Siding with Rushdie

Christopher Hitchens

  • The Rushdie File edited by Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland
    Fourth Estate/ICA, 268 pp, £5.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 947795 84 7
  • CounterBlasts No 4: Sacred Cows by Fay Weldon
    Chatto, 43 pp, £2.99, July 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3556 5
  • Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation by Timothy Brennan
    Macmillan, 203 pp, £29.50, September 1989, ISBN 0 333 49020 7

Just as the Muslim world was vibrating to the ‘insult’ visited on the Prophet Muhamed (Peace Be Upon Him) by an Anglo-Pakistani fictionist of genius and renown, the British and American mass audience was thrilling to the reborn version of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. The movie, which is the closest investigation most English people have made of their country’s long, intense, misunderstood encounter with Islam, is actually rather touching in its attempt to ‘understand’ the other by means of epic romance. To the fatalism of a subject population, who are serfs to a Turkish empire and captives of a holy book they cannot read, Lawrence cheerily and repeatedly intones: ‘Nothing is written.’ By this he does not intend any insult to the lapidary, but only a bracing ‘Western’ injunction against surrender. Yet Islam means surrender. The very word is like the echo of a forehead knocking repeatedly on the floor, while the buttocks are proffered to the empty, unfeeling sky in the most ancient gesture of submission and resignation.

In Faisal’s tent, eager to conscript his feudal retinue to the service of the Crown, Lawrence waits cunningly until the mullah has spoken a few verses, and then completes the recitation himself. A polite monarch inquires how he knows the Koran and asks: ‘Are you not, then, loyal to England?’ Comes the reply: ‘To England, and to other things.’ The Arabs trust Lawrence for long enough to be betrayed by the Sykes-Picot agreement, and in effect to witness the opening of the present phase of the Middle Eastern calamity. But those mottoes – ‘Nothing is written’ and ‘To England, and to other things’ – have now become the blazon of a dozen contradictory banners and the thread, however imperfectly followed, in a labyrinth of competing interpretations. Pluralism, ethnicity, fundamentalism, blasphemy, tolerance, bigotry, enlightenment – there are enough pious keywords in play to make anybody spew.

An early duty, in the face of this array of sanctimony, is to the obvious. We are not disputing the case of Salman Rushdie because it reminds us of everything else under the sun. We are disputing it because it is unique and unprecedented. I write it down in a verse, before it gets buried in glossary: ‘Salman Rushdie was publicly condemned to death, and his murder made a holy obligation upon millions of true believers, by the theocratic and political head of a foreign state, because he had written a work of fiction which allegedly profaned an illiterate seventh-century visionary who had lived on what is now the Arabian peninsula. With the call for Rushdie’s death – the fatwah, or edict – came a bounty, fluctuating in its value according as to whether the successful assassin was or was not a Muslim. Paradise was promised to any believer dying in the attempt. The contract also covered those “involved in the publication” of the novel.’

In the face of this ukase, which amounts to a life sentence as well as a death sentence on a reflective, autonomous individual, no wonder that people change the subject and take refuge in precedent or analogy. It’s natural to do so when faced with a challenge that is so alarmingly singular. Yes, there are other death squads and assassins and proscriptions and archipelagos and all the rest of it. Yes, there are existing campaigns devoted to the release of so-and-so and the freedom of this-and-that. But when last did a head of government claim to be soliciting the murder of a citizen of another country, for pay, for the offence of literary production? I have heard great argument about it and about, from reminiscences of the Trotsky assassination to Christopher Hill’s recall of the Papal incitement against Gloriana, but evermore came out by the same door as in I went. The Salman Rushdie case has no analogue and no precedent.

Once that is established, it is fair to ask how it could have, considering the confrontation that, in micro and macro form, it partially represents. Here, it is OK to introduce a few ironies. Until the fatwah issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini (a fatwah, we learn, that may be non-rescindable in consequence of his death) anyone who disliked or resented Muslim immigrants in Britain axiomatically disliked Salman Rushdie, who was and is one of their stoutest defenders. Until the fatwah, the secular Left had been reconsidering some of its positions on the anti-Shah revolution in Iran, and at about the time of the fatwah the secular Right had begun entertaining doubts about the sturdy, incorrigible Afghan mujahidin. Everywhere from the West Bank to Bradford those who once explained Islamic fury by easy reference to prevailing conditions and long-nurtured grievances were beginning to wonder if the damn thing didn’t possess a hideously energetic life of its own.

