When 'Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rajsanjani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, observed that the Rushdie affair is "one of the rarest and strangest events in history," he for once got it right. Several aspects of the Rushdie incident were unprecedented. Never before had a government picked a fight with a private individual in a foreign country. Never had a book been the cause and the source of an international diplomatic crisis. Never before had censorship driven a conflict between states.
Never before had there been a human rights case across boundaries. To be sure, state terrorism had often reached long distances (for example, Stalin's having Trotsky killed in Mexico), but never against a novelist and never with a "sentence" against him proclaimed by a head of state. Never before had the very notion of exile been jeopardized in this manner. As Eliot Weinberger explained: "Rushdie is the first outlaw of the global village: the man for whom exile is not possible."
In a strange reversal, governments waited on the statements issued by a private citizen. Never before had this happened. Nor had an individual's choice of words ever borne so directly on the course of international relations. The situation was especially anomalous in Great Britain, where the authorities at one point felt compelled to deny that they had cleared a pronouncement made by Rushdie. As a news item reported it, with reference to his February 19 apology,
Whitehall sources said the Foreign Office had not asked to see the statement in advance. It was volunteered by the publishers. The Foreign Office had not taken any initiative or tried to influence the publishers in any way, nor was there any question that the Foreign Office had "cleared" or "approved" the statement, or taken any view about it.
The absurdity of the situation was caught by a cartoon in Le Monde which showed Rushdie at his typewriter, surrounded by fifteen harried bobbies all keeping an eye on him; one of the policemen barks into the walkie-talkie, "Close the airports!! He wants to write volume two!!!"
Caprice and Irony
As this cartoon suggests, a deadly serious incident contained its share of whimsy. In an almost comical reduction of the conflict between civilizations, the mayor and archbishop of Ravenna received threats to the effect that the monument to Dante Alighieri in their city would be blown up. The reason, they were told, was that The Divine Comedy "offends Muhammad." A previously unknown group, the Guardians of the Revolution, complained that Dante had placed Muhammad in the ninth circle of Hell (see Canto 28), and while nothing could be done about this literary crime of the fourteenth century, they demanded that the mayor disassociate himself from the work and that it not be read in public again. The mayor speculated that the letter might be "a poor joke," but he did step up security for Dante's tomb. It turned out that the threat was in fact a hoax, perpetrated by an Italian, Vincenzo Strocchi. The fact that it was taken seriously enough to increase security around a memorial spoke volumes about the temper of the times.
The enormous attention paid to a demanding novel like The Satanic Verses inevitably led to the book being lampooned for its obscurity. There was said to be an informal Club of Thirty in London, made up of people who started Rushdie's novels and never got beyond page thirty. In Iranian Nights, a spoof written by Howard Brenton and Tariq Ali and produced at the Royal Court Theater, the Caliph asks Scheherazade, "What was the blasphemy?" "No one knows," she answers, "it was a book that nobody could read."
Then there was the battle in Los Angeles. As Richard W. Stevenson of The New York Times put it,
When Southern California enters a battle, it does so with its own style, and so it is with the uproar over the novel The Satanic Verses. The newest twist is the contribution of a radio talk show host who has declared as the enemy not the novel's author, Salman Rushdie, nor his antagonist, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but a rock singer, Cat Stevens.
The talk show host, Tom Leykis of KFI-AM, was so affronted by Cat Stevens' endorsement of Khomeini's death edict, he called for a mass burning of the singer's music albums (subsequently changed, for environmental reasons, to a mass steamrolling). The radio station management was delighted by the idea and spurred the cause by promoting it throughout the broadcast day. This had two unexpected consequences. First, one of the other KFI talk show hosts, Geoff Edwards, found the destruction of any artistic materials offensive and refused to air promotions for the mass burning during his program. As a result, he was suspended from his job by the station. Eventually, Edwards and the station's management agreed to a termination of his contract. Second, the brouhaha pleased Cat Stevens himself. Having converted to Islam, he wanted to retract his old music, but until this point had been unsuccessful in his efforts. "Only a few weeks ago," he announced, "I wrote to the record companies asking that they [withdraw my records], but they refused because it would not be commercially viable for THEM! God works in mysterious ways."
