Islam and Reform

Akeel Bilgrami

  • A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam by Malise Ruthven
    Chatto, 184 pp, £14.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3591 3

It is not possible to write about Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, and the Muslim response to it, without writing about the nature and history of Islam, the lives and problems of the immigrant population of British Muslims, and the effects of Western colonialism and Cold War politics in parts of the world where there are large Muslim populations. Malise Ruthven’s book traverses a good deal of this larger canvas and has some useful and some, by now, familiar things to say. He brings out, writing of the Muslim reverence for Muhammad and the Quran, why Rushdie’s allegory goes straight for the jugular. By invoking a distinction (between the area of Islamic rule and the area of alien rule) crucial to Islamic law’s understanding of its own dominion, he explains why Khomeini’s death sentence was ultra vires. He argues that the source of the enraged Muslim response lies not merely in the perception that Rushdie has attacked their faith but also in the frustration and defensiveness felt by a people living in an increasingly Western-dominated and alien world, a people whose emotions were nurtured in a triumphalist period and whose response to failure has always been a call to struggle and to holy war. He has a lengthy analysis of the notion of izzat or honour, which he takes to be central to the mentality of Muslims, especially where, as in Britain and India, they are a minority; and he attributes to this the early response to Rushdie’s book among Indian Muslims. He also makes a genuine effort to enter the minds of Bradford Muslims, and concludes by raising the question of how much Rushdie himself must take the blame for the crisis generated by his book, answering cautiously that, at the very least, he showed bad judgment in writing the sort of novel he did. But it has to be said at the same time that Ruthven has let slip the chance to provide a deeper analysis. His book is disappointingly broad and impressionistic.

Muslim defensiveness in relation to the West is a very nuanced thing. In thinking about it historically, one must distinguish between defensiveness and hostility. For centuries relations between Christian Europe and its growing Islamic neighbour were defined by hostility in matters of territory and doctrine, and displayed in the violence of wars and in a mutually vilifying propaganda. But there was a robustness in this exchange, and a perverse form of respect, as between more or less equal foes; a genuine appreciation of the achievement of the other over a wide span of culture, science, philosophy and literature. It was only with the rise of Western colonial domination that the health of hostility eroded into a defensiveness bred from loss of autonomy and exposure to attitudes of superiority.

These attitudes have persisted despite the rise of independent Muslim nation-states not only because independence is a relatively recent phenomenon, and feelings of this kind are hard to shake off, but also because the polarities of the Cold War created a political climate in these countries that has perpetuated the loss of autonomy in revised but nevertheless recognisable forms. Efforts at economic and political development which have to a large extent been shaped by the paradigms of the West or of Soviet socialist planning have not enhanced a sense of self-determination. This was seen to be a problem not just in Islamic countries but in ‘Third World’ countries generally, and it was this sort of problem that the Non-Aligned movement set out to address. The movement was not always successful and did not get unanimous Muslim support. Economic development seemed to bring with it satellite status in the orbit of one or other superpower, and it did not restore a sense of self-respect and autonomy to newly independent nations. Instead it brought an abiding resentment against what were perceived to be either permissive or godless societies.

It is a mark of this outlook that Pakistanis, who have gratefully accepted massive American economic and military aid, reacted to the publication of Rushdie’s book by attacking the American Cultural Centre, which they took to be the symbol of the enemy Rushdie represented. Economic development brought satellite status in the further sense that large sections of the population were politically and economically alienated from the governing élites, who often – as in Iran under the Shah – owed their power and wealth to foreign governments and capital. To add to this, there was the unjust displacement of the Palestinian people by a process which began with a brute colonial fiat and continues to this day with the support of the US and other Western governments. It is not possible to discuss the defensiveness that prompts Muslim responses to Rushdie’s novel without attempting to form an understanding of these distant factors. Islamic izzat is not discontinuous with the general aspirations of the colonised and the Third World sensibility.

There is also an excruciating reflexivity to the defensiveness. Literally hundreds of thousands of Muslims stand in brave opposition to a number of suffocating traditional tyrannies in Muslim nations: yet they are made self-conscious by the idea that in doing so they have entered a colonial and post-colonial history of misrepresentation and propaganda against their people. The vitality and creativity of their opposition, and of the drive to change the role of Islam in politics, are much diminished by this posture. The response to Rushdie has done more than foster a false sense of disloyalty: it has blinded the moderate and modernist Muslim to the usefulness of the novel for his or her own moderate and modern commitments. It has also given rise to misplaced criticisms of Rushdie by Western intellectuals who fail to see how patronising their stance is to the Muslims whose feelings they claim to be defending.

Let me say a word about the most wellargued and thoughtful of these criticisms: a recent letter to the Independent from the philosopher Michael Dummett. Few English men or women have given so much of their time and energy to defending the rights of Muslims and other immigrants in Britain than Ann and Michael Dummett. Here Michael Dummett scolds Rushdie for exciting anxiety among Muslims and generating, in turn, a conservative racialist backlash. He also argues that Rushdie shows no understanding of the concept of the holy and of its importance in the lives of religious people. The first argument betrays a remarkably provincial attitude toward certain questions which emerge from Rushdie’s novel and occupy the minds of moderate Muslims. There is the question of Islamic tyrannies which have killed and imprisoned thousands. There is the question of a religion which is exploited to introduce and sustain policies and practices which moderate Muslims find detestable. There is the question as to whether those policies and practices are separable from the context of dogma and hierarchy in which they are embedded. Perhaps there is even the question, relevant to the second of Dummett’s arguments, of whether the concept of the holy in Islam is itself obviously separable from this context. Can one attack the policies in their larger context without mounting an attack on the holy as it is found in Islam? It is both unfair to Rushdie and beside the point for Muslims who are struggling to understand the future of a world religion to be told that they must not pursue these questions openly, assertively and with the full use of their talents, because that would undermine the status of a migrant commuity on an island in the North Sea.