But most of this was merely political, or reassuring and analytical. Here the Shi’a on the march; there the moderate influences: here the long-awaited Muslim ‘awakening’ in the Soviet southern republics; there the statesmanlike ‘accommodation’ of the Muslims of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. There seemed always someone to do business with. And then, suddenly, a near-unanimity about a defenceless novelist, with the ‘hardliners’ calling for his immediate despatch to hell and the ‘moderates’ like the Saudis confining themselves – as Timothy Brennan usefully reminds us – to no more for now but a holy war or jihad against the school known as ‘literary modernisn’.

Of course religion is a thing of this world rather than the next, and there have always been, since well before Greenmantle, ‘their’ Muslims and ‘ours’. Nothing is more ironic than to hear certain liberals and leftists identify Islam and the muezzin with the cry of the oppressed and with anti-imperialism. In British India, Nigeria, Cyprus and elsewhere, the favoured colonial minority was always the Islamic one. Perhaps this was because, as Paul Scott has one of his characters say in The Raj Quartet, the British ‘prefer Muslims to Hindus (because of the closer affinity that exists between God and Allah than exists between God and the Brahma)’. The character is Harry Coomer or Hari Kumar, ground between the two worlds of the subcontinent and the English greensward. Transplanted to (or is it from?) the mother country and educated at ‘Chillingborough’ – Salman Rushdie was at Rugby and writes bitingly about the experience in The Satanic Verses – Kumar is a misfit in England and back in Raj-dominated India is grossly treated by a prospective employer: ‘You some sort of comedian or something? ... let me tell you this. I don’t like bolshie black laddies on my side of the business.’ He has no recourse but to become a scribbler, at first for the Mayapore Gazette, where he astounds the sahibs by his command of English (Rushdie had to get his start in an advertising agency). In neither world is he considered to be quite sixteen annas to the rupee.

The tension expressed is not in the first place the usual British resentment of upstarts or hybrids or surrogates. It is the feeling that such a person is necessarily unhappy, incongruous, deracinated. Much depends here upon who is being sorry for whom. Why should the British, who ostensibly worked so hard for the fusion of Indian and English, so much pity – no, patronise – the bastard child of the union? And why do the mullahs of Yorkshire so much resent a brilliant pupil who has the Angrez themselves waiting upon his dexterous and subtle annexation of their greatest and most treasured resource – their language?

It can’t just be the politicisation of religion, because Rushdie long ago argued by allegory that religion itself can never define a culture or a nationality. In Shame he revived the embarrassing but unarguable truth – that the Pakistani Army had done to incipient Bangladesh what even the most fervent emissaries of the Imam could barely dream of doing to him. West Pakistan – ‘the west wing’ of the novel – was so cruel to the east wing that it set a standard of memory and atrocity even for the Vietnam generation. Later outrages have eclipsed the memory, but they ought not to occlude the fact that Pakistan was the first deliberated modern Islamic republic, that it was created by the British Empire and that it showed impressively that Islam cannot found the basis of a state or a civil society.

You could object that religion alone cannot perform this historic function, and you would be right. But then you would come up against the new and perverse practice of reverse ecumenicism. The reverse ecumenical professes a sort of clerical trade-unionism, where a pretence is made that an injury to one is an injury to all. Those who once denounced each other, and slaughtered each other, are now bound together through an exhausted, insipid, pragmatic opportunism, which boils down to saying that any religion is better than none. See how the cartel of spiritual oligopolies reacted to the publication of The Satanic Verses. His Holiness the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of Israel – all those who compete for the franchise of monotheism – had a solemn declaration to make about the importance of, of all things, tolerance. But cool words like ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’ made their appearance along with older and more minatory terms like ‘blasphemy’. It turned out that ‘tolerance’ and mutuality extended only as far as other monotheists, and not to sceptics, let alone unbelievers. This degradation of concepts caused many an uneasy grimace among the soft-secular, for whom the only commandment is that ‘one’ – rather than ‘thou’ – shall not be caught being ‘offensive’ or ‘insensitive’ where religion is concerned.

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