Similarly, WNEW-FM in New York City offered to exchange a copy of The Satanic Verses with the first hundred listeners who sent in Cat Stevens albums, which the station planned to melt. Within two days, WNEW had been deluged with over 500 albums.
Some in the West fantasized about putting a price on Khomeini's head, just as he had done to Rushdie. In case Salman Rushdie "is unnaturally and prematurely silenced," Wole Soyinka declared that "the creative world will launch its own Jihad" (righteous war). Joseph Brodsky, the poet, commented:
As for Khomeini himself and what he has under his turban, I'm quite surprised that nobody thus far has put a price on that as well. It would be the only comparable response. If men of letters feel so indignant about the whole affair they should have pooled their resources and come up with the price. Mind you, it shouldn't be too big.
Brodsky proposed this idea only as a fancy, but Robert Maxwell, the British publisher, did offer a counter-reward of 6 million to anyone who succeeded in civilizing "the barbaric Ayatollah" by having him publicly recite the Ten Commandments. A British sports paper offered 1 million to anyone who brought Khomeini "to face a fair trial in this country." Needless to say, no one won either prize money.
The confrontation over Rushdie proved an irresistible subject for columnists and satirists. Andrew Rawnsley of The Guardian drew one of the cleverest parodies of Tehran-watchers in the West. Noting the toing-and-froing of the British government, he asked:
Did Sir Geoffrey [Howe]'s latest statement mean that the pragmatists or the fundamentalists within the London regime were in the ascendant? Which of them now has the ear of the country's ageing absolute ruler, Ayatollah Thatcher? Was Britain serious about opposing Iran or was that just propaganda to divert the attention of the population from the once oil-rich regime's ailing economy?
Eliot Weinberger described the Rushdie affair as Rushdie himself might have done in a one-paragraph tour de force:
After the thousand and one magical realist novels, with their daffodils falling from the sky and ancient crones giving birth to pig-faced children-novels desperate to recapture from the movies some small piece of the art of narrative by creating imagery that cannot be adequately represented on the screen-the genre has finally produced its masterpiece. Yet, as might be expected, it is not a novel at all, not even a book, but a tale that exists only in bits and pieces in the newspapers and on radio and TV, in oral transmission and cocktail party chatter. It is a plot that is still unfolding, and strangely, or not so strangely, it is the story of a magical realist novel: Once upon a time there was a man who wrote a book which a billion people didn't like. They tried to kill him for it, and ended up killing each other. Few of these people had even seen the book, yet all, friend and foe alike, found that it revealed their own worst natures . . .
It is hard to imagine a more brilliant or succinct synthesis than this of a complex controversy.
The incident led to a host of ironies. The strongest opinions on all sides came from those who had not even seen the book. Salman Rushdie first savaged the British government, then sought its shelter; he renounced police methods then gratefully accepted an around-the-clock police bodyguard. Rushdie forcefully denounced the shah's government and supported the Islamic Revolution, and ten years later found himself persecuted by the latter. Similarly, he condemned the U.S. raid on Tripoli in 1986 and found himself threatened by Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi in 1989. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was lampooned in one of Rushdie's novels, then found her government under fire because she was associated too closely with another of his books. Muslim leaders in Britain once considered commissioning Rushdie to write a play about the Muslims of Britain, then initiated steps which eventually jeopardized his life. Conversely, the first major work of art about the new England of immigrants stimulated them to find a voice to protest the status quo. By taking liberties with Islam, The Satanic Verses became the preeminent vehicle by which true believers of several faiths could cooperate.
Javier Prez de Cullar, secretary-general of the United Nations, tried to put the Rushdie affair to rest by saying that it was time to drop this war of words and concentrate on the world's real problems. In saying this he was, like many others, impatient with the international furor over a novel, seeing this dispute as so much hot air-a battle which could be avoided and which was not terribly consequential. But Prez de Cullar, and anyone who thought like him, was wrong: the Rushdie incident had real importance, partly because of its direct consequences, partly because it brought key issues to the fore.
