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Vol. 16 No. 4 · 24 February 1994
Diary

The Salman Rushdie Acid Test

Christopher Hitchens

2502 words

In all the stultifying discussion of Prince Charles’s fitness to grasp the orb and sceptre of kingship, there is one qualification that is almost never canvassed. I refer to his ability to give the annual Christmas broadcast to the Commonwealth. No light matter this – it was a dreaded annual penance for his grandfather – and made no lighter by his presumptive inability to end the chat by saying: ‘My wife and I ... ’ But never mind. He is in every other respect ideally suited to the task; even better at discharging blank or ‘false-alarm’ fusillades than he is at receiving them.

I can attest to this, having recently read ‘Islam and the West’, the text of a short address given by the Prince to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, a body of which he serves as patron.* (Royal seals are not wanting in King Charles’s old royalist military HQ: the other two patrons are the House of Saud and the Sultan of Brunei, the latter best-known for his under-the-table donation of a few off-the-record millions to the cause of the Nicaraguan Contras.) Anyway, in his speechlet to the Sheldonian version of a multicultural audience, HRH got off some real ripe ones such as the following: ‘We live today in one world, forged by instant communications, by television, by the exchange of information on a scale undreamed of by our grandparents. The world economy functions as an interdependent entity. Problems of society, the quality of life and the environment, are global in their causes and effects.’

I remember that his mum used to be fond of saying that modern science had given us great opportunities, both for good and ill, until somebody broke her of it. But, veering back to the Islamic theme, Charles did manage one shrewd point. He announced, correctly as far as I know, that ‘Cordoba in the tenth century was by far the most civilised city in Europe.’ Dilating a bit on its splendours of learning and research and inquiry, he singled out ‘Averroes and Avenzoar’, though suggesting that their work was solely in the field of medicine. Still, I always warm to an Averroes fan. In Cordoba once, I made a special trip to the Averroes memorial, which on its plinth gives the full name of Averroes Ibn Rush’d. And I know something about this name that the heir to the throne seemingly does not.

A few decades ago, in what is now Pakistan, a certain enlightened Muslim father decided, on what might be called Ataturkist principles, that his family should take a surname instead of the more customary patronymic. And, seeking to make his own hommage to the Cordoban synthesis of religious toleration and high learning, and to Averroes in particular, this man decided on the family name Rushdie. His eldest son, Salman, has since managed to keep the name, and himself, alive. He’s also written rather eloquently about religious and cultural fusion in medieval Andalusia. But this famous name was not mentioned, even in passing, in a speech on ‘Islam and the West’ given by Rushdie’s liege-apparent. Did the monies of Riyadh and Brunei furnish more than a few richly-worked Korans for the Oxford Centre? Did they also ensure a ‘non-controversial’ address from a monarchy whose sworn historic duty is the defence of the realm and its subjects?

As Julian Barnes has recently pointed out, the same curious omission occurs in the memoirs of Baroness Thatcher. Never jollier than when seconding Good Queen Bess at Tilbury, and repudiating any foreigner who durst trespass on the rights of English subjects and dependents, be they never so remote or obscure, the old girl was utterly silent on the open suborning of murder for gain by a foreign prelate who sought to spill blood in England itself. So that’s how our fearless leaders behave when the ammunition is live, or when they think it is.

The same ignoble reticence is also to be met with lower down, or sideways, or elsewhere, among those who concern themselves with ‘sensitivity’ and the multicultural. It is impossible to be sufficiently irritated by such people. Not only do they, first, associate the entire monotheism of Islam with one edict or ukase issued by a moribund fanatic. That on its own would be insulting enough to serious Muslims. They also insist on representing the difference as one between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’. Ignorance here co-exists only too well with a sort of cultural masochism or self-hatred, where no robust critique of any other religion is possible lest it remind us of the ‘colonial’.

Yet within weeks of the original fatwah (now just past its fifth infamous anniversary), and increasingly over the past year or two, the whole grand implication of the Rushdie case disclosed itself as a contest, at once bitter and subtle, within Islam. The most salient instance of this is the recent publication, in Paris, of a volume entitled Pour Rushdie. Almost two dozen of the leading novelists, poets and essayists of the Arab and Muslim world offer, within the pages of this book, their reasons for sympathising with Rushdie and their reasons for regarding his own case as, in some important way, their own. Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel laureate, is probably the best-known of these authors, but many of the leading Palestinian, Algerian and Tunisian voices were heard also. A separate petition, inscribed by 57 of the leading artists, writers and scientists of Iran, and requiring even more fibre from the signers, puts the same point in a different way. To take a side against Rushdie, or to be neutral and evasive about him in the name of some vaguely sensitive ecumenical conscience, is to stand against those who try to incubate a Reformation in the Muslim world.

