Siding with Rushdie
- 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.
And it was here, rather than in the reflex policy of the religious cartels, that the hypocritical and euphemistic aspect of the Rushdie affair disclosed itself. Reverse ecumenicism gave way to indiscriminate ‘sensitivity’. There are, as it happens, many people who regard the origin of the universe as, according to excellent evidence and disinterested inquiry, a black hole. They (we) do not choose to make a black hole an object of worship. They (we) worry about those who do; most especially about those who defend their black hole interpretation with thermonuclear devices. They (we) regard all religions as perfectly equal and pardonable revelations of the same fallacy. God did not create man in his own image; man created god in his/her own image. There is only one humanity, but an infinite number of gods. This position may be a mistaken one, but it took a while to evolve and is congruent with quite a lot of what is observable, demonstrable and thinkable. It is, of course, based upon the principle of doubt and revision, and doesn’t conform very well to what might be wished by those who yearn for immortality.
In theory, therefore, the atheist is proof against the puerile idea of ‘giving offence’ or inflicting ‘deep hurt’ about such a question as the origin of species or the cosmos. But, as a humanist, he or she may be offended by man-made authority when it comes in the disguise of the divine. The essence of the Rushdie affair was put to me unintentionally when I was leaving a meeting in his defence in New York City and found myself drawn aside by a radio interviewer for a Muslim station. She had two questions: ‘Is nothing sacred?’ and ‘Where do you draw the line?’ The second question might have been coming anyway, but it resulted from my answer to the first, which was, obviously, no. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is written. Only doubt is scientific. Very probably, only doubt is truly artistic. Holy writ may indeed be employed for literary purposes. Holy writ is probably fiction, of a grand sort, to begin with. In the beginning was, if not the black hole, at least the author. If the argument from design asks where the author came from, it must go on asking who created the author of the author until the whole utility of the question dissolves.
As to ‘where do you draw the line’, I’m not so dumb as not to recognise the father and mother and author of the trick question. One could have answered, even as a foe of all forms of censorship, that the line be drawn at broadcast incitements to murder, especially if the incitement was compounded by the naked offer of cash incentive. Yet, even though the First Amendment might not protect such a definition of ‘speech’, I would not have jammed or tried to censor that broadcast. It was, though, the false issue of line-drawing that compromised some of our most distinguished ‘intellectuals’ and noise-makers, many of whom quite obviously found Rushdie’s book more ‘offensive’ than the Ayatollah’s lethal anathema, or at least no less so.
Faced with that astonishing reaction, boring old Voltairean precepts seemed less stale and over-rehearsed. There were radicals, kin to Mr Rushdie, who reprobated him strongly for his lack of closeness to the masses and the concrete. And there were reactionaries, long hostile to him as a person – the ‘bolshie black laddie’ – who deplored his want of respect for Third World susceptibilities and (while they were about it) his ability to make money by his pen.
The ‘left’ critique of Rushdie was and is more interesting because it had to prove more than the conservative one. (The latter, not merely a knee-jerk objection to blasphemy, however if at all defined, rested itself on a more general bias against making waves and exciting the vulgar.) In the mind of many socialists, cultural relativism has become such an anchor of certainty and principle that it would be physically painful to haul it in. Listen to John Berger, tending the authentic mulch of pig earth and keeping his ear close to his own well-manured ground, as he instructed the readers of the Guardian on 25 February:
The Rushdie affair has already cost several human lives and threatens to cost many, many more ... The affair is about two books. One, the Koran, is a book which has helped, and still helps, many millions of people to make sense of their lives and their mortality. The other, Salman Rushdie’s novel, is a rather arrogant fiction about playing at being God and would, in my opinion, have been forgotten in a few years had it not provoked the present furore. The first is a book about responsibility, the second is a story about irresponsibility. The two books at this moment represent two notions of the sacred. The Koran is a sacred book in the most traditional and profound sense of the term, a text dictated to the Prophet by the Archangel Gabriel, an emissary of the One and Only God. Rushdie’s book has become a sacred cause to the European world because it represents the artist’s right to freedom of expression. In Europe, as has been pointed out before, art has replaced religion. (Art is also a commodity. Rushdie was paid an £850,000 advance for his book.) How to reconcile these two notions of the sacred?
Well, to answer Berger’s perfunctory question, it seems that we reconcile them by counting one as literally sacred and the other as profane, irresponsible, avaricious. Berger went on to remember, not a minute too soon, to deplore the death-incitement (I yearn to read a piece against Rushdie that does not contain such a disclaimer), before lapsing into self-pity: ‘I do not expect many to listen to arguments like mine. The colonial prejudices are still too ingrained.’