To begin with, the controversy affected individuals. Twenty-two people lost their lives, many others feared for their safety, and hostages remained in captivity. It also affected states, especially Iran, where the authorities made the Rushdie affair their top political priority from mid-February to mid-March 1989. This decision led to the loss of billions of dollars in trade, diplomacy turned head over heels, and domestic political life veering in a new direction.
Since Iran's isolation had been a major reason why the war with Iraq had to be called off in August 1988, the high price of pursuing a revolutionary agenda abroad forced the Iranian leaders to temper their dogmatism. Through months of diplomatic spade work, Tehran's foreign relations had improved dramatically in the half year since the ceasefire with Iraq, only to be undone by the repercussions from Khomeini's fatwa. The need for good relations was apparently forgotten in February 1989, when the Iranian government lapsed back into its customary isolation, half-repudiated by Muslims and stigmatized by Westerners.
The Rushdie incident did more than reverse efforts to improve ties with the West. It also finally convinced a number of observers that there were no moderates to be found in the Iranian government; or, in the metaphor favored by the Mojahedin-e Khalq, the cobras of the Khomeini regime cannot give birth to doves. Editorialists at Le Monde concluded, for example, that "there should be no illusions about improving relations with Tehran, at least so long as Imam Khomeini is in charge." This reading seemed to be confirmed when several officials who had sought better relations with the West, including Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Larijani and U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Ja'far Mahalati, were forced in part to resign because of their having adopted the wrong views on The Satanic Verses.
The incident had major economic consequences. Several Western countries reduced their purchases of Iranian oil, and the Japanese government directed oil companies to cut their intake from 300,000 to 200,000 barrels a day. Just after months of negotiations had led to the establishment of new credit lines to Iran from the West, the Rushdie affair led to a West European ban on loans to Iran. In all, the Iranians were deprived of some $3 to $4 billion in credit and the Europeans of about the same amount in exports. In addition, nearly every West European government cancelled at least one official visit, loan or trade agreement with Iran, further delaying a resumption of economic relations. For example, negotiations for an Iranian purchase of three Airbus passenger planes from a European consortium took several months more than was expected.
In the weeks preceding Khomeini's fatwa it had appeared that the Western hostages held in Lebanon would finally be released, but this too was upended in February 1989. Newsweek reported an "almost-done deal" in which the British government would have secured the release of its hostages by paying money to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which in turn would pass the funds to Iranian proxies in Lebanon. But this complex arrangement fell through when the hostage-takers blamed London for sheltering Rushdie and linked the hostages' fate to the Western governments abandoning their support for him. The Iranian press subsequently endorsed this position.
The Satanic Verses caused Tehran's relations with all but one of its neighbors to deteriorate. Erratic and bellicose behavior from Iran buttressed Iraqi arguments about the impossibility of reaching a reasonable agreement with the Iranians, thereby strengthening Baghdad's hand in the United Nations - sponsored negotiations to end the Iraq - Iran war. International pressure on Baghdad to show more flexibility, which had been strong for half a year, simply vanished in February 1989. Iranian efforts to get The Satanic Verses banned in Turkey, then to reverse a court decision in the headscarf controversy caused relations with Ankara to slip to their lowest point in decades. Iranian incitement of fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan against their government was deeply resented in Islamabad. Only in the case of the U.S.S.R. did the confrontation enhance relations; just twelve days after issuing the Rushdie fatwa, the ayatollah himself received the Soviet foreign minister in a televised meeting. In ten years of diplomacy, through revolution and war, no other foreign politician had been thus honored.
In domestic Iranian politics too, the fatwa appears to have ended the half-year of moderation which followed the cease-fire with Iraq. With some exceptions (notably the executions of Mojahedin-e Khalq members), Khomeini seemed to tolerate more pragmatic policies. This trend came to an abrupt halt on February 14. In the months that followed, he condemned liberals in Iran, displaced Ayatollah Montazeri as his successor, and redoubled efforts to impose a strict Islamic order within Iran ("misveiled" women, for example, found themselves subject to up to seventy-four lashes for wearing the wrong color veil or allowing some hair to show in public).
