The unlikely demonisation of Salman Rushdie

 
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By Khaled Diab

Salman Rushdie made a very unlikely target for the fury of conservative Muslims, which is why the opportunistic fatwa issued by a Khomeini in serious decline took the novelist and the world by surprise.

A burning ‘Satanic Verses’ in Bradford, UK. Photo: Asadour Guzelian

Thursday 21 February 2019

On 14 February 1989, Salman Rushdie may or may not have received a Valentine’s card from a secret admirer. If he did, I imagine he quickly forgot about it when Ruhollah Khomeini, the self-appointed Supreme Leader of the self-described Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to execute the British-Kashmiri novelist for alleged offences to Islam in his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses (for in-depth insight into the Rushdie controversy, listen to the informative new BBC Radio 4 series ‘Fatwa’).

Although fatwas are technically non-binding theological opinions, Khomeini’s edict had the force of law in the eyes of fanatical conservative Muslims – at the time, even Sunni fundamentalists who dreamed of creating a modern ‘Islamic state’ or reviving the ‘caliphate’ admired this revolutionary Shi’a cleric.

By turning what had been isolated local protests into global fury, the licence to kill issued by Khomeini had the immediate and terrifying effect of turning Salman Rushdie’s life upside down, forcing the writer to vanish into the thin air of police protection, only to suddenly reappear, like a genie from a police van, for snatched visits to family and friends, like that of fellow writer and friend Hanif Kureishi, or rocking up on the stage of U2 concerts, as though Rushdie had become a character in one of his own books of magical realism.

Despite the self-righteous outrage of Muslim conservatives, Salman Rushdie actually made a very unlikely target for their ire, especially the allegations that he was a Western stooge and an agent of imperialism. He had been, after all, not only a harsh critic of the Shah in Iran and but had also recently published a book condemning US involvement in Nicaragua. A Persian translation of Rushdie’s book Shame was available in Persian translation as was, initially, The Satanic Verses.

Rushdie’s previous works, such as the sublime Midnight’s Children, were a sympathetic but critical reading of post-colonial reality, exploring issues of migration, identity and the tensions between and within ‘East’ and ‘West’.

Even the Satanic Verses, despite its allegorical irreverence, was not actually disrespectful of Muhammad, whom it portrayed quite sympathetically, I found, just sceptical about religion. The novel was not even about Islam, Rushdie insisted but about “migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay,” not to mention “a castigation of western materialism”.

The credibility and admiration Rushdie had previously enjoyed in British Asian circles did not shield him from the indignation of Muslim conservatives and the impressionable, marginalised youth they managed to brainwash on the back of this manufactured controversy, which took Rushdie, his publishers and friends by complete surprise. Some young British Muslims at the time had no idea even what a fatwa was, with one mistakenly thinking that Khomeini had called Rushdie a “fat twit”.

“I found it odd that people were reading aubergines and burning books,” confessed Hanif Kureishi, referring to the absurdity of fundamentalists intimating Quranic verses in the humble vegetable, which is delicious when roasted, while setting light to Rushdie’s novel, which is not. But as has been the case throughout history, book burnings rarely have anything to do with the book being burnt, which the burners had not read, and is often a deflection of other grievances and/or a proxy for other conflicts.

Although the Satanic Verses controversy seems almost inevitable in hindsight, it only came to pass due to political expediency and opportunism. Author, lecturer and broadcaster Kenan Malik outlines how it took months of incitement by Muslim religious radicals, first in India, then in Britain, before any semblance of an outraged reaction emerged. At the time, my teenage self had just moved back from the UK to Egypt, and I do not recall much interest in or anger towards Rushdie.

It even reportedly took two fanatical British Muslims to sway the Iranian regime to issue this fatwa, which appears to have been motivated far more by political expediency than religious fervour. It not only fed into the long-standing proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also helped Khomeini to shore up support and silence dissent following the disastrous, devastating and costly war with neighbouring Iraq, and the Supreme Leader’s unstable mental state. This was reflected in another, less famous 1988 Khomeini fatwa which led to the execution by “Death Committees” of 30,000 political prisoners in Iran.

