When the Salman Rushdie affair broke, the first thing I thought of was the day we tried to buy a bookcase in Jeddah. Jeddah is Saudi Arabia’s most sophisticated, cosmopolitan city. Compared to the capital, Riyadh, it is liberal and lively. It is also of course very rich. Its shopping malls, with their icy airconditioning, are temples of marble and glass, of lush greenery and tinkling fountains. They are something like the Muslim vision of Paradise; only the houris are missing. You can buy a fox fur, if you like, or a portrait of King Fahd, or an American-style donut; a king-size sofa with a stereo built in, if that takes your fancy. But you couldn’t, in 1983, find a bookcase anywhere. No call for them.
When I first went to Jeddah I thought I had arrived in some ultimate abomination: the Bookless City. The supermarkets had racks of newspapers and magazines in various languages, and sometimes a little stack of doctor-nurse romances. There were things called bookshops, but they sold stationery. Of course, there was the book, the Holy Koran. The shelves that contained it had an untouched air, and the big volumes in the stiff cheap-looking bindings put me in mind of the sets of children’s encyclopedias once found in the homes of the aspiring classes. The censors were active, but it was images, not words, that they seemed concerned about. The newspapers from America and Europe came with sections blacked out with broad felt-tip pens. But it was the photographs and not columns of type that were mutilated. It was Joan Collins’s bosom, Zola Budd’s legs.
Saudi Arabia is a video culture. Housewives whose mothers sat in tents spend the days in their urban apartment blocks watching Egyptian soap-operas on TV. Students at the university would not buy books, their European teachers said: it was necessary for a department to buy enough copies of the standard texts, and place them in the library. My closest Muslim friend, a well-travelled and articulate woman, had a degree in English from a college in Pakistan. She mentioned one day that since her marriage, three years previously, she had read only one book.
During my four years in the Kingdom the supply of books began to improve. It was possible to buy a limited selection of paperbacks. People going out on vacation would be given a list of books to bring back – but they would have to get their purchases through the Saudi customs. Some governments publish lists of prohibited books, but if the Saudis had an Index I never saw it: it was only rumour that told you what had most recently given offence, and your fortunes might depend on how pious or touchy was the customs officer who turned out your cases. We believed that the customs men could not read English; that if they could, they wouldn’t; that a book would be judged by its cover. My copy of Robert Lacey’s monumental work The Kingdom travelled safely inside the dust-jacket of Vincent Cronin’s Louis and Antoinette. Perhaps it was not the wisest choice, since Saudi Arabia has a few things in common with the Ancien Régime: but I was confident that the customs men wouldn’t see the connection.
However, it soon became clear that the censorship was interested in words after all. The word ‘pork’, for instance. The censorship had its catering corps. It was someone’s duty to go through consignments of imported food and check out such items as dehydrated sauce mixes, in case they had recipes on the back; and then to strike out that dreadful word wherever it appeared. After a time I realised that far from being unimportant in this society, as I had thought at first, words were in fact the most important thing of all. You cannot abolish the concept of pork from the world, but if you are assiduous you can unsay the word; if your felt tips are busy enough, and numerous enough, you can take away its name and thus gradually take away its substance, leaving it a queasy, nameless concept washing around in the minds of unbelievers, a meat which will gradually lose its existence because there is no way to talk about it.
In the holy city of Qom, it is said, the Iranians have a Koran with pages two metres square, each vellum sheet illuminated by hand. The Saudis would despise such a display; they would think it a piece of showing-off, the kind of thing that Shi’tes go in for. They favour contests at which the Koran is recited, with much public fanfare and the award of large cash prizes. I learned that the Holy Koran had little to do with the book on the shelves of the stationery stores. It was a living book, and its very language was sacred. Its verses were charged with power; they could heal the sick. Each word was a little fighter in a daily war.
Okaz, Jeddah’s Arabic daily, carried in March 1986 a doom-laden, prescient column about the power of words. ‘The war of words,’ the writer said, ‘is more harmful than World War Two. Words are forcing the world to World War Three. Words – written in newspapers, magazines, books, uttered on radio and television – are tools to massacre the souls of people.’