The political level is cruder, as usual, but still quite an acute register of maturing differences. Yasser Arafat, for example, has given an interview – to an Irish paper – which defends Rushdie in ringing tones. Clearly, this is not unrelated to his own confrontation with the grim Hamas forces and with their Iranian paymasters. In Washington recently, I had the chance to introduce Rushdie to the editor of Oslobodjenje (Liberation), the indomitable daily newspaper of Sarajevo. The editor told him that Oslobodjenje had published a special multi-page feature on the ‘Rushdie affair’, and identified closely with his position (as he does with theirs). Again, there was an evident allegorical connection between Bosnia’s attempt to uphold a secular, pluralist Islamic culture – this time against Christian medievalism – and the Ayatollah’s attempt to define Islam as a theocratic uniformity. (In a rather mad piece in a recent New Yorker, Cynthia Ozick compared Rushdie to ‘a little Israel’, surrounded as he was by ravening Muslim wolves, and also remarked on the evident expansion of his waistline since the last time she saw him in public. Ms Ozick, as it happens, is rather keen on the expansion of the Israeli midriff as it extends over the once-slimline waist to engross the Occupied Territories. So the comparison was a doubly tactless one. There can be little doubt that if Salman were unlucky enough, on top of everything else, to be a small, embattled country, he would he Bosnia-Herzegovina.)

It’s been remarked before, by keener minds than my own, that almost all great moments in the history of censorship and free expression have turned on the question of blasphemy. There’s a question of proportion here, and I’m sure that Rushdie himself would blush and wriggle at the implied comparison with Socrates, Jesus Christ, Galileo, Luther, Spinoza and Tyndale. Still, a phrase keeps recurring to my mind. It comes, bizarrely, from Paul Newman in The Verdict, as he mutters anxiously outside the courtroom: ‘There are no other cases. This is the case.’ By this he plainly means to convey, not that there are no other disputes or dramas or miscarriages of justice, but that this one has become the unavoidable one, or the defining one. The acid test. The test case. The crux. In our time, those of us who unavoidably missed the opportunity to discover where we might have stood on earlier occasions of sheep-goat separation have now been offered the chance in a rather direct fashion. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is the minds of certain ‘Oriental’ scholars and dissidents which have been swifter to recognise this than many of their self-constrained ‘Western’ counterparts.

Easily the best essay on the matter has been written by the Syrian critic Sadik Al-Azm, who in 1967 had his own bad moment with the local mullahs. Appearing in Die Welt des Islams XXXI (1991) if you want to look it up, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest about Salman Rushdie’ is the most tough-minded and skilfully-written defence of the author to have flowed from any pen. Rightly enough, though he does not neglect the political dimension, Al-Azm thinks of this as principally a literary matter: ‘If by universal consent Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz is the Arab Balzac, then I am inclined to think that Salman Rushdie may very well turn out to be the Muslim James Joyce. It seems to me that the same cultural forces, historical processes and social oppositions that made the emergence of an Arab Balzac probable have also made the emergence of a Muslim Joyce possible.’

Some of the arising comparisons are relatively simple ones. Both Joyce and Rushdie write about being priest-ridden. Both come from countries dismembered by the British Empire. Both exiled themselves to metropoles like Paris and London. Both kept in touch with their respective homelands nonetheless. But it is when he attends to the language that Al-Azm excels:

Joyce’s heightened sensitivity to the fact that he was writing about Ireland in a language other than his own, thus enriching the oppressors’ literary treasury, is to be detected in Rushdie’s art too. Both Ulysses and The Satanic Verses are, in the strong sense of the term, multilingual works exhibiting much heteroglossia (to use Bakhtin’s term) and copious interlingual play on words, double-entendre, puns and slang usages.