There has long been a Berger scale for fatuity, but that piece, even in the judgment of seasoned seismographers, went clear off the graph. Was this, for a start, the same Ayatollah as the one who had gone pimping with Ronald Reagan and Oliver North in order to arm the colonial mercenaries in Nicaragua who had been so eloquently opposed by Salman Rushdie in The Jaguar Smile? Or was it the other Ayatollah, the genial friend of Kurdistan? The ally of the women of Persia? Who but an effete Westerner would point the finger at Khomeini’s use of children as mine-sweepers, or his insistence on the veil, or his pathology about the Baha’i and the Jews? At all costs, one must avoid judging les damnés de la terre by ‘our’ standards.
Incidentally, what are our standards? How nice it would be to think that Europe and Europeans are defined by their attachment to art and free expression, as Mr Berger for the first time in his life seems to maintain. Conversely, I seem to know a number of Iranians who are for the emancipation of women, against the repression of Kurdistan, against the idea of theocracy and in favour of national independence for their proud and much put-upon country. Many of these Iranians fought for these same ideas against the Shah and his Anglo-American backers. It would be impudent of me to say that such people – many of whom took great risks to defend Rushdie – were imposing ‘Western’ or colonial ideas on Iran. That would be an odd view in any case, since the historically pro-Shah and pro-colonial forces, as represented by politicians like Geoffrey Howe and George Bush and business spokesman like Lord Shawcross, have found themselves able to resist the allure of The Satanic Verses and even to anticipate with a writhe of embarrassment its effect on the tender parts of the Ayatollah.
Anyway, when it comes to values you can’t beat people who really believe in the traditional prescriptive stuff. Berger’s bleat drew a warm seconding letter from the reliably reactionary Elizabeth Jane Howard and her friend Sybille Bedford. If Berger had slyly blamed all the mayhem onto ‘the Rushdie affair’, these two went him one better in the business of culpability. The violence was not the result of some artfully displaced ‘affair’ but of the existence of Rushdie himself: ‘The consequences of his choice are no longer private: the people already dead, the hostages in Iran, his own family and the prospect of other innocent people being threatened surely means that he needs to make a moral decision on their behalf?’ No mystery here about the roots of atavistic violence. No mystery even about the whereabouts of the hostages: Howard and Bedford say they are in Iran when all the time we had suspected they were in Lebanon. In any event, the responsibility for all this is clearly Rushdie’s. It was by his ‘choice’ that all this bitterness tore loose. I remember, during the hot days of the Rushdie controversy, that the wised-up remark, ‘He knew what he was doing all right,’ was most often made by those with least knowledge of, or curiosity about, the Islamic revolution.
I use that last term generally, despite the fact that the campaign against The Satanic Verses has confounded all those who write and speak about ‘Islam’ or ‘fundamentalism’ without distinction. How did the bizarre campaign against this novel begin?
At least insofar as it was a campaign of physical violence or the threat of same, it originated in South Africa. I can’t think how the nervous ‘progressives’ have missed this salient point. India and Saudi Arabia had already banned the novel by the autumn of last year, while foregoing the demand that the author’s head should also be forfeit. (Nobody, incidentally, came forward to say that Rushdie was also the person responsible for the banning.) But it was only when he was embarking for Johannesburg that the physical force faction took a hand. He had been invited to give the keynote address at an anti-censorship conference organised by the Weekly Mail, a doughty anti-apartheid organ, and had cleared himself in advance – what with the writers’ and artists’ boycott and all – with the African National Congress. His subject, impossibly ironic if you agree to stay with the ironies, was to be ‘wherever they burn books they also burn people’ – an attribution to Heine well-suited to the apartheid state.
But it wasn’t the Afrikaners who lit the pyre. The Muslim establishment in South Africa destroyed the anti-apartheid and anti-censorship conference by announcing a ‘holy war’ against Rushdie and by threatening the Weekly Mail with violence. Not only was the paper itself thereupon closed by government fiat the same week as Rushdie was due to arrive (he prudently cancelled), but the regime also banned The Satanic Verses under the well-worn Section 47 (2)(b) of the Publications Act. It’s relatively rare for the apartheid state to try and oblige any of its non-white minorities in this way, but as Nadine Gordimer pointed out, the Islamic leadership does agree to sit in the phoney ‘Chamber’ that is reserved for those who are not quite white and yet not African. I suppose John Berger might find something colonial in Ms Gordimer’s cynical suspicion of collusion here, and I feel almost ethnocentric in pointing out that many of the Weekly Mail staff are Jewish, and so is Nadine Gordimer, and that this fact, too, featured in the Islamic diatribes. (It’s also been known to feature in the Afrikaner supremacist press.) Mind you, Idi Amin represented himself as a spokesmen for the oppressed Muslims of Uganda, and think of the ‘deep hurt’ caused by attacks on him in the Western press until he sought refuge in Saudi Arabia.