The Satanic Verses had an impact in other countries too. In India it inflamed the always delicate relations between Hindus and Muslims. In Pakistan, the incident provided the opposition forces with ammunition against the leftist government of Benazir Bhutto; riots that protested the book were intended for her as well. The authorities responded to this challenge by banning public meetings in Islamabad, the capital, thus taking a large step backwards on the path to martial law.
These developments, significant as they were, tended to be either personal tragedies or transient matters. The West European governments could not bring themselves to abandon the Iranian market for long, just because a British writer remained sequestered. The European Community's withdrawal of ambassadors, after all, lasted just one month. Even the British posture quickly changed. On February 21, Sir Geoffrey Howe indicated that normal relations with Iran could not be restored until Tehran renounced the use or threat of violence against citizens of other countries. Though nothing much had changed a month later, William Waldegrave announced on March 22 that "Britain is not in conflict with Iran." It was inevitable that ambassadors would quickly return to their stations and the outside world would once again patiently tolerate Iranian misbehavior.
From a long-range point of view, probably the most important consequences of the Rushdie affair have little to do with economics, politics, or diplomacy, but bear on the attitudes of millions of individuals around the world. The incident raised a wide array of issues-freedom of speech in India, race relations in Britain, the role of bookstore chains in the United States, even the nature of the secular state. But two issues stood out, one having to do with Islam and the West, the other with censorship. By making all parties more aware of those controversies, the incident clarified differences and deepened the awareness of cultural distance.
Images of the Other
The Rushdie incident prompted a confrontation of Christian and Islamic civilizations the likes of which had not been seen in centuries. Confronted by a largely united Muslim world, Westerners did something remarkable: they stood together in their disapproval of Khomeini's act. (Only three "Western" governments broke ranks, it bears noting, and banned the book: South Africa, Japan and Venezuela.) The issue encouraged solidarity on both sides because it transcended foreign policy and touched on issues of basic domestic values in each civilization. In the West, it was a matter of possibly the single most important principle of modern liberal ideology, freedom of speech. In the Muslim world, it was the dignity of Islam. The controversy made it painfully clear that what the West holds sacred easily conflicts with what is holy to Muslims. Despite many efforts to find common ground, the conflict did not lend itself to reduction, for matters of principle resist compromise and negotiation. One side had to win, the other had to lose.
By similar token, the Rushdie case exactly confirmed some hoary stereotypes. No event in previous decades had delineated cultural lines with such clarity and along such well-established lines. In calling Khomeini "a joyless, glowering fanatic," editorialists at The New York Times were clearly invoking old notions about Muslims behaving like maniacs; so too did the French magazine L'Express when it announced that "fanaticism is exploding." The normally calm Independent called Khomeini "a bloodthirsty medieval bigot." A letter to Le Monde summed up this attitude:
Simple questions. Which offends Islam more, a novel or an assassin? Writing on paper or a bloody crime? Disprovable deaths or deaths without appeal? Who? The alleged satan or the avowed fanatic?
Is man authorized to kill man in the service of God? To serve God! Is that Islam? Where is such a satanic verse written?
Who will offer three million prayers so that Khomeini can just venerate his God? In a silence of fanaticism.
For the first time in memory, the Western press described Europe and America as the "the civilized world," and Muslims were clearly seen as living outside the borders of this world. According to one poll, 66 percent of the French public wished to see The Satanic Verses published in France, while 74 percent saw fundamentalist religion as a danger of global proportions. In another survey, 60 percent saw fundamentalist Islam as a serious danger, with its Jewish and Catholic counterparts worrying, respectively, only 35 and 32 percent of the public. Bernard Oudin concluded from the Rushdie controversy that "the [Muslim-Western] dialogue is dead."
