Fatwa years

Print edition : November 30, 2012

Salman Rushdies memoir is a book written in rage and with a deep sense of victimhood.

Salman Rushdie has the unique distinction of being the author of Midnights Children, which is considered to be one of the best books of the second half of the 20th century, as also of The Satanic Verses, the most controversial work of the same period. Rushdie took nearly five years to complete The Satanic Verses, which was sent to the publishers in February 1988 and came out seven months later. The first reception was reasonably positive, though several readers were bewildered by the dense prose, the writers use of magic realism, and numerous obscure allusions from diverse Western and Indian sources.

An advance text was given by the author to an Indian journalist working for India Today, who hastened to publish excerpts from the book and even suggested that the book would raise controversies. As anticipated, the book was condemned by certain prominent Indian politicians, leading the government to ban its import in October 1988. British Muslims, who until then had generally projected an Asian identity, made the book an Islamic issue and mobilised large-scale demonstrations and even a book burning in Bradford in January 1989.

There were riots in Pakistan in which a number of people were killed in police firing. This is when the matter came to the attention of the ailing Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, who issued a fatwa sanctioning the assassination of the author for blasphemy. This was on February 14, 1989, Saint Valentines Day.

Rushdie was immediately placed under police protection, which was his right as a British national threatened by a foreign power. The book under review is the authors memoirs of this period of enforced incarceration of nine years. It ended in 1999, but the final all-clear was sounded by the police only three years later.

March 25, 1992: Salman Rushdie holds up a copy of the newly published paperback version of his controversial novel "The Satanic Verses" at an international conference on Free Expression in Arlinton, Virginia, United States.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The title of the book, Joseph Anton, written in the third person and completed more than 10 years after his incarceration had ended, is the name Rushdie adopted to obtain an effective cover. His guards advised that his name should preferably be non-Indian. Accordingly, Rushdie turned to literature and took his first name from Joseph Conrad and his second from Anton Chekhov, thus losing both his race and his personal identity.

The author could not participate in public events. His address had to remain a secret, requiring him to change numerous residences. The period was marked by three separate but overlapping concerns: personal, publication issues and political matters. His relations with his second wife deteriorated and ended in divorce. He met a woman, who later became his third wife, who shared a large part of this incarceration. He also maintained the closest possible ties with his son, Zafar, who lived with his mother (Rushdies first wife) and, moving in this period from the age of 10 to his late teens, had to relate to his father amidst the threat to his life.

With considerable personal determination, Rushdie published three books in this period: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, dedicated to his son; The Moors Last Sigh; and The Ground Beneath Her Feet, all of which received considerable critical acclaim.

However, politics remained central to the authors life. In the background were the attempts by the British and other governments and important personalities to get the fatwa lifted. The author himself played an active role to explain his position. He also attempted half-heartedly to express regret to his opponents. These attempts failed: Iran rejected this offer, with Ayatollah Khamenei, Khomeinis successor, affirming that the fatwa would remain in place even if Rushdie became the most pious man of all times.

Later, Rushdie saw this initiative as a Great Mistake and felt that he had not been in his perfect mind. In the book he says: Now he had torn his tongue out of his own mouth, had denied himself the ability to use the language and ideas that were natural to him. After this, Rushdie made no further attempt at compromise and, instead, utilised every platform to assert his right as an author to express his views, however unpalatable they might be to certain audiences. During this period, his Japanese, Italian and Turkish translators were victims of assault as was his Norwegian publisher. The Japanese translator was killed and the abortive attack on the Turk caused the death of 37 persons.

When the controversy about The Satanic Verses viciously entered the public domain with the fatwa, a number of his literary friends came forward to defend him. However, in this book, he regrets that, while he wanted his supporters to defend the text, their defence was general in character, based on the principle of freedom of speech. He wanted a defence that was as specific as the attack, more like the defence that had been made in earlier cases pertaining to Lady Chatterleys Lover, Ulysses and Lolita, since the attack on him was on a particular accumulation of words. However, in the memoirs, Rushdie himself refuses to present a specific defence, which is a gaping hole in this massive tome. His position seems to be that if he has to explain himself, he has diminished the novel.