Authors who have the nerve to try something revolutionary are often somewhat cocky, and often somewhat disliked for it. After tedious and cynical delay had overtaken the publication of his Dubliners, Joyce wrote to his publisher in 1906: ‘I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely-polished looking-glass.’ The words recall Wilde on the rage of Caliban. They also take one’s breath away. As some of our better-bred reactionaries are fond of saying about Rushdie: ‘Oo does ’e think ’e is?’ But this kind of high confidence in the value and importance of literature seems as justified in Rushdie’s case as it now does in Joyce’s; justified not only by Khomeini’s unfavourable review but by the warm and receptive reviews accorded by every Arab, Muslim and Persian author worthy of the name. Recently I read an article about the murder campaign being mounted in Algeria against secular writers, none of whom now dares to sleep in the same house twice running. They said, often anonymously, that they thought about Rushdie all the time.

As this argument broadens and deepens (a bad punch-up in Turkey the other day; an intensifying contest in Egypt; a recent fatwah calling for the head of a feminist fiction-writer in Bangladesh), one has to revisit some of the boring old arguments. ‘He knew what he was doing,’ wiseacres used to say darkly about Rushdie. ‘And he tried to get out of it,’ say some pristine radicals, recalling the sad episode of the attempted settlement involving the dubious forces of the Regent’s Park mosque. Neither point seems to have any weight any more, if indeed it ever did. Of course Rushdie could have guessed that there would be an argument, perhaps even a bitterly Joycean one, about profanity. And since when should a writer be unaware of his implicit intentions? If anything, though, Rushdie underestimated the ripeness of his moment – an underestimate he had in common with all Muslim intellectuals who are now living through the Reformation and counter-Reformation struggle in their own world.

As to the attempted composition or patching-up of matters, about which I admit I felt somewhat let down at the time, it appears to me in retrospect as an absolutely necessary stage in the evolution of this argument. Rushdie is a writer of fiction, not a political tribune or a martyr in embryo. He also has the right and the duty of self-preservation. Given the ghost of a chance to let this cup pass him by, he took it (the chance) as anyone might have done. But having found the proffered option to be false, he has made prodigious efforts to identify himself with people he has never met, and has not shirked the responsibility he did not seek. Without that one hesitation, I submit, he would not be the essentially reluctant witness that he is, a conjecture where reluctance is one proof of integrity.

Yet there is a monograph to be written on the variations of anti-Rushdie pathology. At one moment, one hears that his security costs the taxpayer too much. At another, that he has recently been spotted at, say, a wedding, evidently enjoying himself, so to speak at the taxpayers’ expense. Yet again, one is liable to be told that he is, by his mere existence, endangering or compromising British or ‘Western’ interests overseas. For quite a time, he was even accused of jeopardising the safety of the hostages in Beirut if he said a word on his own behalf. Now that he is Khomeini’s last hostage, the official and unofficial point-missers will have to come up with a fresh excuse for their blasé, Post-Modern cynicism; a mode where nothing really matters any more than anything else.

I had a recent TV debate with Pat Buchanan, whose acknowledged heroes are ‘General Franco, Cardinal Spellman and Joe McCarthy’. Mr Buchanan identifies with the Ayatollah on matters of blasphemy (as do the Vatican, the See of Canterbury and the Rabbinate). He attacked me for justifying Clinton’s reception of Rushdie; the ground for the attack being that Rushdie wasn’t an American. I ought to have replied, but didn’t think of it in time, that Rushdie is not Czech but has been welcomed by Havel, is not Irish but has been received by Mary Robinson, is not Portuguese but has been the guest of Mario Soares, and is neither Arab nor Persian but has become the emblem of those Arabs and Persians who refuse the definition of their culture as monochromatically orthodox. Not a life badly spent, if you can think of it like that. Wherever you are, Salman, cheer up. Take heart. You may not have volunteered for them, but on a good writing day you could even think of the last five years as having been well spent.

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Letters

Vol. 16 No. 6 · 24 March 1994

The sprightly defence of Salman Rushdie in Christopher Hitchens’s Diary (LRB, 24 February) is admirable, but it contains one puzzling statement. He refers to Rushdie’s father having chosen a family surname ‘in what is now Pakistan’. Now, everyone knows that Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay – all his work is shot through with love of that city’s vibrant secular culture. It was after his birth that the family, in his view misguidedly, moved to Pakistan. Is Hitchens right in his location of that momentous choice?

Gerald Moore
Udine, Italy

Vol. 16 No. 7 · 7 April 1994

I hadn’t been intending to mention it, but since Gerald Moore (Letters, 24 March) is kind enough to ask, my father, a Delhi man born and bred, chose our family name there in his youth, not in ‘what is now Pakistan’.