Some very peculiar ideas about Muslims came out of the woodwork. Norman Stone wrote about "those beards, those absolutes, that dreadful unconcern with obvious sentiment," calling these "parody-masculine attributes, and the Ayatollah, to perfection, has them in old-man form." Arnold Wesker, the playwright, waxed lyrical, describing Khomeini as "a bigoted, medieval throwback . . . whose perpetually angry demeanor told anyone perceptive enough to read expressions that here was an old-fashioned religious zealot whose petulant and tortured heart, so obviously engraved in his eyes, was about to wreak destructive and revengeful havoc."
If the mainstream saw Islam as hopeless, the fringes seized the moment to spread an anti-Muslim message to a wider audience. Thus, the Fighters of the Greek Islands took the occasion to distribute a document in the capitals of Europe which, referring to the building of a mosque in Rome, asserted that, "as Christian Europeans, we do not accept the erection of a minaret and the recitation of the Islamic call to prayers in front of the Vatican."
Reading Muslims out of the civilized world is, of course, flat wrong. Even if freedom of speech is the ticket of admission, a good number of Muslims, some of them in positions of authority or prominence, have the credentials to enter. For all the battering they have taken, liberal ideas remain alive in the Muslim world; not all is submerged under the darkness of fundamentalism. Admittedly, it is easy to forget this, given the impoverished leadership, the political turmoil, and the violence that prevail in the Middle East and beyond. In terms of perceptions by the outside world, perhaps the key problem lies in the fact that the most prominent representatives of Islam-the Khomeinists, the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, and Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi of Libya-are all extremists. In Western eyes, their eccentric and distasteful behavior overwhelms the religion as it is practiced daily on an individual level by hundreds of millions of the faithful. It is no wonder that Westerners, watching such outlandish leaders, find it hard to perceive the many attractive qualities of Islam.
Some Muslims recognized this problem at the time of the Rushdie affair, and fretted over it. According to Coskun Kirca, a retired Turkish diplomat, "Iran is behaving barbarically, and its behavior has belittled all Muslim countries in the eyes of the Western world." Many Muslims in the West fretted in private about Khomeini's fatwa making life a lot more difficult for them, and some went so far as to believe this was intentional on Khomeini's part. But Kirca and the anti-fundamentalists found themselves nearly powerless to challenge the unholy trinity in Tehran, Riyadh and Tripoli; a combination of oil wealth and ideological fervor endowed those regimes with an unrivaled might in Islamic affairs. The older bastions of a more moderate vision of Islam had all declined, and their interpretations had suffered grievously in an era of fundamentalist enthusiasm. The secular experiment in Turkey, the attempts at a reformist compromise in Egypt, and the steps toward adjustment to minority status in democratic India had not come to an end in the 1980s, but they had been seriously weakened. Only when the oil boom ends entirely and the vitality of fundamentalist Islamic ideas dims will their chance come again. This is, however, thin consolation in a time of zealotry.
Given the simplifications that seize the imagination, Westerners all to easily assumed that all Muslims endorsed Khomeini's intolerance and bigotry. Even when dimly aware that this was not the case, they were tempted to forget this fact. This left non-fundamentalist Muslims not only with their radical brethren to combat, but also the prejudices of Westerners, which lumped them together with their rivals. No wonder that moderate and liberal Muslims despised Rushdie, even if their real disagreement was with the fundamentalists.
As is always the case, a few figures in the West found a way to apologize for Khomeini's behavior. Two arguments recurred. In one, it was pointedly recalled just how many blasphemers in the West had lost their liberty or their lives at the stake. True enough: but this ignored the West's achievement, which lay precisely in leaving this stage behind and moving on to a more sophisticated and humane treatment of religious differences. Conversely, the tragedy in Iran lay in the fact that its leaders renounced what the West had so arduously achieved, and insisted on returning to the older, cruder approach.