The world conspiracy against Islam of which Tehran now speaks is not the fantasy of one elderly paranoiac: in the Kingdom it was a fantasy purveyed as fact to the whole nation. Talented young Arabs, the newspapers alleged, went to Europe to study, and by their abilities excited the envy of their hosts, who would quickly set about ruining them by addicting them to drugs and introducing them to prostitutes. In Marks and Spencer’s London stores, specially-trained agents of Zionism lurk, ready to pounce on Arab shoppers, accuse them of shoplifting, throw them into gaol and publicise their disgrace world-wide through Reuters and UPA.
In November 1986 the Saudi Gazette reported a pronouncement by ‘the General Presidency of the Departments of Religious Researchers, Ruling, Call and Guidance’, warning against certain Italian floor tiles that had been imported into the Kingdom. These tiles were aimed at ‘purposefully offending the sentiments of Muslims’. Hidden away in their swirl of pattern – not obvious at a casual glance, but evident on close inspection – were the words ‘Allah’ and ‘Mohammed’. Or so the authorities said. The eye of faith is formidably sharp. If a floor tile can offend Islam, what chance has a novel?
The Saudi response to The Satanic Verses has been low-key; the Ayatollah, who refers contemptuously to their faith as ‘American Islam’, has stolen their thunder. But it is not difficult to imagine the depth of outrage. The first popular reaction in the West to the death threat was, I think, amazement, tinged by what came near to a disbelieving hilarity: ‘But it’s only a novel.’ We could not believe that people would riot about a story.
Novelists have various tricks for concealing what they are about. If they want to use a real person as a character they can, if competent, cover their tracks well enough to avoid being sued for libel. If critics call their work ‘brutal’ or ‘offensive’ they can smirk and say that they were spinning a metaphor, forging a conceit, creating an allegory. They can, like Salman Rushdie, allow their characters to dream. Writers no longer talk about their muse, but they are willing to talk about how their characters take over, about how the author himself is a minor part of the process, carried along on some irresistible creative tide. It is all part of the mystique; authors enjoy it. In the West, it does not matter whether they slide away from the implications of their work in this way.
Elsewhere, of course – in the Eastern bloc or in South Africa – a novel is taken perfectly seriously as a vehicle for ideas. Its writer is forced to stand behind the points he makes, and is given no particular privilege. The censor will peel the novel’s defences away and say, so this is what you really meant; and penalise and punish the author accordingly. But elsewhere the censor may not bother to strip away the conventions; he may not even recognise that they exist. Art for art’s sake will mean nothing to him. The Satanic Verses may be a great work of art, the pattern on the floor tiles may have been aesthetically pleasing: but both are political acts. The defences of merit and of good intention that we are accustomed to erect around a persecuted work of art cannot help Rushdie’s book, in countries where they are not recognised as defences. In Tehran, malice is understood. It is taken for granted. There is a world-wide conspiracy against Islam, and Rushdie is its ‘mercenary’.
If his defence cannot be made in artistic terms, it must be made in political terms, but it is hard to feel pleased with the politicians. When the British Government says that it understands that Muslims are offended by the book, it means it understands that offence has been taken. It is not near to understanding the nature of the offence. The Prime Minister says that great religions should be strong enough to withstand criticism, and her remark is alarming because it is so wide of the point. Unlike modern Christianity, Islam does not make a virtue of tolerance. In theory it accommodates the faith of Christians and Jews, the ‘people of the book’, but the Kingdom, at least, does not permit any form of worship other than the Islamic; projecting their own intolerance on the outside world, the faithful in Jeddah found it hard to imagine that in Britain their co-religionists could go freely to a mosque, and they only half-believed it. If you are in Britain, Islam appears an inward-looking and self-protective faith, but when you are in the East it appears vital, active and proselytising. Not long ago, the same could be said of Christianity. Unless we are prepared to think about our own history, enter into it a little, we cannot know what the Muslim writer is talking about when he speaks of ‘spiritual torment and torture’. The silly and the secular do not understand the God-driven. Fundamentalists look at our cheerful modern notion of live-and-let-live, and find it immoral and incomprehensible.
In the first few days after Iran issued the death threat, the support for Salman Rushdie was heartening and unanimous. But we are so used to intellectual consensus and compromise that when we meet an intransigent opponent, with whom no meeting of minds seems possible, we immediately doubt our own case and our own values: politeness may be the ruin of the West. The backtracking has been an unpleasant spectacle. It was unpleasant to hear a young Tory MP say recently that ‘two or three’ of his friends had told him that the book was ‘very second-rate’, and announce that since Rushdie had made so much money he should pay for his own police guard: we do not expect our legislators to be able to read, but we do expect them to be able to distinguish between a private man’s private difficulty and a matter of vital public interest. And just as unpleasant is the defection of those who now cast doubt on Rushdie’s integrity, or urge withdrawal of the book. Perhaps it is understandable that the authors of children’s books and light social comedies should decline to defend The Satanic Verses. Their freedom of expression is not at issue.