Ruthven’s main criticism of Rushdie is similarly unconvincing. It follows upon a detailed and wholly plausible indictment of the fundamentalist response, after which Rushdie is charged with bad judgment for having failed to see the extremity and magnitude of the feelings he was going to provoke. This reflects a pervasive shortcoming of Ruthven’s book: in the course of the often scrupulous attention he pays to the fundamentalist response, he does not sufficiently explore the questions which Rushdie’s novel and the aftermath of its publication pose for moderate Muslims, who are as opposed to the extremist element in their societies as they are hurt by the novel. The deep question is whether the answers that moderate Muslims will, on reflection, provide to these questions are compatible with a condemnation of the novel. If not, there is a fundamental but implicit contradiction in their position, and it is a matter of enormous consequence that they awaken to it. To be hurt and offended is one thing, a natural thing, for a devout person, however moderate. But to address these questions with reason and intelligence is quite another, for it does not permit the offence to breed a stultifying defensiveness. I am not suggesting that Muslims will or should agree with Rushdie’s wholesale religious scepticism, or his ideas about how the religious impulse is better gratified in our world by art and literature than by orthodox religion. But to disagree and to criticise him is in effect to take his novel seriously and therefore to reject the sort of condemnation of it one finds even among his more moderate critics. Such disagreement will require a serious answer to the question of how Muslim nations may work to build a just and free society within a religious framework, without surrender to or constant threat from extremist elements. If the novel is remembered for having once again raised the possibility of such reformist consciousness among moderate Muslims, it is hard to see what Rushdie’s bad judgment is supposed to consist in. By focusing primarily on the fundamentalists and ignoring its deep relevance to the yearnings of moderates, Ruthven ignores what may eventually be seen as the novel’s most important point.

It is unlikely that the struggle of moderate against extremist in Muslim society will succeed until the moderates forge models of economic development and of political structure which enable them to avoid the dependency on foreign capital and aid, and ensure that large segments of the population are not left out of the economic and political life of their country. One needs to build on a careful diagnosis of why attempts in the past to forge such models, as in Nasser’s Egypt, failed. Perhaps, with the passing of the Cold War, there is a better chance of these societies gaining the help of economically more advanced nations, and integrating with more progressive nations, without the danger of being made into satellites. (It is fascinating to see that these issues are being vigorously debated within the Iranian Government in an attempt to reconstruct a war-devastated economy.) Perhaps in the fullness of time such integration will restore the sense of equality that marked pre-colonial relations. Until that day comes Islamic fundamentalism will continue to appeal to those demoralised by exclusion and dependence. An Islamic Reformation can only come on the coat-tails of these broader changes.

Towards the end of the book Ruthven distinguishes between ‘nominalist’ and ‘essentialist’ explanations of Islamic fundamentalism. The former rests on underlying economic and political causes, the latter on features of Islamic doctrine and practice. No doubt he will find my remarks so far exclusively ‘nominalist’. But they are not intended to be. Denying any such ‘essentialist’ explanation belongs to the reflexive defensiveness I mentioned earlier. One commonly hears in current discussions of Islam the following sort of exchange. Somebody criticises some basic aspect of the Islamic world – for example, the extreme reaction to The Satanic Verses – and someone else replies: ‘There is no Islamic World. There are many Islams. And denunciations of blasphemy can be found in other religions too.’ The reply is a conversation-stopper. Progressive Muslims have to overcome their fear of generalisation. A reformation presupposes that one has distilled from the diversity a core practice and a core doctrine to which one is opposed. After all, there are many Wests, but that does not stop Muslims from identifying a postcolonial economic and political core, and a post-colonial mentality, and from seeing it as a source of continued domination and contempt.

One ‘essentialist’ feature that makes Islam stand out is that its doctrinal claims to political relevance have tempted most Muslim governments, even those without theocratic pretensions, to appeal to the language of religious legitimation. They do so in order to create an impression of authenticity and independence in the face of modernisation. But in doing so, they subject themselves to pressure from fundamentalist elements to adopt and retain social policies that are anathema to the moderate elements in their society. There is also the danger, admittedly more remote, that widespread alienation might lead to a more theocratic outcome. None of this is to say (another conversation-stopping manoeuvre) that there is no separation of religion and politics in Islam, nor to say that there is a complete separation of religion and politics in the Christian West or Hindu India: the point is that religion is very much more intrusive in the political practice of Islamic nations – unlike Hinduism, Islamic doctrine carries commitments about the polity, and, unlike Christianity, Islam, by and large, has yet to recede into a religion of private faith.

It is not an easy thing these days to write about Rushdie in this way, partly because one has the feeling that in trying to make out the larger significance of his novel one may have found a way of forgetting him. I have no doubt that in the future Muslims will remember him for awakening or re-awakening them to the possibility of reform. But I fear that today, in our learned diagnoses and debates, we may lose sight of the fact that he is a prisoner – a prisoner like many others, in other sorts of prisons – for daring to try to get people to think about the contradictions in their public and personal lives.