In Joseph Anton, his essential point, repeated throughout the memoirs, is that The Satanic Verses lies at the heart of Western Enlightenment values, which are being confronted by Islamic backwardness and obscurantism; the controversy around his work is a struggle between the modern and the medieval. Rushdie sets this out clearly: Modern information technology was being used in the service of retrograde ideas: the modern was being turned against itself by the medieval, in the service of a world view that disliked modernity itselfrational, reasonable, innovative, secular, sceptical, challenging, creative modernity, the antithesis of mystical, static, intolerant, stultifying faith.

Religion, he asserts, is the enemy of the intellect, and he upholds the need for blasphemy to oppose the political repression emerging from religion. In fact, recalling the experience of Socrates, Christ and Galileo, Rushdie asserts that blasphemy is at the very root of Western culture. The attack on his book, he feels, was a far greater offence than the offence it had caused other people. The violence and menace of the response to his book was a terrorist act that had to be confronted. The story of mankind was made up of grand narratives pertaining to nation, family and religion; the author should be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirise them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times.... That was our right as members of an open society.

The villain, of course, is Islam. In his remarks to American Senators, Rushdie asserted that his battle was one battle in a larger war, about the assault on creative and intellectual freedoms across the Muslim world.

He saw in the world the emergence of a new intolerance, with the bigotry of Islam taking refuge behind Islamophobia, a new word that had been created to help the blind remain blind. There was now a Global Islamic Assault on free thinkers.

In placing himself at the heart of Western Enlightenment and, from this vantage position, attacking Islam comprehensively, Rushdie has abandoned not just his heritage but his own left-wing orientation, which had led him earlier to welcome the Iranian revolution in 1979 as a victory against Western imperialism. Now, of course, Iran can do no right. He blames Khomeini for dragging his country to war against Iraq, ignoring the fact that it was Iraq that had initiated the assault on the Islamic Republic in 1980, with the full support of Gulf Arab regimes and Western governments.

U.S. and global Jehad

For an author who is said to be sensitive to the political aspects of his narratives, Rushdie is both ignorant and naive in his understanding of the contemporary political situation. He fails to mention that through much of the 20th century, Islam was seen as the natural ally of the West against godless communism. With the exception of Iran from 1979, the United States had the closest possible ties with almost all Muslim countries, traditional monarchies or revolutionary regimes. The U.S., as part of Cold War politics, had participated with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in mobilising the global jehad in Afghanistan, the first jehad since the First World War. This jehad had brought to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border more than 100,000 mujahideen representing almost every Muslim community and country in the world and tutored them in radical Islam and in taking up arms in its defence. This jehad gave the first major victory to Islam in a few hundred years and spawned Osama bin Laden as its hero.

In the 1990s, when Pakistan organised the Taliban as the most backward and obscurantist Muslim organisation in recent Islamic history, the U.S. rejoiced in this movements military expansion across Afghanistan, hoping to reap commercial advantage from the pipeline transportation of Central Asian energy resources to South Asia and beyond. Even in the last few years, with all the experience of the previous three decades, the U.S., eager to extricate itself from the Afghan quagmire, has been searching for good Taliban who could assume power in Kabul after the ignominious retreat of the global hegemon. Rushdie, of course, entirely fails to note that over the past 50 years or so, the U.S. has sustained the military dictatorship in Pakistan to the extent of condoning the Pakistani jehad unleashed against India from 1989, first in Jammu and Kashmir, later in the rest of the country, and now across the region.

February 5, 1979: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, in Tehran shortly after his return from 15 years of exile. In 1989, Khomeini passed a death sentence on Rushdie, claiming that "The Satanic Verses" insulted Islam.-AFP

Against this background, it is not surprising that Rushdie, in the prologue to his memoirs, links his predicament to the 9/11 tragedy: When it begins its just about him; its individual, particular, specific. It will be a dozen years and more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon, like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings, like the plague of murderous birds in Alfred Hitchcocks great film. This theme continues to the end of this book, where he notes: The story of his little battle, too, was coming to an end. The prologue was past and now the world was grappling with the main event. This is an obvious attempt to pander to Western, particularly American, biases by skilfully integrating his own predicament with the great harm done to the American body politic and psyche. He is quite unable to see that his own incarceration, resulting from the Iranian fatwa, has no historic or political connection with the events of 9/11. The assault on the U.S. was carried out by jehadists who had been nurtured under American, Pakistani and Saudi tutelage in the battlefields and classrooms of Afghanistan. Iran was not a participant in this jehad; in fact, the Afghan mujahideen and their Arab-Afghan allies had the deepest possible prejudice against Shias and perpetrated atrocities on Afghan Shias as also on Iranian officials and diplomats apprehended by them. His view of Islam has the same broad brush, monochrome character as that of the neocons.