Back in Jeddah, the same woman who had read only one book since her marriage explained one day with great eloquence the consolations of living among believers, in a solidly Muslim society – the feeling of security for the faithful, the freedom from the constant bombardment by alien values. Muslims in Britain live under such bombardment, and they have to accept it and survive as best they can. But their faith still has its consolations, and some good would come of this sorry business if the spokesmen of the Muslim community, and the enlightened and educated Muslims who must be offended by Iran’s decrees, could explain to a sceptical and ignorant Britain what these consolations are.
Vol. 11 No. 8 · 20 April 1989
As a Saudi national who once suffered the embarrassing indignity of having a book purchased in Saudi Arabia confiscated by a Saudi customs official upon my return from a vacation, I can sympathise with Hilary Mantel’s frustrations (LRB, 30 March). What I can’t understand is her pressing need to buy a bookcase in a land where she could not find a book to buy.
She cannot, however, be challenged on Jeddah, or any other Saudi Arabian city, being a ‘Bookless City’, as she put it. That much is reality for the Saudis who care for and do indeed read books: but to say, quoting ‘European teachers’, that students ‘would not buy their books’ is quite misleading. As a former student of such European teachers in Saudi Arabia, I can tell her that there were no books to buy. Texts were bought by the university, expurgated and then lent to the students to be returned at the end of term. That much was standard in 1980, at least for students of English and French. The reasons for this are quite obvious: for all subjects taught in Arabic, texts were commissioned – for foreign languages and literature, the books had to be imported.
Be that as it may, Hilary Mantel should have figured from her sojourn in Arabia that neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran are yardsticks for measuring Islam. In both countries, protection against the ‘word’ – any word – is not an act of piety, but one of political preservation. If the rulers call themselves the Guardians of the Faith, and the King calls himself – among many other things – Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, think how much fear this might instil in the humble faithful who might have the fancy notion one day of demanding their basic rights as human beings. Kings, in this case, are not mere kings, and authority is not simply temporal. Whatever Ms Mantel may say, Islam does make a virtue of tolerance. That no other form of worship is tolerated in the Kingdom is a matter that should be addressed to the King of Saudi Arabia and not to Islam. It is his policy, not the policy of Islam.
If Khomeini thinks that a man’s blood is needed to wash away the harm of his words, then Khomeini and his cronies – not Islam – are responsible for Iran’s decrees. I personally was offended by Rushdie’s book (I have read it) and thought it vulgar in presentation and fickle in theme, but was hardly roused to such levels of hysteria as to want to kill him. Instead, I was amused at the sight of a Cambridge graduate in history so shamelessly borrowing from Mustafa Akkad’s movie The Message (a point that can be amply proved and which has gone unnoticed in the general mayhem). If he has offended God, then God Himself will have to deal with Rushdie. If anyone is to be fought here on earth, it is the men who speak in the name of religion and claim for themselves providential authority. Those who are only too ready to see every lunatic’s pronouncement as a latent defect in Islam itself should think again: their judgment comes, at times, perilously close to that of the fanatics themselves.
Neuilly sur Seine, France
Vol. 11 No. 10 · 18 May 1989
Now that the Satanic Verses agitation, the jihad and the counter-jihad, has been off the front pages for a number of weeks it is time to consider some of the wider aspects of race relations which the affair highlights but which have been unremarked. It has now become common knowledge that intense Muslim lobbying and large demonstrations had been taking place since October. That they were invisible to the national media till the middle of January was not the result of an accidental oversight, but was rooted in how educated opinion understands race issues. The invisibility stems directly from a mode of looking at non-white people. In the main, Asian and other ethnic minorities are only granted a shadowy existence as statistical ‘blacks’, as victims of racism with no identity or consciousness of their own. They cannot but be invisible and unheard if they should become agitated by issues to do with their own being rather than by what white people think of their ‘race’. In order to see something we need to look for it; in order to look for it we must admit the possibility of its existence. For too many politically-informed people in this country Asians are a welcome addition to black statistics but cannot be accepted on their own terms.