Earlier on, I mentioned the intellectual itch to change the subject away from free speech versus religious absolutism. This was very marked as a tendency in the United States, where the neo-conservative school could not sublimate its glee. Rushdie had written a book of non-fiction which offered critical but decided support to the Nicaraguan revolution. He had also been eloquent about the rights of the ever-relegated Palestinians. What more natural, when he was threatened with assassination by contract, than to jubilate about a terrorist-symp who had been caught in his own logic? I counted some ten newspaper and magazine columns from the Podhoretz school, all making this same point in the same words – demonstrating the impressive Zhdanovite discipline that is the special mark of the faction. All of them seemed to regard the affair as some sort of heavenly revenge for the sin of radical promiscuity; much as they have represented the Aids crisis as a vengeance on Sixties morality. The ethical nullity of these positions never got beyond mere gloating, and will one day help to illustrate the essential distinction between irony and brutish sarcasm. But at least it vented hatred on Rushdie for being anti-colonial rather than colonial.
Meanwhile, the trail lit in Johannesburg had been crackling merrily away. In Bradford, it ignited those forces who want apartheid in the petty sense of separate schools for Muslims and separate schools for boys and girls. How cheering that people can point to such unarguable precedents for their demands, drawn from Ulster and Strathclyde and enforced by law and custom for better-born sectarians.
Shift the scene to Karachi, where the Jamaat-Islami party had just gone down to humiliating defeat in an election which, if Jamaat Islami had had any say in the matter, would never have taken place. Casting about for a salve to emulsify the injury of defeat by a Jewish-backed female socialist (as they both thought and wrote of Ms Bhutto), the fundamentalists took their prompting from South Africa and England. Ungratefully marching on the very US Embassy that had until recently been the prop and stay of their patron General Zia, they managed to draw the first blood. It was the day following the deaths in Karachi that the Ayatollah, several months after the publication of the novel, decided to remind people that nobody – nobody – could trump him when it came to defending the faith.
So here is the intriguing problem for reverse ecumenicists and recent Third Worldists and sudden Islamologists and those afflicted by folie Berger. In all instances, the ‘Islamic’ furore has been about something else than, or something more than, religious susceptibility. Tribal jousting in South Africa; a last stand against assimilation in Bradford; a revenge for political eclipse in Pakistan; a last gasp of a frustrated and politically-superseded purism in the holy city of Persia. In each case, what Americans call ‘the agenda’ was determined by rather more than the hermeneutic. Yet once allow these unresolved material dilemmas to define themselves as spiritual, and you get liberal guilt and secular confusion in precisely that wrong apposition for which the extreme conservatives are hoping. Why do you think that Peregrine Worsthorne, Paul Johnson and Auberon Waugh are, pro tem, in favour of the mosque against secular, brown activists of the Rushdie type?
It is depressing to notice how much of the commentary in this matter depends on the unstated false antithesis between ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’. Some parts of the Muslim world, after all, experienced the presentiments of science and innovation well before what Europeans call ‘the Enlightenment’. Other parts of that world got modernism and the Industrial Revolution second hand, as it were, and in the neck in the form of colonialism. As a partial result of that, several former metropolitan powers now experience Islam as a phenomenon of immigrant, uneasy newcomers. This leads to a superiority/inferiority complex on both sides, with many Muslims appalled at the amorality and anomie of the ‘host’ society, and some of the ‘hosts’ thunderstruck by the transmission of ritual slaughter, dowries and other Judeo-Christian relics via the medium of that other monotheism. When Christianity was as old as Islam is now, the Inquisition and the Thirty Years War were still well in its future. On the other hand, it did not have the example of religious toleration in front of it, as fundamentalists of all descriptions now do.
Since the migrant is the vector, the register, the sensor of all this contradictory experience and synthesis, it becomes especially important to uphold Rushdie the individual as well as Rushdie the practitioner of cosmopolitan fiction. His decision to occupy and interpret the political and fictional space between two or three worlds is an important resource both for ‘host’ and ‘guest’ if they would only see it.
