In Defense of Salman Rushdie

Against the Current, No. 20, May/June 1989

Christopher Hitchens

THE CAMPAIGN against The Satanic Verses and the life of its author has been presented, both in the liberal and the conservative media, as a sort of confrontation between “the West” and the mysterious forces of Islamic fundamentalism, if not the mysterious force of Islam itself.

Never mind for the moment the annexation by “the West” of the assumed values of the Enlightenment and pluralism. Like all religious movements, the one directed at Salman Rushdie is the production of unresolved problems and contradictions in the material world. In other words, it has a pronounced political dimension.

This emerges distinctly from any review of the origins of the “Kill Rushdie” crusade (if the analogy can be allowed).

The South African Connection

Little publicity has been given to the fact, but the first overt threat of violence against book and author came from South Africa. Last fall there was to have been a conference against censorship in Johannesburg, sponsored by the democratic forces in the apartheid state. Salman Rushdie was invited to speak but did not want to break the artists’ and writers’ boycott of South African events. He therefore approached the African National Congress and the London-based Anti-Apartheid Movement, asking if he could attend. Both organizations gave him their blessing and thanked him for his consideration.

It was then that the Indian Muslim leadership of South Africa, which sits in the bogus “whites and Asians only” version of the “Parliament,” made its views known. Rushdie was a blasphemer, they said, and was not welcome in the country. Threats of forcible disruption of the conference followed.

It is not possible to say with absolute certainty that the South African regime played a direct part in this piece of demagogy, but certainly the convenience of having brown people attacking an anti-apartheid and anti-censorship conference sponsored by Black and white radicals was not displeasing to it The authorities promptly banned The Satanic Verses and dropped their usual insistence of “law and order.”

Rushdie, not wishing to be the cause of a distracting provocation, stayed away. At that time, the only copy of The Satanic Verses in South Africa was a publisher’s proof sent at Rushdie’s own request to the novelist and anti-apartheid humanist Nadine Gordimer.

A Target of Opportunity

When the book was published in England not long after, it ignited a protest among certain Muslim leaders in the depressed post-industrial mill town of Bradford, in Yorkshire. Indian and Pakistani immigrants had been encouraged to come and work there during the long British boom of the 1950s, but now find that life is hard and full of prejudice and discrimination (of the kind that Rushdie himself has always sternly opposed in England).

Moreover, these immigrants find that their children are drawn into discotheques, pubs and other haunts of iniquity. The ultras among them have taken to demanding a segregation solution with separate schools for Asian children, these schools to be under clerical control. Here again, forces favoring petty apartheid for parochial reasons found in the novel a pretext to pose as “defenders of the faith” (to borrow the slogan with which the British monarch is described on British currency).

An additional sense of grievance and injury was supplied by the fact that British law prohibits blasphemy, but only when it is committed against the figure of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, it was clear that The Satanic Verses provided a target of opportunity for religious and clerical conservatives, not the occasion for a protest against discrimination.

The scene then shifted rapidly to Pakistan, where the Jamaat lslami Party had recently undergone a stinging electoral defeat. Widely and correctly identified as the pious face of the late General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq’s “Islamization” facade, this tendency has direct links with the most benighted and CIA-sponsored element among the Afghan resistance and regularly supplied mob support to Zia’s police.

Having been humbled at the polls by Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, the Jamaat Islami and others were seeking an issue around which to regroup. The Satanic Verses gave them a chance, and they organized a demonstration (rather ungratefully held against the United States Cultural Mission), in which several people were killed.

It was the day after this bloodletting that Ayatollah Khomeini, who had until then been silent, proved that nobody in the Muslim world — and he means nobody can outdo him — when it comes to defending the Book and the Prophet.

Khomeini’s theocracy is in a probably irreversible crisis, from which not even the exchange of Bibles and guns with the Reaganites is likely to save it. Martyrdom lost its appeal on the Iraqi war front, and the lack of new recruits forced the Ayatollah to sue for negotiation.

The war against dissent and against all forms of modernism has been successfully prosecuted only because the Iranian left and liberal opposition has been hopelessly split, and only at the cost of draining the country of most of its technicians and its intelligentsia. Again, amid the ruins of the revolution, Khomeini’s only chance is to pose as the intransigent defender of Islam.

These disparate examples show that what is at stack in the Rushdie affair is a holy alliance of reaction in the Muslim world, directed at Muslim countries and movements just as much as against “Western,” “Christian” or “Zionist” circles.

How typical, then, that so many liberal and religious circles in “the West” have rushed to endorse the political fanaticism of the Islamic right as an authentic expression of religious emotion, and thus deserving of “respect” for spiritual feeling. From the Cardinal Archbishop of New York to the Chief Rabbi of England, there has come a condemnation of the blasphemous character of the novel, followed by some unctuous even-handedness about the nastiness of death-sentences recruited by means of mercenary appeals.

The left ought to welcome this chance to reassert the importance of atheism and secularism. Atheist secularism respects all religions and congregations equally, and makes no sectarian differentiation between them. It refuses to join in holy wars, or to assert that one religion is more culturally advanced than another. It proudly says that manmade god, not the other way about.

This is the only respectable and non-patronizing response to the anti-Rushdie frenzy and to those who have buckled before it in the name of, tolerance” and “understanding.” To the question “Is Nothing Sacred?” we must answer, in defense of our best traditions, NO. Nothing is sacred, nor ever has been.

May-June 1989, ATC 20

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