The marginalisation of Asian experience follows as a natural consequence of the philosophy of race relations which in the Eighties rather successfully marketed the idea of an Alabama-like Britain of two races, whites and blacks, and of the latter as a potentially revolutionary underclass politically attracted to all the radical and libertarian tendencies in white society. Laughable as these ideas will seem, except perhaps to those who have been in hibernation this winter, they have till recently enjoyed an orthodoxy amongst the Left to challenge which in public is to risk excommunication or worse. The ideas still have a lot of political life, but are clearly in decline, partly because events keep proving them false and partly because of the Government’s attack on local government – the set of institutions where these ideas have been most at work. That one of their latest expressions is Black Section’s declaration that, despite their 2.5:1 population ratio, Asian and Afro-Caribbean MPs should be in a 50:50 proportion underlies the institutionalised inequality towards Asians that this movement represents.
With a climate influenced and in some quarters dominated by this anti-racist perspective, it has been difficult for moderate ethnic minority opinion to express itself and to gain media space. While instant publicity was guaranteed to the wilder reaches of Black Sections, more representative opinion has found it consistently difficult to meet the criteria of newsworthiness. Media interest has been narrowly circumscribed by racism and anti-racism: ethnic minorities are of interest if and only if they can be portrayed as victims of or threats to white society. This ‘radicals and criminals’ paradigm, a kind of yellow star that minority persons have to wear on their coat before they have access to the media, is perhaps best epitomised in the deportation of Viraj Mendis. Not only was that the dominant race story in the media in the first half of January, when the unreported anger against the Satanic Verses was spreading like wildfire from mosque to mosque, but Mendis managed to combine in his person both prongs of the fork ‘radical and criminal’.
The Muslim agitation against The Satanic Verses began from day one (obliging the Indian Government to ban the book within a few days of its launch), but because it was confined to behind-the-scenes lobbying, it attracted no media attention – unlike the book. Even when Muslims began to take to the streets, as in Bolton on 2 December in an 8,000-strong march, they were determined to be orderly and thereby doomed themselves to continuing invisibility. They found themselves silenced by the racially-discriminatory judgments that lie at the heart of how race is reported and theorised about. Faced with this powerlessness, the unfortunate but true conclusion reached by the organisers was that they would remain unheeded till something shocking and threatening was done.
This led to a book-burning publicity stunt, and the stunt to a reaction on the part of the libertarian Left, which, when such stunts were interpreted through a prism lent by the Ayatollah, culminated in hysterical denunciations of the demonstrators as Nazis! How demonstrations noteworthy for their peacefulness could be compared to wholesale ransacking of libraries, to bully-boy intimidation and beatings, was never explained. ‘Nazi’ is the strongest term of political abuse in most people’s vocabulary, and it does not require much intelligence to see what its effects are going to be on a community which is deeply offended and feels itself marooned in a sea of incomprehension. When those who have no qualms about the burning of effigies of living persons, a national flag, or a Poll Tax registration form, declare a counter-jihad on those who protest by burning a book, the casualty, in the polarisation which ensues, is moderate Muslim attempts to find constructive ways of channelling anger.
Some of those who are now concerned about the social dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and of ethnic minority separatism in general, are doing their best to create what they least want to see. To emigrate to another culture is to initiate a process of change – in oneself, in one’s children and in one’s children’s children. This process of change is difficult and painful, much more so for communities than individuals. Add to that the experience of racism and you have extremely vulnerable, confused and at moments angry communities. Rushdie, in his own fantastical way, has portrayed aspects of this, though his difficulty – and the root cause of the process which has ended with his enraging Muslims – is his preference for the introspective subtleties of his own individuality rather than a collective self-expression. He asked himself, ‘where am I at?’ rather than: ‘where at the present in the process of our inevitable metamorphosis is the community at?’
The process of communal metamorphosis is likely to be made much worse the greater the pressure there is to assimilate and to do it fast. Nothing is more likely to distort or freeze that process; and if the call for assimilation is accompanied by racial discrimination and social exclusion, then you have the worst of all formulas, one which leads to alienation, conflict and a more politicised separatism – as a generation of Afro-Caribbeans can testify. A politics which addresses itself to these problems must support the minority psyche and not become an additional abrasive by creating further anxiety about change.