A number of Muslims actually can see it, even if the condescending Western Islamologist (CWI) cannot. The immediate difficulty with the CWIs is that they granted Khomeini his first premiss by assuming that there is something called ‘Islam’ or ‘the Muslim world’: something undifferentiated and amorphous that can, like an individual, be ‘offended’. What the CWI school fails to notice or even consider is that Islam is quite possibly poised on the cusp of its first Reformation, and that this Reformation will be complex and painful precisely because it originates in the displacement of people and values caused by the confusion between modernity and empire. Persia, for example, was a semi-colony of the British until 1953, when it chose a reformist and nationalist regime under Mossadeq. The British enlisted American help in the forcible removal of this moderniser and in his replacement by the Shah. At that time, there was a coincidence of interest between the oil companies and the ayatollahs, because the religious leadership also detested Mossadeq for his secularism. It took decades of Western promiscuity and pillage, indulged by and through the pseudo-dynasty of the Pahlavis, before the theocracy decided against modernism and internationalism tout court. This process was not Koran-guided, but was an improvised response to various painful buffetings from the material and external world – as was the disintegration of Pakistan, the decline of OPEC and other phenomena lazily attributed to the capacious generality ‘Islam’.
In a brave and spirited essay in the Summer 1989 number of Grand Street, Akeel Bilgrami takes upon himself the job of explicating ‘moderate Muslim opinion’. He discovers it in a state of crisis and disorder, of the sort that often precedes a new synthesis. His is the essay one had been waiting to read. Written from a perspective that even a CWI would have to respect as genuinely Muslim, it confronts co-religionists with their own contradictions: ‘One cannot argue that the Rushdie affair really arises from the conflicting values of the West (more or less officially committed as it is to freedom from censorship) and Islam. As some writers, including Muslim spokesmen in the West, have pointed out, a world religion has been attacked by a writer who was born into the religion and wishes to tell the world about its failure to cope with the world.’ Thus, to interpret Bilgrami for a second, the Muslim extremists have, in two vital senses, demanded the impossible. They have asked the slightly lazy but nonetheless conscious heirs of the Enlightenment to adopt, not the practice (which never dies out, as we know to our cost), but the principle of censorship. And they have demanded, for themselves, the smashing of a mirror in which they might glimpse their own reflection. Never mind for a minute the desirability of these demands, or of feeble demands like John Berger’s for the banning of ‘more or new’ editions. It’s the impossibility of undoing or unpublishing Rushdie that arrests the attention.
This is why it would be nice to hear more about principles and less about ruffled feelings. What thoughtful person has not felt the hurt expressed by the Jews over some performances of The Merchant of Venice? A whole anthology of black writing exists in the United States, protesting with quite unfeigned horror about the teaching of Huckleberry Finn in the schools, for the good and sufficient reason that the book employs the word ‘nigger’ as natural. A mature and sensitive response to such tenderness of feeling and consciousness of historic wrong would run much like this, and could be uttered by a person of any race or religion ... We know why you feel as you do, but – too bad. Your thinness of skin, however intelligible, will not be healed by the amputation of the literary and theatrical and musical canon. You just have to live with Shakespeare and Dickens and Twain and Wagner, mainly because they are artistically integral but also, as it happens, because they represent certain truths about human nature. Think for a second. Would prejudice diminish with the banning of Shylock? Concern for the emotions of others cannot license a category mistake on this scale, let alone an auto da fe. It was autos da fe, if you recall, that were the problem in the first place.