The other argument noted that Islam, being less than fourteen centuries old, is now at a comparable state of development to Christianity in its fourteenth century. In other words, this is a religion yet to experience its Reformation. The assumption behind such a calculation is that "major religions, involving as they do deep-seated webs of philosophy, emotion and politics, require a millennium to shake themselves out." But this is nonsense. The notion that religions share patterns over millennia is almost too crude to require refutation; suffice it to note that Judaism and Hinduism, which have almost nothing in common, and never have, are about the same age, as are Mormonism and Christian Science. Further, the connection between Muslim intolerance and the relative youth of Islam is directly refuted by the fact that Islam had sheltered a more tolerant ethos in its earlier centuries. Rather than looking the calendar to understand the bigotry of figures like Khomeini, the Wahhabis, and Qadhdhafi, an explanation should be sought in the predicament of modern Islam and the deep feelings of inferiority among some Muslims toward the West. The many conspiracy theories circulating among Muslims confirm how close old fears remain to the surface.
The Satanic Verses had special importance for the millions of Muslims living in the West. The controversy helped them find their voice, and they are unlikely to allow it to be silenced in the future. The organizing and excitement of early 1989 gave Muslims in West Europe a first taste of power. In the short term, this should spur political ambitions. In the longer run, it will probably translate into an enduring aspiration to bring the Middle East to Europe, perhaps even to the United States. If this happens, Muslims are likely to place less emphasis on the limited efforts of past years (single-sex schools, Islamic forms of divorce) in favor of something much deeper-the assertion of Muslim values in society at large.
The logic of numbers points to such developments. The West has by far the lowest birth rate in the world, so low that it will soon not be replacing itself. Today, only Poland, Ireland and Malta have naturally growing populations. In contrast, the Muslim countries have the highest rate. Demographically, the two groups complement each other so well that the continued migration of Muslims to the West seems unstoppable. Rightists in Europe may resist the idea of letting such aliens in, fundamentalist Muslims may shudder at the thought of taking up residence in a land of blasphemy and lewdness, but the two are almost fated to join each other. Indeed, there are probably cases already of neo-fascist German employers hiring fundamentalist Muslim workers, with both parties hating the relationship, but accepting it nonetheless. Much more of this is likely to come, and it will be fraught with difficulties for the two sides.
Unfortunately, the presence of Muslims in the West encourages the worst in each camp: ugly nativistic reactions from those who resent the growing numbers of dark-skinned, poor foreigners with strange eating habits and less-developed notions of hygiene; and arrogant fundamentalist Islamic ambitions among emigrants culturally unprepared for immersion in an alien civilization and therefore prone to insist on the most dogmatic version of their faith.
By giving both sides a foretaste of problems to come, the Rushdie incident offered an important lesson. Christians and Muslims will presumably wish to live together in harmony if they are fated to live side-by-side. This means breaking a millennial tradition of mistrust and hostility that can only be achieved by changing a number of attitudes. Europeans must accept the fact that their societies are about to become multi-racial and multi-ethnic; that their cultures are to include new languages, religions and ways of life; and that their politics are to be subject to new influences. Clinging to visions of Ye Olde Englande is not just futile but profoundly reactionary, and the same goes for the like pastoral visions that exist in most other countries of West Europe. Instead, the British and others need to accommodate the new reality of an immigrant society.
As this adjustment takes place in Western Europe (and, one day, perhaps Japan too), it may be helpful to learn something from Europe's daughter countries-the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Grudgingly and haltingly, the leaders of all immigrant countries gave up the vision of racial or cultural purity and adopted a more open attitude. Initially, this meant accepting the Irish in America and the Greeks in Australia; more recently, it meant welcoming Vietnamese and Chinese. In the future, it will almost surely mean assimilating large numbers of Muslims.
Historically, these four immigrant societies absorbed new peoples through three mechanisms: idealism, education and secularism. Ideals such as the pursuit of happiness and freedom of speech have been vital to all immigrant societies, making up for the absence of shared ethnic bonds by providing the population with a common purpose. For Muslims to live harmoniously with their Western neighbors, they must adopt the ideals of the host society.
