at closely in the conclusion of this essay. The spirit of these commentators seems to be the defence of the 'liberalism' and 'freedom of expression' at all costs. Rational comment on this came from a somewhat surprising quarter, the then Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley. In an article for The Independent, entitled 'The Racism Of Asserting That They Must Behave Like Us', Hattersley states that:
the idea that we have a duty to applaud his [Rushdie's] assault is a novel interpretation of the liberal obligation ... the proposition that Muslims are welcome in Britain if, and only if, they stop behaving like Muslims, is incompatible with the principle of a free society. (The Independant, 21st July 1989)
There seems to be confusion with the very terms 'liberalism' and 'democracy'. Liberalism, like democracy, is defended as a sacred ideal. Muslims argue that the issue is not about the defence of these ideals, but the perversion of them; their protest is not against democracy and freedom of expression, but the freedom to abuse and offend without restraint.
Literary criticism dealing with Rushdie lacks any depth of understanding with regards to the Muslim position. For example, Timothy Brennan in Salman Rushdie and the Third World suggests that it offends because it "unravels the religion from within" (p.144). Neil Cornwell in The Literary Fantastic concludes that those who shout the loudest have the least confidence in what they say, and Michael Gorra, in After Empire, claims that Muslims protest because it makes them feel uneasy, as it comes close to the truth. Recent studies too, follow this trend; Catherine Cundy's Salman Rushdie contains no reference to Muslims arguments, accept that the novel now conjures up to the "white majority", the image of "a fanatical, book-burning section of its own population" (Manchester University Press, Manchester: 1996, p.65), while Jeremy Jennings and Anthony Kemp-Welch's Intellectuals in Politics: From the Dreyfus Affair to Salman Rushdie, condemns the Thatcher government for the way they "showed themselves prepared to utter words of apology and regret for the 'offence' caused by the publication of The Satanic Verses" (Routledge, London: 1997, p.4), the 'offence' in quote marks implying the 'misreading' argument that none was ever given by the text. Texts taking the Rushdie Affair and The Satanic Verses as their primary subject have also been largely one-sided. Appignanesi and Maitland's The Rushdie File purports to be a presentation of arguments by both sides, yet it leans heavily on providing sources that defend Rushdie. Ruthvan Malise's A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and The Wrath of Islam again comes down heavily against the Muslims. It is worth noting that he takes the nineteenth-century Orientalist Edward Lane's An Account of the Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians as a source, where elsewhere Egyptians are said to be sexually inflammable, irrational and incapable of telling the truth (Kabbani, Imperial Fictions, p.41). The most shocking example of this type of text may be Fay Weldon's Sacred Cows, which is more a direct attack on Islam then a study of the Affair. For her Islam is "not a religion of kindness but of terror" (Fay Weldon, Sacred Cows, Chatto and Windus, London: 1989, pp.8-23), the "Koran is food for no-thought", and Allah a "God of vengeance" and "wrath". She professes a deep insight on the Muslim community in Britain, and claims that their women are subjected to "arranged marriages", "beatings", "intimidation" and "penalties for recalcitrance"; marriages end in "high divorce rates" and "children in care". What evidence does she have to support this information? A friend who is a social worker. Opposed to this stark image of Islam and Muslims, The Satanic Verses is made to look holy; it reads "pretty much like the works of St. John the Divine at the end of our own Bible ... [Rushdie being] St. Salman the Divine". She adds "I'm joking" to this last comment, but her insensitivity, and her ignorance about Islam, verges on her output almost being racist towards Muslims. And this was not an isolated occurrence; during the Rushdie Affair many Western critics made comments that would simply have been considered unacceptable racism before, the quote I provided at the head of the essay by Connor Cruise O'Brian is another example of this. As one Muslim critic states, if such things were said against Jews, or Black people, or homosexuals then they would be hounded and taken to court, but Muslims are treated differently, they are "fair game insofar as they are powerless" (Ziauddin Sardar, 'The Rushdie Malaise: A Critique of Some Writings on the Rushdie Affair', Sacrilege versus Civility, p.290).
In the opening of Imperial Fictions Rana Kabbani quotes the following passage from The Solitude of Latin America, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
It is only natural that they insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves, forgetting that the ravages of time are not the same for all, and that the quest of our own identity is just as arduous and bloody for us as it was for them. The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.