Fay Weldon has no urgent quarrel with the ‘free speech first’ position. The difficulty with her ‘CounterBlast’ is that it, too, imports a lot of extraneous matter into the argument, does so before it has made up its mind, and thus fails to arrive at or to argue for any position. L’affaire Rushdie reminds her of an astonishing number of ‘things’, as if the mere pronunciation of his name had become a trigger for word-association or Rorschach blotting. Page Three of the Sun (mind you, what can one say of a culture that now knowingly capitalises the words ‘Page Three’?); the crappiness of the NHS; computer games; abortion; a trip she once took to Russia; the niceties of feminist precedence – all of these are thrown into the unsorted box of the insoluble and the problematic. The whole is punctuated by the repetitive, rather despairing incantation: ‘Sackcloth and Ashes’. At one point, however, Ms Weldon does declare herself as out of sorts with what might be called the consensus of the OK: ‘It’s ... pleasanter, easier, to be seen on the side of ethnic minorities, all in favour of the multi-cultural, too idle to sort out the religious from the racial, from the political; too frightened of being labelled white racist, élitist, to interfere. Because the best have become frightened of labels; feel they must act and think together: are too frightened of the disapproval of their peers to speak the truth: too abandoned, for a full ten years, to a cosy general disapproval of anything, everything the current government does to be much use to anyone: slaves to liberal orthodoxy. And the black feminists, too put-upon by the black brothers, who insist that any white interference is by definition racist ... ’ This is confusion raised almost but not quite to the level of eloquence, with its Yeatsian echo of the best and the worst and passion and conviction finally quite drowned in faint moans. At points, it even takes on a tinge of the schadenfreude of the Tory rags and the Podhoretz school: ‘See where your permissiveness has got you.’ It also contains the ghost or germ of a very dangerous false antithesis – this time between a commitment to pluralism and a commitment to free expression. Imagine the havoc that might result from such antagonism if it became general. Have ‘the best’ really contributed to such an outcome?
In many ways, Weldon is too pessimistic. A feature of the Rushdie controversy has been the limited but definite emergence of the sort of critical faction envisaged by Bilgrami. This faction is not composed merely of the relatively well-placed, like Tariq Ali and his redoubtable colleagues at Bandung Productions, or Aziz Al-Azmeh at the University of Exeter. It is possessed of a rank and file, including some of the very black feminists whose position Weldon so unfairly represents and who have formed ad-hoc committees such as Women Against Khomeini. But never mind the sex, look at the politics. As Homi Bhabha put it at the rally of ‘Black Voices in Defence of Salman Rushdie’: ‘We are embattled in the war between the cultural imperatives of Western liberalism, and the fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, both of which seem to claim an abstract and universal authority.’ After this formal start, Bhabha went on to pose the central question: ‘If there were no doubt, no confusion or conflict, would religion or literature have any place in our lives? Would The Satanic Verses have been written?’
In other words, it isn’t ‘pleasanter, easier, to be seen on the side of ethnic minorities’, but it is a very absorbing and demanding and rewarding responsibility to be ‘on their side’ as they and we confront this question in contrasting ways. And let’s not forget that one of the originators of the process of reasoning and combat and exchange that this necessitates was – until his forced removal from the scene – Rushdie himself. The Muslim leadership, seeking to set a term to the education of their own community (at least they don’t call it a ‘flock’), may have succeeded only in giving that inevitable process an unanticipated spin. All over the country and the world, young Muslim men and women whose names we do not know are wrestling with the heretical thoughts that have been intruded into real life. Good.
Elsewhere in her pamphlet, Weldon shyly and obliquely proposes that perhaps the Bible is a little more forgiving and elastic than the Koran, before going on to suggest that we adopt the American ‘uniculturist’ system. It may not be obvious at first sight, to English readers, how self-contradictory is this position. Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that the Old Testament contains the explicit warrant for slavery, genocide and witch-burning, and that the New Testament contains the justification for passivity in the face of same. (Yes I know, there are other supposedly more redeeming passages. So, is this stuff the word of God or isn’t it?) More to the point, the American Founding Fathers decided on a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state, whether the Bible was true or not. In other words, religious and even Christian though many of them were, they wanted to insure against any future religious demagogy and opportunism, and for that purpose counted their own faith as one among many. This essential and unprecedented maturity is what marks them off from their forerunners and their successors. I can well remember the shock expressed by many Americans, in principle sympathetic to Rushdie and to his English defenders, when the New York Times informed them that the United Kingdom had a blasphemy law that protected only one religion. The most doltish student in the most backward civics class in Grand Rapids could tell you that such a law was flat-out unConstitutional.
This might seem a long way round to the identification of the Weldon error, but it is of some comfort to know that in the land of the holy huckster and the fundamentalist bigmouth the law still states unambiguously that religious pluralism and a secular state amount to the same concept. Given Mrs Thatcher’s generally uncritical admiration for all things American, it’s noticeable that she has never been able to summon the gusto for this particular transatlantic import.
The Weldon error can of course partially license John Berger and (though his articles were much more nuanced and careful) David Caute in detecting post-colonial and ethnocentric bias among ‘the best’. But how much does such concern affect the essential issue? The classic Voltairean injunction is a generous one: to defend to the death the rights of one with whom one utterly disagrees. Not by accident, this has achieved the status of a principle of civilisation. Is there not an implied corollary – to defend to the death one’s own right to uphold that other right? If valid, this would hold against all comers, most of all those who employed the threat of death as a weapon of first resort against the imagination. It would override all considerations, however valid, of the other fellow’s feelings, even if those feelings were conditioned by genuinely deplorable experiences (Tsarism, the Versailles Treaty, colonialism, the Crusades).