Education of children is critical, for even if the adult immigrants cannot understand the ideals of their adopted country, it is imperative that these be communicated to the next generation. Ideals provide a substitute for lineage. Symbolic of this, George Washington is in the symbolic ancestry of every American child, even if his parents arrived at the time of his birth. If the European states are to absorb the Muslim (and other alien) immigrants, they must move in this direction. It will not be easy for old societies, but the tradition has to stress ethnicity less and principles more. The glorious history of France, for instance, needs to concentrate less on the victories over others and more on efforts to attain liberty, equality and fraternity.
Secularism has particular importance in the case of Muslims. It needs to be given pride of place in the pantheon of civic virtues, for only secularism makes it possible to transcend the historic Christian-Muslim conflict and treat the other as an equal. Only if Muslims accept secularism can they fully integrate into society. But secularism has its costs; it means having to give up all notions of molding Western countries in the Islamic image. Instead, Muslim leaders in the West must push their followers to integrate into the larger society. This means, for instance, no pressure on the government to pay for Muslim schools, no attempts to get Islamic law accepted in courts, and no extension of blasphemy laws to cover Islamic topics. To integrate into the West, Muslims need not forego their faith, but they must accept the supremacy of civil law-and freedom of speech is a critical element of that law.
As anti-Khomeini Muslim politicians, intellectuals, and even religious leaders made clear in the course of the controversy over The Satanic Verses, Muslims need not stumble over the premises of modern life. The problem lies not with Islam as such, but with the fundamentalist strain of Islam-the one which holds literally to the archaic rules of Islam and refuses to accommodate to the realities of modern life. In the fundamentalist reading of Islam, principles of the faith frequently contradict those of the West and the usual response to this dilemma is to undo the modern world. Thus, fundamentalist Muslims rail against international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At other times, they redefine Western precepts to the point that they are no longer recognizable: Freedom of religion means the freedom for a Catholic to become a Protestant or for a Shi'i to become a Sunni, not conversion out of Islam; non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries does not restrict Iranian efforts to spread its notions of Islam. By similar token, when fundamentalists say that "blasphemy is definitely against freedom of expression," freedom of expression essentially means the freedom to make statements which offend no political, religious or sexual sensibilities. The Rushdie incident makes clear that such self-serving interpretations will not do if the experiment of Muslims living in the West is to succeed.
Freedom of Speech
The other key issue concerns freedom of speech, both in the Muslim countries and in the West. For Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere, Khomeini's attack on Rushdie served as a reminder of just how seriously personal liberties are lacking, and especially that of freedom of speech. As Amir Taheri has explained, Khomeini forced a debate on the long-deferred question, "can a man speak his mind without risking death or imprisonment?" If no, then there is every reason to fear that Muslim countries will remain in the world's rearguard. As Muslim critics are the first to admit, their coreligionists fare poorly almost without regard to the index one chooses. Whether one considers material well-being, social equity, military power, public hygiene or cultural originality, Muslims fare poorly compared to others. While this array of problems is obviously too complex to be cured by a single solution, it is also clear that the severe limitations on personal freedom under which most Muslim peoples toil has crucial importance. As Communist regimes are learning around the world, you can only go so far with repression and imposed ideologies. Only when the answer to Taheri's question becomes yes, when the autocrats are forced to loosen the fetters, only then will it be possible for the Muslim countries to make real progress.
Rushdie was correct when he portrayed his enemies as rulers seeking to control new domains. "I think the real issue is the power over the story. What these people are saying, the Mullahs and the Saudis, and God knows who, is that they are the only people who have the power over the story and that's because they have power: financial power, political power, and the power of the pulpit." If the authorities can even control fiction, it is hard to see how the Muslim countries will ever progress.
It is true that most Muslims approved of the fatwa and most Westerners abhorred it, yet opinions counted more than affiliation. Some Muslims did condemn the edict, just as some Westerners apologized for it. In the final analysis every person could freely choose sides, and almost every one did so. This said, differences of opinion in the West tended to be tactical, while those in the Muslim world reflected disagreements over first principles. The cultural crisis prompted by The Satanic Verses had less to do with East and West, or Muslims and Europeans, and much more to do with the direction of Islam. Would there be freedom of speech or not? Would the rulers have an exclusive prerogative to interpret the Islamic saga? Would fundamentalists prevail, squeezing out secularist Muslims? The debate was really about competing visions of society - closed or open, religious or secular, bigoted or tolerant.
