Christopher Hitchens

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.

[*] Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, 24 pp., £2.95, 27 October 1993, 1 871163 03 X.