The Rushdie affair also enabled a false narrative to emerge among Western and Islamic bigots that there is a cultural war of values between ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’ or ‘Christendom’. In reality, the true conflict is between the forces of secularism versus religion, the forces of intolerance versus tolerance, the forces of pluralism versus mono-culturalism, the forces of rationality versus irrationality, the forces of supremacy versus egalitarianism, and the forces of modernity versus perceived tradition.

In fact, as I have endeavoured to show in my journalism and in my latest book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, Islamic societies have a centuries-old tradition of scepticism and outright unbelief, something which I discovered during my own journey towards atheism.

In fact, more irreverent and sacrilegious works of literature have been published in Arabic than The Satanic Verses. For example, The Iraqi poet, reformer and atheist Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863-1936) published, in 1931, Revolution in Hell, more than half a century before Rushdie’s novel. In this epic poem, which was inspired by a significant medieval work of scepticism, The Epistle of Forgiveness, humanity’s most daring and original thinkers have been condemned to eternal damnation as punishment for their courage, while the obedient and pro-establishment are rewarded with everlasting paradise, in a clear allegory of how Arab patriarchal dictatorships operate. The subversive inhabitants of hell storm heaven and claim it as their rightful abode.

Despite the rise in Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism in recent decades, the non-believers and atheists of the Muslim world have been regrouping and have found a new level of assertiveness, often at great personal risk to their freedom and even lives. In secular Muslim countries, such as Albania and Tunisia, this is legal and tolerated. Even in Muslim countries where “apostasy” and “blasphemy” are outlawed, such as in the Gulf region, there are vibrant, albeit clandestine, groups of non-believers and sceptics.

Regardless of this relative progress, we still live in dangerous times for atheists and sceptics in many Muslim societies and even for those who have a different interpretation of Islam, both from conservative governments and from vigilantes and terrorists.

It is high time for conservative Muslim societies and fanatical Muslims to respect the freedom of belief, conscience and expression of others, both legally and socially, and to abandon their delusional self-appointed role as “defenders of the faith”. Not only is the insinuation that their religion needs their protection an insult to the almighty God they believe in, faith is an immensely personal and private matter that cannot and must not be imposed by force and fear.

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This article was first published by The New Arab on 14 February 2019.

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Paradise forsaken

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the separatist movement committed to non-violence, now is a good time to visit Kashmir.

October 2008

Kashmir: tranquil and beautiful... but volatile beneath the surface. Photo: Copyright K Maes/K Diab

Kashmir: tranquil and beautiful... but volatile beneath the surface. Photo: Copyright K Maes/K Diab

Since partition in 1947, Kashmir has experienced a spectacular fall from grace. Once upon a time, its warm and soft name conjured up images of a Himalayan paradise suspended between the heavens and earth.

Today, the mountainous state, caught between the territorial greed of India and Pakistan, evokes associations with conflict, strife, and, above all, a tense standoff along a precipitous line of control between two nuclear-armed foes. Despite its troubled present, we found that Kashmir still has the ability to charm – and it felt safe.

Although the state is predominantly Muslim, its winter capital on the Indian side, Jammu, has a large and vibrant Hindu population and has provided shelter for Hindus fleeing the insurgency in the Kashmir valley. It is fondly known as the ‘City of Temples’, which includes one inside Bahu fort where worshippers yearn to be splashed by the milk poured on holy goats.

The fort and all the tourist sights in the region are complete security fortresses, reflecting an underlying official nervousness and fear of terrorist attacks. Although visitors are padded down and searched everywhere in India, in Jammu and Kashmir, you must pass several checks and surrender your camera and bag, too. The never-ending army barracks not only blight the landscape but are also a nuisance to locals.