How did the democratic West measure up to this affront, in the bicentennial of the Bastille? The Rushdie File is a convenient synopsis, culled mainly from Britain and the United States, of reactions from the thinking classes. Fourth Estate took over its publication when Collins reneged on the original commitment. Next to buckle were the printers, who ratted on their contract at the last moment.
The book’s main weakness is that it doesn’t contain the Berger piece, or give much space to the anti-Rushdie school. Nor does it have Nadine Gordimer’s revealing letter from the South African front. But its principal strength is that it does reprint a wide canvass of Muslim and Third World opinion. Its most lasting impression is created, at least for me, by its reproduction of the weasel words, pronounced with no conviction of rectitude or faith, by those who simply wanted a quiet life. The spring of 1989 ought to be remembered for its harvest of sorry evasions.
Do you recall President George Bush, self-styled Leader of the Free World, who had to be prodded into making any statement at all on the murder threat and who then said that he would hold his former hostage-trading partners in Iran responsible for any attacks ‘against American interests’? As Susan Sontag said at the PEN meeting held in New York: ‘We found this particularly maddening, since from the very beginning fundamental American interests were at stake: our Constitutional rights to write, publish, sell, buy and read books free of intimidation.’ But the Bush subconscious (which really is colonial) translates ‘interests’ as tangibles – things like embassies or assets. If a like threat had been made against a corporation president, fleets would have been moved portentously around and White House briefers would have appeared gravely on the nightly news, pointing at maps and ‘evaluating options’. In such a case, also, spokesmen for the shopkeeper style like Paul Johnson would not have gone on about the exorbitant cost of police protection, and we would instead have been lectured a good deal about the lessons of appeasement. Conservative eminences such as My Lords Dacre and Shawcross, who blithely accepted the Shah’s repeated insults to the Muslim faithful (he styled himself ‘Shadow of God’, among other obscenitites, while looting the treasury), would surely not have given such a high rating to the new-found sensitivities of other cultures. And we might have been spared the sight of Sir Geoffrey Howe in the guise of literary critic, solemnly informing an Iranian audience via the BBC that he, too, found The Satanic Verses hurtful because it ‘compares Britain with Hitler’s Germany’ – which it doesn’t. That was the week when Mrs Thatcher herself came up with a minor classic of reverse ecumenicism by saying: ‘We have known in our own religion people doing things which are deeply offensive to some of us and we have felt it very much. And that is what has happened in Islam.’ Our religion! And one wonders which ‘people’. Joyce? Kazantzakis? Perhaps not, since Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy are not really ‘ours’. Spinoza and Luther are obviously far too exotic, as are Voltaire and Diderot for that matter. Still, it would be interesting to know which figure in the distinguished history of blasphemy and heresy ‘Mrs Torture’ did have in mind. Surely not her sheep-faced foe, Dr Runcie, who deplored The Satanic Verses with the best of them?
The political establishment has interests to protect and deals to make and weighty responsibilities to ponder. Those who live by language and ideas, not to say principles, have rather less excuse to temporise. Raison d’état, no doubt, impelled the political bosses of glasnost to seize the Rushdie moment by having high-level Soviet meetings with Rafsanjani. But the unofficial Soviet world, just emerging from decades of bullying and mendacity and being permitted its first independent PEN club, took the same opportunity to declare solidarity with Rushdie as one of its first orders of business. The contrast could hardly be better illustrated.
This is an all-out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind: between every kind of commissar and inquisitor and bureaucrat and those who know that, whatever the role of social and political forces, ideas and books have to be formulated and written by individuals. The unwavering defence of Salman Rushdie and his rights is therefore mandated, not just for those who believe in fair play for individual and minority rights, or for those who profess pluralism and tolerance, or for those who prefer scientific detachment to magic and superstition, but for those who suspect that all these things are interdependent. It is absurd for any one ‘civilisation’ to claim this insight; the ‘West’ would not be the West if it had not persecuted Dreyfus and Galileo. That is why this confrontation has been fought out on every continent. It happens to be the occasion, in our time and place, for the traditional enmity between the imaginative and the literal to be dramatised. And, complex though it all is, it has elements of simplicity too. One must side with Salman Rushdie not because he is an underdog but because there is no other side to be on.