In the Fifties and Sixties it was blithely assumed that non-white individuals, particularly West Indians, would metamorphosise into quasi-whites. It did not happen. It was then assumed in what was the cardinal error of the later period that West Indian and Asian communities would decompose and be reconstructed into ‘blacks’. Despite strenuous efforts and much radical passion, it has not happened, and it is now clear that it will not happen.
The road to social integration and race equality politics has to go through ethnicity, not against it. In the Eighties we learnt that these goals could not be achieved by being ‘colour-blind’ – witness the change of attitudes over the decade to ethnic monitoring. The lesson of the Nineties will, I believe, be that these goals cannot be achieved by being ‘ethnic-blind’. The recent ferment will not have been wholly negative if we come to acknowledge the falsehood of racial dualism and chart a course to a viable ethnic pluralism.
University College of Swansea
Many of those who violently object to Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses have not read it from cover to cover. They cite excerpts to argue Rushdie’s ‘mischievous intent’, but their arguments do not persuade. The ‘offensive’ parts occur within a madman’s dreams or hallucinations. The whole fiction, abounding in surrealism and imagistic hyperbole, is itself a kind of dream. Within its richly convoluted context, nothing is what it seems.
The 12 whores in The Satanic Verses who take upon themselves the names of the wives of Mahound figure in a satire directed, not against the holy, but against those who would play-act sexual intercourse with the holy, whether to worship, to partake of the god, or to insult the divine by a sacrilegious approximation. Gibreel, one of the many Creatures of Doubt within this book, suffers a visualisation of this futile ‘fingering’. By means of this image, Rushdie, the author of all this, mocks the mockers, and also holds the mirror up to us. The desire to make sex with the votaries of the divine, whether as worship or as gross insult, is both ancient and current. The desire to lie with the Queen, the goddess, the High Priestess of the Goddess – the boss’s wife, the movie star, or the lady in the centrefold – is with us still, and with us takes myriad guises. Rushdie’s novel is about us.
In the final analysis, neither the Prophet nor anything belonging to the Prophet can be touched, nor can the inner Islam be injured, by any fantasy of a schizophrenic within a fiction cast in the form of a dream. Nor can the author of this novel in the form of a dream be accused of such a vain and small-spirited intention. To read its most pointed critics, The Satanic Verses might be a political tract or an anti-religious polemic. It is neither. Nor is it, in any of its details, inspired by small-minded calculations of saleability after notoriety – as some say. Nor has Rushdie, as some allege, treacherously ‘sold out’ to ‘the enemies of Islam’. There are no ‘enemies of Islam’: the Crusades are done, and Jenghiz Khan’s Mongols, who laid waste to whole cities in Islam, are long since dust. There is only this dark and troubled world, in jeopardy enough without such sectarian paranoia. On the contrary, this book is an exploration of holy doubt, exercised in a wide milieu that includes men and djinn and myths and dreams and ‘angels’ and ‘gods’ and dreams-within-dreams and fables and nursery-rhymes and madness and Brecht/Weil and newspapers and ayatollahs and chiefs of police. It is Rabelaisian in its exuberance; mystical in its perceptions; catholic in its range of targets; and high-spirited and jolly in its treatment of the most serious of themes.
Rushdie portrays our all-human duality. This fundamental is sounded from the start, when two figures, one angelic and one satanic – two quite ordinary men out of the Indian subcontinent – fall from an exploded jet 29,000 feet up over the southeast coast of England and, as if having descended the birth canal, survive into a Swiftian double-arabesque.
Is he not entitled to portray, expose, explore, and above all sing, his Muslim-Anglo Angst – and ours?
Brooklyn, New York
Vol. 11 No. 11 · 1 June 1989
The Satanic Verses of The Satanic Verses concern the divine status of three goddesses, Uzza the goddess of love and beauty, Manat the goddess of destiny, and Lat, or Al-Lat, the mother-goddess or simply the goddess, Allah’s opposite and equal. The Grandee of Jahilia, Abu Simbel, recognising the weakness of his plurality of gods in the face of the overwhelming power of the single god, asks that out of the 360 idols worshipped in his city, these three should be granted divine status, and so it is conceded. ‘Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza, and Manat, the third, the other? They are the exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.’ So says Mahound, repeating the verses as they have been revealed to him by the Angel Gibreel. But then the decision is reversed: Mahound maintains that he has discovered, in a further encounter with Gibreel, that the verses come not from Allah but from Satan. I wonder how many people know that these are the Satanic Verses? In my experience, strikingly few.