For the record, while I’m at it, Christopher Hitchens’s tough-minded and heartening Diary (LRB, 24 February) contained a couple of other small, but not insignificant, inaccuracies. The volume Pour Rushdie (now published as For Rushdie by the US house Braziller but still, as far as I know, without a British publisher) contains articles by 100, not ‘almost two dozen’, of the ‘leading novelists, poets and essayists of the Arab and Muslim world’. The writers’ attitude to my work ranges from favourable to dismissive, but all of them express complete solidarity with the principle of freedom of expression. The declaration of Iranian intellectuals to which he refers has 162 signatories, not 57.

Both these corrections serve to emphasise his argument that the ‘Rushdie case’ is one manifestation of ‘a contest, bitter and subtle, within Islam’. Since many multiculturalists (with whom, as he rightly says, ‘it is impossible to be sufficiently irritated’) have been acting as the fundamentalists’ fellow-travellers by peddling the notion that this is an East-West quarrel, I’m grateful to the Hitch for pointing out that many of us persons of the tinted persuasion care about human rights and artistic freedom too.

Salman Rushdie

Vol. 16 No. 8 · 28 April 1994

If Christopher Hitchens is quoting Sadik Al-Azm correctly, the Syrian critic is stretching things more than a little, even metaphorically, when he says James Joyce ‘was writing about Ireland in a language other than his own’ (LRB, 24 February). Irish may be the language of Ireland’s past and of today’s traditionalists, but it was not Joyce’s language. English was his native tongue and while he was at home in several other languages, Irish was not among them. In time he understood enough of it to compare it favourably to Breton, another Gaelic language, but he was not facile in it. Richard Ellmann says in his biography of Joyce that when Joyce was at University College another student, George Clancy, ‘persuaded his friends, including even Joyce for a time, to take lessons in Irish. Joyce gave them up because … the instructor found it necessary to exalt Irish by denigrating English.’

Ellmann also mentions that in 1932 Joyce translated a poem by James Stephens called ‘Stephen’s Green’ into French, German, Latin, Norwegian and Italian, and that he wanted Stephens to translate it into Irish. But Stephens did not know the language well enough and one must assume that Joyce did not either, or surely he would have translated it himself.

Robert Creamer
Tuckahoe, New York

Contrary to Christopher Hitchens’s fond belief, offered to the reader with much flourish and drama, the ‘full name’ of the great medieval Muslim jurist/scientist/philosopher, from al-Andalus, is not ‘Averroes Ibn Rush’d’. That would amount to giving him the same name twice over. For ‘Averroes’ is a misheard corruption of ‘Ibn Rushd’ (without the apostrophe, of course): ‘Ibn’ misheard = ‘Ave’; ‘Rushd’ misheard = ‘rroes’. Thus also ‘Ibn Sina’ = ‘Avecenna’. The medieval encounter between Arabic, medieval Latin and Romance languages is littered with corruptions of this kind, some quite fascinating. (The decimal system of counting, called ‘algorism’, derives from al-Khwarazm – modern Khiva – from where came the man, Abu Jaafar Mohammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarazmi, the father of the decimal system. The book in which the theory appeared, Kitab al-Gebar wal Muqabila, is the source of the word ‘algebra’.) The ‘full name’ of Averroes is rather a mouthful: Abu’l-Walid Muhammad B. Ahmed B. Muhammad B. Rushd. He played no part in the wonder that was Cordoba in the tenth century – he happened to be born some two centuries later, in 1126. His happiest years were spent in Marrakush and Seville; he died in the former city in 1198 – a lonely and much neglected man. His impact on medieval Islamic and European thought came after his death; in Europe, he was often mistaken for Aristotle.

Mr Hitchens’s confident assertion that, in Pakistan, ‘the more customary’ practice is to use a ‘patronymic’, rather than a ‘surname’ (as bravely adopted by ‘a certain enlightened Muslim father’, i.e. Mr Rushdie’s), has caused me much confusion. I have a family tree that goes back to the 16th century: I don’t see any ‘patronymic’ on it. Nor do I see any trace of it in the name of the Bhutto family. It is nice to know there have been at least three ‘enlightened’ families in Pakistan.