Despite the inter-communal tensions that flare up in the city occasionally, we sensed little obvious hostility between Hindus and Muslims. Interestingly, Jammu is dotted with Sufi shrines, known as Durghahs, where people of all faiths flock to revere the Muslim mystics buried there. In our time in Jammu, we did not come across any other foreigners which made us something of a local novelty.

For sheer beauty and majesty, Srinagar, the state’s summer capital, is the place to be. Its cool mountain atmosphere is welcome after the waterlogged air and soggy stickiness of the lower altitudes.

The city’s centrepiece is the magnificent and tranquil Dal Lake. My wife was intrigued to see whether the lake was really as icy blue as Kashmiri skies, as Salman Rushdie describes it. But it turned out that the weed and algae which are slowly choking the lake have turned it more emerald green than icy blue. Similarly, few Kashmiris actually possess eyes which are “the astonishing blue of mountain sky”, as Rushdie puts it.

Since the British docked the first houseboats on Dal in Victorian times, the lake has evolved into a veritable floating community. Roving tailors, grocers, photo shops, and discreet offies also float by the houseboats on the backs of small boats called shikaras.

Srinagar is famous for its stunning Mughal gardens which, with their symmetry and flowing water, are reminiscent of gardens across the Islamic world. Young couples, many of whom arrived there on the backs of motorbikes, wander together, not touching, through the parks, the girls in colourful salawar kameezes and the boys in jeans and shirts. This phenomenon is deceptively liberal, one local explained, because most of the couples are courting within the confines of an arranged relationship.

Although most people are friendly and welcomed us constantly to Kashmir, three religious-looking young men we passed several times caught our eyes. Their flashing white teeth and smiling beards were very different to the menacing media image of conservative Muslims. Amusingly, like other Indians we met, they struck a serious pose when we came to photograph them which, coupled with the fading sunlight, gave them a wholly undeserved sinister edge.

Unlike the hustle and bustle of the ancient quarters of other Indian cities, Srinagar’s old town is relatively peaceful. Its Sufi shrines and Sikh temples aside, the city’s most intriguing architectural feature is its unique central mosque. Lacking minarets and featuring by ornate wooden ceilings, roofs and columns, the Jama Masjid conjured up images of China in my head and of the Vikings in my wife’s.

Despite the tranquillity of our surroundings, tension was never far below the surface. The Indian army and police were everywhere and the city lived by an unofficial curfew. At around 8.30 pm, all the shops would close and eateries would suddenly empty as people rushed for the shelter of their homes. Several locals told us that, although the official curfew was abolished, they do not stay out because they are still regularly hassled by the security services after dark.

In fact, it seems the Indian army presence, which to the innocent outsider resembles a full-scale occupation force, is the subject of much resentment. We heard numerous complaints from locals about feeling constantly watched and the economic price of the conflict. One told us that even many of the Kashmiris who were once happy to be a part of India have gone off the idea due to Indian heavy-handedness.

As a reminder of the underlying volatility of the area, the army shut down Srinagar and the entire Kashmir Valley to thwart a planned pro-independence rally. This left us wondering how it was that a country which prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy could stifle free expression in such a massive way, especially as the wave of protests which have swept the area since the summer have been peaceful ones, with the violence coming mainly from the army, causing the death of 45 protesters in the past few months.

We suffered the minor inconvenience of not being able to enjoy a relaxing last morning on the houseboat we had rented, the rudeness of swaggering officers and the Catch-22 challenge of getting to the airport when we were allowed to move but nobody else was.

The locals, however, were left to endure effective house arrest and a shoot-on-sight curfew. The Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh unwisely chose this time to go and open Kashmir’s first train line, triggering angry demonstrations.

For the rest of our trip in India, we monitored the country’s English-language media to try to learn the latest about the situation in Kashmir. With the exception of one small paper called The Asian Age, we found no mention of the crackdown beyond a couple of news-in-brief items. With that kind of media blackout, it’s little wonder than so many Indians believe the mess in Kashmir is solely Pakistan’s fault.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 22 October 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

 

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