Is this demotion and ensuing destruction of the three goddesses not the first step towards the denial of equality between female and male? The Satanic Verses questions the nature of divine revelation and explores the idea of truth. It also explores the convergence of interests of patriarchal and religious authority. Women are denied not only divine but also fully human status; within a patriarchal religion women are defined as sexual beings. They can only be wives or whores. This circumscription of women is illustrated most movingly and wittily in a later scene in the book, when 12 prostitutes take on the names and characteristics of Mahound’s 12 wives: a lighthearted and loving game that ends in their deaths.
Amidst the reaction to The Satanic Verses and the reaction to its burning and to Khomeini’s death sentence on Salman Rushdie, a consensus of nonfundamentalist opinion has appeared, exemplified by your correspondent M.T. Al-Rashid (LRB, 30 March), which not only seems to ignore one of the central themes of the book, the long and complex history of women’s oppression, but also suggests that while the Iranian (and Saudi Arabian) brand of Islamicism is fair game, the ‘real’ Islam is something quite different and on no account should offence be given to it; that it has a long and marvellous history of tolerance, plurality etc. But by denying femaleness to the godhead, divine justification is given to the social control of women by men. Islam may not be the only world religion to authorise female submission, but that is no reason for not challenging it.
It must also be said that while Rushdie is questioning the authority of divine revelation and the idea of the Idea, his portrayal of people – ordinary people – who have religious faith is far from unsympathetic. His imaginative sympathy extends to Muslim believers, such as the villagers of Titlipur on their doomed journey to Mecca, and to the mountaineer Alleluia Cone with her anguished transcendental aspirations, as it does to the sometimes confused and often angry scepticism of his two protagonists, Saladin Chamcha (Salahuddin Chamchawala as was) and the Indian screen idol Gibreel Farishta. The reader of The Satanic Verses is asked to laugh and weep for all, believer and unbeliever alike. This is Rushdie’s achievement.
So what is it that has offended sincere (as opposed to fanatic) Muslims? It is, I think, the questioning of the authority on which religious faith is built. There is no denying that if this is what causes offence, then offensive is what The Satanic Verses is. For it is essentially a book about doubt. It suggests doubt is the human condition. And it proposes that to disallow doubt is to disallow an aspect of our humanity a – humanity that is shared by women and men, Muslims and non-Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis and Britons of all racial origins.
Besides being the focus of hatred and fear for a powerful group of fanatical religious leaders, this brilliantly funny, highly literary and immensely readable book has become the target for a transparently dishonest attack on its qualities as literature. If its novelistic properties can be dismissed as second-rate, then nobody need bother about the ideas expressed in it. This indeed, is the line taken by M.T. Al-Rashid, who maintains that it is ‘Vulgar in presentation and fickle in theme’. To describe Rushdie’s extraordinary mastery of style from the demonic to the demotic as vulgar is a patent absurdity. Fickle? Well, yes, in that it is a book of many ideas rather than one Idea, but each of them grasped profoundly. As with all good novels, in fact. Other people – writers, MPs and men on television – have said the book is not very good, or unreadable, or incomprehensible. It is none of these things.
While the experts talk, everyone else – totally put off by hearing how long, boring, vulgar and awful it is – remains in ignorance of another whole area that the book encompasses, that of race relations in contemporary Britain. Rushdie anatomises a host country’s institutionalised fear and hatred of its immigrant population. The experience of being brown, or black, in London is recounted in a story that is bitter, funny and painful. Authority does not come well out of this book. Neither numinous nor mundane.
The Satanic Verses is a deeply humanistic book. In political terms, it deals with oppression, suppression, denial of people and their history, and in particular with the complex history of Britain as an imperial nation. In individual terms, it portrays hatred, rage, revenge, shame, and, throughout, compassion and love. By transforming the Satanic Verses of the Koran into the satanic verses which Saladin Chamcha, in the clutches of envy and self-hatred, whispers to Gibreel Farishta, verses that bring about the death of two innocent people besides Gibreel himself, Rushdie offers a secular, humanist meditation on the nature, and the power, of evil. These verses, catchy and trite and designed to fan the flames of sexual jealousy in Gibreel, afford a salutory commentary on the historical Verses: their use in the novel suggests that the circumscription of women to their sexual function alone is a paradigm for all forms of oppression of one group by another. It is easy enough, which is not to say that it is not of enormous importance, to express horror at the death sentence imposed on Rushdie, and at the blood-chilling spectacle of his book being burned. But it is just as important to say what an extraordinarily powerful, profound and entertaining novel this is, and to uphold the right of everyone to read it should they wish to do so.