Rushdies anxiety to ingratiate himself with his Western audiences by extolling the Enlightenment as a unique Western gift to human progress blinds him to the fact that these so-called Enlightenment values were never experienced in the colonised world, nor were they pervasive in territories that are loosely referred to as the West. Over the past 200 years, the political reality in Europe was large-scale and systematic bloodletting, accompanied by the espousal of extremist doctrines that culminated in the war crimes of Nazi Germany and the fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal that flourished until very recently. Even after the Second World War, there was no desire on the part of the victorious Western powers to relinquish their colonies in Asia and Africa, while Latin America, under U.S. patronage, groaned under the rule of some of the worst despots seen in the 20th century. Even now, the Enlightenment blinds us with its wonderful radiance at the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Since Rushdie himself has not plucked up his courage to frankly address the areas of his work that were so offensive not just to Muslims at large but also to several important Western politicians, religious leaders and writers of status far greater than his own, it is necessary to venture into this miasma.

In the memoirs, Rushdie speaks of his Muslim upbringing in that, while he had a sense of being part of a broad and eclectic Muslim culture, both he and his father were sceptics and shared unbelief. But, Rushdie is not content with this; he finds it necessary to elaborate on his fathers critique of the origins of Islam, that is, the personality of the Prophet as a human being, his revelations and the collation of the Quran. His father, it seems, was sceptical about all these aspects of early Islam. He felt that the birth of Islam had taken place inside history and, hence, like any great idea, it could be subjected to scrutiny. Again, while one could accept the idea of revelation, the putting together of these revelations into a text opened this text, like any other text, to the tools of the critic. His father, Rushdie asserts, felt that the Quran was jumbled up and contained radical discontinuities. He nurtured a deep desire to unscramble them to achieve a text that was clearer and easier to read.

While giving this elaborate explanation as a prologue to his own later situation, Rushdie does not indicate whether his father had any background in Islamic scholarship or even was familiar with classical Arabic, which would have equipped him to undertake this onerous task. In the event, after his death no papers were discovered that would suggest that his distinguished father had attempted any sort of Quranic exegesis. Looking back, it is difficult to believe that, growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai), Rushdies father, who inculcated in Rushdie scepticism and unbelief, could have failed to teach his precocious son, in that most cosmopolitan of cities, respect for plurality and sensitivity to the beliefs of others, the hallmark of the citys and countrys secular-humanist ethos.

The second part for Rushdies Islamic studies was the paper he took at Cambridge titled Mohammed, the rise of Islam and the early caliphate. This leads Rushdie to set out in four and a half pages a brief history of early Islam and the episode of the satanic verses.

February 19, 1999: Muslims burn an effigy of Rushdie during a demonstration outside the Jama Masjid in New Delhi.-AFP

Briefly, at the time of the early revelations, when the Prophet Muhammad was increasingly being alienated from his family and community in Mecca for demanding the worship of one supreme God, Allah, and the rejection of the three goddesses revered in that city, he announced a revelation in which Allah stated that these three goddesses could be used for intercession with him. This relaxation caused considerable joy in the city and reconciled the Prophet to his community. However, Muhammad continued to be deeply troubled by this experience and the jubilation in Mecca. This came to an end through a revelation immediately thereafter when Allah rejected all intercession and said that the earlier error was satanic in character and that Satan had frequently misled earlier prophets as well.

Both his fathers concerns relating to the structure of the Quran and the episode of the satanic verses are presented by Rushdie as great personal discoveries, with momentous implications. Even those with a rudimentary knowledge of early Islam are aware of how the Quran was put together on the basis of oral and written sources collected during and just after the life of the Prophet, with a text being given final shape during the caliphate of Othman. Even as the text acquired canonical status, there were, in the early days, disputes about the authenticity of certain parts and even a differing Shia perspective though there is now no controversy about the text accepted in Othmans time.