The easy authority and familiarity demonstrated in ‘the more customary’ reappears in a different form in Mr Hitchens’s reference to ‘every Arab, Muslim and Persian author worthy of the name’ (italics added). At issue now is a volume of essays in support of Mr Rushdie by ‘almost two dozen of the leading’ writers from the Muslim world. To be sure, the step taken by the Muslim writers is admirable. The so-called ‘fatwah’ against the novelist has no moral or intellectual, or even theological, justification; and one can only hope that Mr Rushdie’s terrible ordeal will soon come to an end. To suggest, however, that only ‘two dozen’ authors, from some forty countries and more than forty languages, are ‘worthy of the name’ – supposedly because they have met the demanding literary criterion of supporting a writer admired in the West – is to engage in a casual critical arrogance.

From the volume of essays by the Muslim authors ‘worthy of the name’, Mr Hitchens selects one essay – by a Syrian critic, Mr Sadik Al-Azm – for ecstatic praise and endorsement. We are told that the essay is ‘the most tough-minded and skilfully written defence of [Mr Rushdie] to have flowed from any pen’. Mr Hitchens then proceeds to quote from the essay a passage in which Mr Sadik Al-Azm speaks of the ‘universal consent’ by which Naguib Mahfouz now is seen as ‘the Arab Balzac’, before going on to predict that Mr Rushdie will ‘turn out to be the Muslim James Joyce’. This is all very unfortunate. The talk about this is our Dante, that your Hopkins; this a Chinese Bigaretti, that a Latvian Hafiz, is essentially tabloid gossip of the kind that is best ignored and forgiven. Many ancient societies, cultures, languages, literatures and systems of thought, for millennia, managed to get by without a Balzac to prop them up: the likelihood that they might perish without their own Joyces is also very small.

In fact, Joyce is rather the wrong man to be invoked for conferring reflected glory on the writings of Mr Rushdie. The latter claims to have a political agenda in his novels; Joyce was the least political of the Anglo-Irish writers of this century. Mr Rushdie is excruciatingly monotonous: once you have read a section of a fiction by him, you have read all of them. Joyce’s voice, form, mode, even language change with every new book. Joyce clearly understood the fundamental difference between the aesthetic and the ideological dimensions of faith: it was not for no reason that he chose a loaded theological term, ‘epiphany’, to define the significant fictional moments in his works. It was this maturity of vision that enables him to write, in Dubliners, a lament for old pieties, which he closes, in the last tale, with a vision of almost phenomenal mercy. He wouldn’t dream of doing dirt to any central icons of faith. All three of Mr Rushdie’s novels are sadly devoid of any such maturity. Above all, Joyce can throw up a living character in a single sentence. In the three novels of Mr Rushdie, there is only one recognisable character – Mr Rushdie himself. No appeals to ‘magic realism’ will ever cover up this deficiency.

Perhaps the single most pertinent remark on the (to date, much neglected) literary and aesthetic aspect of the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses, in particular, and the drift of Rushdie’s other two novels in general, comes from T.S. Eliot. Reviewing Murray’s biography of Lawrence, Son of Man, in the Criterion for July 1931, Eliot said, in autobiographical vein, that Murray speaks of

a peculiarity which to me is both objectionable and unintelligible. It is using the terminology of Christian Faith to set forth some philosophy … which is fundamentally non-Christian or anti-Christian … The variety of costumes into which these three talented artists [Lawrence, Huxley and Murray] have huddled the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, in their various charades, is curious and to me offensive. Perhaps, if I had been brought up in the shadowy Protestant underworld within which they all seem gracefully to move, I might have more sympathy and understanding; I was brought up outside the Christian fold, in Unitarianism; and in the form of Unitarianism in which I was instructed, things were either black or white. The Son and the Holy Ghost were not believed in, certainly; but they were entitled to respect as entities in which many other people believed, and they were not to be employed as convenient phrases to embody any private religion. I mention this autobiographical detail simply to indicate that it is possible for unbelievers as well as believers to consider this sort of loose talk to be, at the best, in bad taste.

It pre-eminently is a question of taste, then – taste, as Henry James would have said, as a measure of both moral, but more importantly, aesthetic maturity. Viewed thus – and there is no other way of looking at the question – it indeed does appear that there is something fundamentally wrong with the voice (in the sense in which the Italian novelist, Moravia, speaks of the voice behind every tale) that controls and determines the texture and course of Mr Rushdie’s fictions. This voice has far too much in it of the naughty schoolboy. The famous masturbation scene in Midnight’s Children should illustrate the point.