Marquez speaks for Latin Americans, yet he puts into precise words the ideas I have with regards to the representation, or misrepresentation, of Islam and Muslims during the Rushdie Affair. Going back to what Mukherjee says in the quote I gave in the introduction of this essay, the Rushdie Affair has illustrated the wide gap of ignorance that exists between the West and Islam. Western critiques of the Affair have used their own yardstick to measure the Muslim response to Rushdie and his novel, and this has resulted in the Muslims being portrayed in an extremely negative light. An understanding of the hurt the novel caused to Muslims has still not been achieved, Western critics do not know the level of love and respect Muslims have for Islam, and the Prophet (peace be upon him), and the subsequent anger that is caused when these sacred ideas are attacked by Western discourses. Some spectators have commented that Rushdie is being punished for all the crimes the West has committed against Islam - for the long anti-Islamic tradition that exists within the West. I can see the logic of this argument, and I can also see how Rushdie as the inside/outsider is also made the ideal candidate to shoulder this blame. His offence is seen as all the more worse because of his position as a former Muslim, he knew the hurt the novel would cause, and to Muslims this goes too far. The hurt and anger of Muslims was therefore vented against an individual, when really it was not only against him but against the entire Western system which had treated them so badly over many years. A single word, 'offence', has turned up again and again in this essay. Recently Muslims were again offended by Rushdie when his publishing company, Random House, decided to announce the publication of a new paperback edition (in 1994 a limited edition paperback was published by The Consortium, an alliance of US publishers) of The Satanic Verses on April the 7th 1998, which was the day when Muslims celebrated Eid Ul-Adha, the holiest day of the Islamic calender (information taken from Abdul Adil's article 'Rushdie Provokes Muslims', The Muslim News, 24th April 1998). At the centre of this debate is offence; taken by Muslims because ideas sacred to them are being abused, by the West because Muslims within their community are protesting and behaving 'undemocratically'. What we find is that the offence taken by the secular West is more similar to the offence taken by Muslims then is first apparent. Both are offended by their sacred ideals being attacked; to Muslims this is Islam, and to the West this is democracy. This also explains the reactions to the book, the zeal with which Muslims condemned it, and the similar vigour with which the West defended it, and condemned the Muslim outcry.
How were Muslims effected by the Rushdie Affair? When Roy Jenkins, the 'father' of the Race Relations Act, stated that "we might have been more cautious of allowing the creation in the 1950s of a substantial Muslim community here" (Roy Jenkins, quoted in Bhikhu Parkesh's 'The Rushdie Affair and the British Press', p.76), when they discovered that the Rule of Law does not apply to them on this issue, because the law for blasphemy "protects only the Christian religion" (The ruling of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate in London, when Abdul Hussain Choudary attempted to summons Rushdie and Viking/Penguin, in The Rushdie Letters, (ed. Steve MacDonough), Brandon, Kerry: 1993, p.141), when articles appeared such as Norman Stone's in The Sunday Telegraph entitled 'We Need Russian Help Against Islam', stating that:
The Mahdi [the leader of Muslims] is the enemy of mankind, and particularly womankind, and we need all the allies we can get. The world as a whole must unite to make sure that fundamentalist Islam does not get away with it. (The Sunday Telegraph, 19th February 1989).
The sense of alienation and frustration they felt was unmatched by the past; frustration because they knew that the reality was far removed from the image of Islam and Muslims the media created, and they were not given the opportunity to let this be known. The view that Muslims should assimilate Western culture, or return to their homelands was another argument that made Muslims feel alienated, and verged on what Muslims saw as, for the lack of a better word, racism. Within Muslim circles a new word was coined to describe this lacking word, and the unfounded fear and hate they and their religion now provoked - 'Islamophobia'. Ten years on, the effects of the Rushdie Affair are still to be found. In October of 1997 the Runnymede Trust found in a report on Islamophobia in Britain, that "British Muslims often face discrimination because of their faith rather than their religion" (Trevor Phillips, 'Islamophobia in Britain', The Independant, 25th October 1997). The Rushdie Affair is not the sole contributor to this shift of discrimination from race to faith. The Gulf War was another key event that exacerbated anti-Islamic, and also anti-Arab sentiments that already existed in the media and, to some extent, in the attitudes of the British people. In 'Is Nothing Sacred?' Rushdie states that when "no real alternative to the liberal-capitalist social model" is left in the world, then this system will require the "novelists' most rigorous attention". Therefore, he argues that "if democracy no longer has communism to help clarify, by opposition, its own ideas, then perhaps it will have to have literature as an adversary instead" (Salman Rushdie, 'Is Nothing Sacred?', Imaginary Homelands, pp.426-7). I would argue that after the fall of Communism and the Soviet Bloc it is already clear that Islam as an ideology has replaced these adversaries, and is now seen as the new threat and common enemy. Muslims have emerged as the predominant 'Other' by which the West measures itself. Islam is under a renewed attack from the West, and this attack serves to make Muslims ever more aware of their isolation; 'ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary'.
Rana Kabbani compares this new anti-Islamic sentiment to anti-Semitism, and concludes that:
I would even be so bold as to argue that there has been a transfer of contempt from Jews to Muslims in secular Western culture today. Many Muslims share this fear: indeed, one has written that 'the next time there are gas chambers in Europe, there is no doubt concerning who'll be inside them'. (A Letter to Christendom, p.11)
What I hope I have highlighted in this essay is this extreme concern of Muslims about their place in the West - which is due to the misrepresentation of their faith, founded in the misunderstanding and ignorance that exists within the West. It is this that I believe is the most serious and dangerous manifestation of the Affair, because of the untold damage it could do in the future.
Thirty people have died because of The Satanic Verses; mainly protesters but also translators of the novel and a moderate Imam in Belgium who spoke against the fatwa. People have spoken about the power of the word with this in mind, but what it signifies for me is the powerlessness of those that are isolated and ignored. What I hope I have achieved through this essay is a clarification of the voice and perspective of the Muslims on The Satanic Verses and the Rushdie Affair.
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