Scholars have recognised, as the South African writer Farid Esack has pointed out, at no stage was the Quran formulated as a connected whole, but was revealed in response to the demands of concrete situations. Quranic exegesis began from the second Hijri century and continues to this day, with scholars clearly accepting, in Esacks words, that the meaning assigned to a text by any commentator cannot exist independently of his/her personality and environment. There is no reason to suggest that any particular generation should be the intellectual hostages of another, for even these classical commentators did not consider themselves irrevocably tied to the work of the previous generation.

June 18, 2007: Pakistani Muslims shout slogans in Lahore against Britain's award of kinghthood to Rushdie.-AFP

Again, well before Rushdies book, most Muslim scholars were familiar with the satanic verses controversy. While several Muslim and some Western scholars have denied that this episode ever took place, even sympathetic writers like Karen Armstrong suggest that they could have taken place since it is hard to see why anybody would make it up.

Neither the reference to the satanic verses nor the other general critique pertaining to present-day intolerance and bigotry in large parts of Muslim society would have earned Rushdie the odium he suffered later for blasphemy. In his book, Rushdie is dismissive about this, saying: Anyway, his Prophet was not called Muhammad, lived in a city not called Mecca, and created a religion not (or not quite) called Islam. And he appeared only in the dream sequences of a man being driven insane by his loss of faith. These many distancing devices were, in their creators opinion, indicators of the fictive nature of his project.

These remarks are unworthy of the author and fail to take into account Rushdies familiarity with the controversies he was deliberately getting into and the elaborate and specific defences he has himself set out in his other interviews and speeches. Here in the memoirs, Rushdie is disingenuous when he says that his book was about migration and transformation and had been unfairly depicted as derogatory to the Prophet and his family and that it was an imaginary novel against which the rage of Islam was being directed. In the memoirs, he says he had made an artistic engagement with revelation, and finally accepted that those who wished to be offended would be offended. Rushdie obviously believed in what was said in The Satanic Verses: Where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy.

To correct Rushdie, it is important to recall the following: first, the Prophet Muhammad is referred to in the book as Mahound, a derogatory term used for him from the time of the Crusades. Second, the holy city of Mecca is called Jahilliah, deliberately overturning the Muslim concept that the advent of Islam in Mecca ended the age of Jahillia (ignorance). Third, in a dream sequence, the prostitutes in a brothel are named after the wives of the Prophet. Fourth, there are four characters in the book with the name Ayesha, the Prophets favourite wife; one of these characters is depicted as evil, from whose dead body springs the spirit of Al-Lat, one of the three goddesses of the satanic verses. Finally, the Prophet is referred to as using the revelations for his personal advantage: in the context pertaining to the controversy about Ayeshas virtue (a historical event), which was cleared with a revelation, a character in The Satanic Verses says: He [the Prophet] saw his pet, the archangel, and then informed one and all that Gibreel had exonerated Ayesha.

January 24, 2012: Muslim activists protesting against the live address of Rushdie through video-link at the Jaipur Literature Festival.-ROHIT JAIN PARAS

Joseph Anton is a book written in rage and with a deep sense of victimhood. Even though it is ten years or so since his incarceration ended, Rushdie has no forgiveness in his heart or even understanding that comes from the passage of time. Page after page, he recalls every slight and criticism and the name of every person who failed to understand his predicament and give him total support. Not once does Rushdie indicate that he just might have done wrong because of which not only large numbers of Muslims but also several distinguished non-Muslim intellectuals who believe in freedom but not in the freedom to cause offence were incensed.

What Rushdie fails to understand is that his work is not part of the Enlightenment but belongs in the heart of the orientalist tradition. He recognises in the memoirs that to be imprisoned by the need to be loved was to be sealed in a cell in which one experienced an interminable torment and from which there was no escape. In spite of this understanding, he desperately seeks to be accepted within the charmed circle of Western civilisation and, towards this end, uses orientalist terminology and sentiment to pour abuse upon his own heritage and its revered heroes. The charmed circle fails to admit him: even the police protection team says to him early in his imprisonment that he really does not deserve so much state support since he has done no service to his adopted land. For all his effort, Rushdie is at the end just a pathetic wog. The fatwa was a response to 200 years of orientalist abuse and contempt: the empire was striking back at its former occupier and its native collaborator.

Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, is the author of Children of Abraham at War: The Clash of Messianic Militarisms.

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