Vol. 11 No. 13 · 6 July 1989
Someone said recently that since the Salman Rushdie affair multiculturalism is dead. It isn’t, of course, and never will be. But there is no denying that the publication of The Satanic Verses and its aftermath does pose questions for those of us who want to maintain and extend the ground on which people of different cultures can encounter one another and learn from one another on terms of mutual respect. Those who have, very rightly, upheld the view that Salman Rushdie has a perfect right to express himself freely, even though his work may give offence to millions of people, have responded very inadequately to those Muslims who have vociferously demanded that he be denied that right (I am not concerned here with the Muslims’ racist opponents – these are no less bigoted than the anti-Rushdie agitators themselves.) The general response of all too many has been: ‘We recognise that this is the expression of your culture, and we respect it.’ That response won’t get any of us very far.
Those who take this stand need to grasp two important truths. The first is that if the interplay of cultures is to get us anywhere, mutual respect and mutual criticism must go hand in hand. You don’t learn much unless you criticise and assess the worth of the things you are studying. Everyone has the right to criticise everyone, and if the primary need is a willingness to be constantly critical of one’s own values and constantly ready to reassess them, that in no way implies that we may not apply the same critical approach to the cultures of others or that they may not do the same to ours. And the second truth is that there is no such thing in any community as a single, uniform, unchanging, conflict free set of values. True, there are some values in every culture which, in a given period, people of that culture almost universally accept. For example, nearly all South Asians (and not just Muslims) have a far more generous concept of hospitality, a far greater sense of responsibility for the care of the aged, and a far greater respect for patriarchal values, than the white British have. I think that the white British should reject those of their own traditional values which make them less hospitable and less caring than the South Asians, accept the spirit of South Asian values in this area, declare that they are doing so, and acknowledge their debt to the South Asians for the model they have provided. On the other hand, I think that they should, equally avowedly, maintain their rejection of authoritarian patriarchal values. But if these are examples of values which a community may hold almost unanimously, it is no less true that all cultures of all communities are in a constant process of change and embrace conflicting values, different outlooks, which contend all the time for general acceptance. Within the white British community the narrow minded national chauvinism sometimes exalted as ‘the Falklands spirit’ is an authentically British cultural trait. But so also, thank God, is the detestation of flag-wagging jingoism. The same is true of Islamic cultural traits. The bigoted fundamentalism of Khomeini is authentically Islamic in the sense that millions of Muslims uphold it. And (to say the least of it) no less authentically Islamic is a tradition that despises and condemns such bigotry. There is an Islamic tradition as old as Islam itself which preaches the love of humanity – all humanity, not just the Muslim section of it – as an essential aspect of the true love of God, and assails those bigots whose whole conduct is a denial of this. A Persian verse, proverbial in Iran, tells Muslims (with the hyperbole common to the Islamic poetry of many languages):
Drink wine; burn the Quran; throw fire into the kaba;
Dwell in the temple of idols – and do not harm your fellow-men.
The intention here is to shock the reader and rouse him to the realisation that injuring other human beings is as heinous a sin as the others which the poet lists.
It is a regrettable fact that confirmed Muslims who sympathise with this trend generally cannot summon up the courage to say so publicly. In December-January 1980-1981 I had three letters expounding it in the London Urdu daily Jang, and a number of my Muslim acquaintances, some of them in quite influential positions in their communities, declared their complete agreement with them. But not one of them was willing to declare this publicly. No less regrettable is their unwillingness to condemn Muslims like Idi Amin and the rulers of Turkey, Iraq and Iran who seem united in their desire to exterminate the Kurds. It seems that it is enough for any Muslim potentate to declare loudly his devotion to Islam for his fellow Muslims to condone any crime he may care to commit.
It would be easy to show that the humanist tradition in Islam is fully consistent with the teaching of the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet. Its value to multiculturalism is obvious, and it is this Islamic tradition that we should welcome and build upon. People of all communities are fully entitled to express their opinion on all tendencies in all communities, and true multiculturalism not only permits them to do so: it demands that they should. A spurious ‘respect’ for what the most vociferous, in all communities, declare to be the one authentic expression of their distinctive values is harmful to all of us.
Emeritus Reader in Urdu,