I admire Mr Hitchens’s loyal support of Mr Rushdie. That is as it should be. Mr Rushdie’s talent has yet to realise its potential: there is no doubt one day he’ll write a really good novel. Meanwhile, however, Mr Rushdie’s supporters would do well if they could stay away from comparative criticism of the kind which claims that Mr Rushdie’s art is about to change the course of literary creation in Islamic languages. They might, instead, spare some time and educate themselves in some other hujw and tanz – ‘satire’ in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu.

Maqbool Aziz
Hamilton, Ontario

Vol. 16 No. 10 · 26 May 1994

Towards the end of his excellent Diary on anti-Rushdie pathology (LRB, 24 February), Christopher Hitchens stated that on matters of blasphemy the Vatican, the See of Canterbury and the Rabbinate identify with the Ayatollah. This struck me as improbable, not least because identifying with the Ayatollah would imply sharing his view that blasphemy should be punished by death. I therefore wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the Chief Rabbi, sending them a copy of the article and inviting their comments. Here are their replies:

The Chief Rabbi writes: It goes without saying that I would not identify with the Ayatollah on the issue of blasphemy. In Judaism, blasphemy is very narrowly defined, more so than in the laws of this country. In Jewish law, The Satanic Verses would not have been regarded as blasphemous. The differences, of course, go deeper than that. I myself am opposed to the extension of the blasphemy laws to cover other faiths (as I made clear on television recently). Moreover, even a fully fledged case of blasphemy is only punishable in Jewish law by excommunication (that is to say, exclusion from the Jewish community). Excommunication is in any case not practised by the Anglo-Jewish community.

The Archbishop of Canterbury writes: It may be helpful to you to have the attached copy of a lecture I gave about toleration in which I mentioned the Rushdie affair. You will see that I talked about it in the context of that demanding kind of true tolerance which requires us to enter the pain and feelings of other groups, however strange they may seem, and contrasted this with the more limited and passive kind of tolerance based on mere indifference. It goes without saying that passing a fatwah on someone who wrote a novel, however offensive to many people, is completely contrary to the tolerance for which I have consistently argued on this and many other occasions. You might, for instance, like to consider quoting the last couple of sentences of the address which sum up my strong convictions on this matter:

It is my passionate conviction that when we are prepared to die for another’s right to belief, in just the way we might be prepared to die for the right to our own, we might then have begun to explore the toleration of God. For it is His tolerating us which will make us all ultimately free as citizens of this world and of the world to come.

Charles Wookey, Assistant to the Archbishop of Westminster for Public Affairs, writes: I can certainly confirm that it would be inaccurate to say, in the context of an article about Salman Rushdie, that the Vatican ‘identifies with the Ayatollah’ on matters of blasphemy. The Catholic Church clearly does believe there is such a thing as blasphemy, but I expect there would be little agreement with the Ayatollah Khomeini about what constitutes blasphemy, and certainly none at all over the grotesque penalty which this religious authority has sought to impose on Mr Rushdie. The Second Vatican Council, in its document on religious liberty, made it quite clear that the Catholic Church would not connive with any attitude or system which aims to coerce people in the exercise of religious freedom and personal responsibility by force or fear or any other means.

Boris Ford
Bristol

Vol. 16 No. 11 · 9 June 1994

It is good to know from Boris Ford’s letter (Letters, 26 May) that the Chief Rabbi, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a representative of the Archbishop of Westminster do not identify with the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s position on matters of blasphemy; though surely no one imagined that they did just because Christopher Hitchens said so.

The Chief Rabbi says that ‘even a fully fledged case of blasphemy is only punished in Jewish law by excommunication’; according to Biblical law, blasphemy is punished by stoning (Leviticus 24.16), even if rabbinical law moderated this to flogging and then to excommunication, and in the state of Israel material which offends religious sensibilities is suppressed by unofficial if not by official sanctions. He says that excommunication – ‘exclusion from the Jewish community’ – is ‘not practised by the Anglo-Jewish community’; according to reports in the Jewish Chronicle, exclusion from synagogues and communities is practised, though not for blasphemy. He says that he is ‘opposed to the extension of the blasphemy laws to cover other faiths’, so he is in the curious position of supporting legal protection for Christianity but not for Judaism.

The Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t say what he thinks about blasphemy law, but the Church of England has always supported and often employed the common law under which many people have been prosecuted and punished for publishing material about the Anglican version of Christianity which other people find offensive.

The representative of the Archbishop of Westminster says that ‘the Catholic Church would not connive with any attitude or system which aims to coerce people in the exercise of religious freedom and personal responsibility by force or fear or any other means.’ The Roman Catholic Church has notoriously held such attitudes and run such systems for most of its existence, even if it has moderated its position as it has lost its power, and it too supports the blasphemy laws of this and other countries with Christian traditions.

The question is not whether people agree with the Ayatollah – most people are against killing people when they no longer have the power to do so – but whether they are in favour of law against offensive material about religion remaining stricter than that about politics, race, sex, sport and so on.

Nicolas Walter
Committee Against Blasphemy Law

Vol. 16 No. 14 · 21 July 1994

In refuting me on the matter of James Joyce’s first language, Liam Mac Cóil (Letters, 23 June) falls into the old trap of confusing an author with one of his characters. Stephen Dedalus may resemble the youthful Joyce in many ways but he is still fictional. Despite his (Stephen’s) emotional statement – English ‘will always be for me an acquired speech’ – the fact remains that Joyce was born to an English-speaking family in an English-speaking society, and when he wrote he wrote in his native tongue, not in an acquired one. Mr Mac Coíl’s melodramatic vision of Joyce ‘squarely and without whingeing’ facing the issue of whether to write in English or another language (presumably Irish) is simply nonsense.

I make no criticism of Salman Rushdie and his impressive work, but it is wrong to claim, as Mr Mac Coíl and Sadik Al-Azm apparently do, that Rushdie’s writing in English about Islam and Islamic society parallels Joyce’s writing in English about Dublin and the Ireland he grew up in. The equation does not exist. Rushdie’s Islam was not couched in English. Joyce’s Dublin was.

Mr Mac Coíl also says it was disparaging for me to call Irish the language of Ireland’s traditionalists, but what else is it? Traditionalists say Ireland is a bilingual country, and they have the road signs to prove it. But while Irish-speaking pockets may still exist in the western counties, in my visits to Ireland I have never come across anyone (except an immigrant from Spain) who did not speak English as a first language.

Like a flag or an anthem, Irish may be a revered symbol of an independent Ireland, but it is not the language of the country. I went to Mass in Bray, near Dublin. The Mass was in Irish, which made me chagrined, for I felt my assumption that Irish was not really spoken in Ireland was, after all, wrong. But when the priest paused to make parish announcements to the congregation, he spoke in English. Afterwards I asked a woman on the steps outside if all Masses in that church were Irish.

‘No,’ she said. ‘This is the only one.’

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘I understood every word.’

‘Did you?’ she said, unamused. ‘Well, I didn’t, and I was born and raised here.’

Obviously not a traditionalist.

Robert Creamer
Tuckahoe, New York

Vol. 16 No. 12 · 23 June 1994

Robert Creamer complains that Sadik Al-Azm is ‘stretching things more than a little, even metaphorically, when he says James Joyce was writing about Ireland in a language other than his own’ (Letters, 28 April). We can only quote Joyce himself, from A Portrait of the Artist:

The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

Thus Stephen Dedalus, while in conversation with the English dean at his university in Dublin. It is in the spirit of this much quoted passage that I read Christopher Hitchens’s report of Sadik Al-Azm’s original article and its attention ‘to the language’ (LRB, 24 February).

The question of (the) language is crucial to the writing of Salman Rushdie, Edward Said and Amin Maalouf, as it is to writers (Arab, African, Indian, Irish or whatever) whose people have had to deal with an ‘imperial’ tongue imposed on them from outside. Squarely and without whingeing, James Joyce faced the issue; and made his choice. Though other choices were, and are, possible, his stand can be regarded as paradigmatic. No less so because his home language was English.

Sadik Al-Azm has Joycean authority for his metaphorical stretchings. Robert Creamer has none. To call Irish the language of Ireland’s ‘traditionalists’ is as disparaging as it is meaningless – all speakers of all languages are perforce traditionalists. To say that Breton is a Gaelic language is simply wrong. Like Welsh, Breton belongs to the Brythonic group of Celtic languages. In linguistics, as in literary criticism, we must watch our ps and qs.

Liam Mac Cóil
Baile Atha Buí, Co. na Mí

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