As such, the controversy over The Satanic Verses continued an already long-running and bitter debate between Muslims. The key actors-Rushdie, Khomeini and their followers-were all Muslims, and the elemental issues all concerned Islam. What made this argument different was not its terms of reference but that it took place on a Western stage, and so was witnessed by a global audience.
As for the West, Khomeini achieved something remarkable with his edict; in Europe and North America (and in other regions too), he created an unprecedented climate of worry. Concerned for their personal safety, writers, publishers, booksellers, book buyers, faculty and students watched what they said. In a temporary and partial way, then, Khomeini succeeded in imposing his will on the West. His success raised the possibility that other dictators and extremists would resort to similar forms of intimidation to prohibit the discussion of their pet subjects, with a similar chilling effect. Why should they not emulate him, and ban books and kill authors wherever they may be? In the Middle East alone, Saddam Husayn, Hafiz al-Asad, Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi and Yasir 'Arafat have writings and writers they fondly would wish eliminated. It would make good sense for them to emulate Khomeini and place a bounty on their opponents' heads. In this way, the fatwa may have altered the rules.
The whimsically named League for the Spread of Unpopular Views, a West German organization, saw Khomeini's edict as a direct challenge to a central feature of Western civilization. "The Rushdie case is a deadly earnest probe to see what freedom of expression in the West is worth. Should Rushdie be killed, it would be the first burning of a heretic in Europe in two centuries. The West would then carry the full responsibility, for it would have failed to have protected with all available means Rushdie and with him freedom of expression!" Though a shade alarmist, the League's point is worth pondering.
At the same time, the ayatollah's accomplishments must not be exaggerated. The global fear of early 1989 is not likely to be soon repeated. Khomeini was a unique ruler and the furor surrounding The Satanic Verses is likely to remain without match. In theory, while many of Khomeini's tactics can be imitated by anyone, Iranian prototypes tend rarely to be imitated, so this incident may well turn out to be a one-time affair. The Iranians institutionalized and systematized the recruitment of suicide bombers, but few states availed themselves of this powerful tool. Seizing the U.S. embassy in Tehran proved to be a brilliant tactical innovation by the Iranian radicals in 1979, but it has not been emulated even once. Taking such a step requires a radicalism, an ideological devotion, and a personal commitment as deep as that of Khomeini and his followers. In the Rushdie case, Khomeini managed to impose an unprecedented form of trans-border censorship precisely because no one is like him. No other leader challenged the existing order in so profound a way or had a vision of the just society that differed so fundamentally from the prevailing models. Accordingly, conventional dictators typically find that following in the ayatollah's footsteps is beyond their capabilities.
Moreover, even his achievement was less than complete. It should be remembered that it was the Saudis who got the book banned in most Muslim countries; Iranian efforts to extend censorship to the West failed. For all the fear Iranians created in the West, their attempts at intimidation turned The Satanic Verses into a spectacular commercial success. Despite and because of the Muslim efforts, The Satanic Verses became the book of the year. Boastful claims that protests would continue until the book was recalled and the author and publisher apologized came to naught. The controversy caused many Westerners to feel a highly unusual sense of solidarity, seeing themselves again as the only civilized people and recalling old animosities toward Islam. In many ways, the ayatollah not only did not get his way but he stirred up antagonisms that will harm his cause for years to come.
Is the power that Khomeini achieved an aberration or the beginning of a subtle shift in norms? While it is too early to say, it is clear that the answer depends far more on the West than on Khomeini and his ilk. The West has to make it clear that the fundamentalist Muslims will gain nothing through threats and intimidation "The only acceptable way to end The Satanic Verses affair is to go on repeating that until the message is heard and believed."
The Rushdie Affair is now in print in India, and is available from: IndiaClub.com, or
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