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Correspondence: The Satanic Verses Affair

Correspondance parue dans Solidarity. Journal of Libertarian Socialism, 22/23, Winter 1989-90, p. 20-22

Indian Moslem writer Salman Rushdie in cluttered study going through book before going into hiding after writing SATANIC VERSES for which the Ayatollah Khomeini would soon sentence him to death. (Photo by Terry Smith/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Less than a great historical service

From ALISON WEIR, London:

In an extremely diffuse and ill-thought-out article (‘Who is Afraid of Satan?‘, Solidarity, Autumn 1989), ‘A El-Noor’ purports to address the possibility that Salman Rushdie has “set off a chain reaction of cultural criticism of religion in Islamic countries”. In addition, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has apparently “rendered Islamic civilisation a great historical service”. A El-Noor clearly wishes the Islamic countries well, and by ‘well’ he means that they should accommodate their need for scientific knowledge and technological expertise within the framework of Islam, or else abandon Islam. Not a very helpful or illuminating suggestion, if I may say so.

He cunningly opens the piece with a reference to the great damage done upon the world by the catholic Church’s refusal to enjoin the practice of birth control. He agrees that we in the West have seriously underestimated the strength of traditional religious beliefs. He goes on to acknowledge the problem of the beleaguered Muslim community in Britain but – in the same paragraph – chooses to describe the tenets of Muslim belief in a stereotypical (and disparaging) way – “male is dominant… women’s sexual pleasure taboo” – and a lot of implied scorn. My God, isn’t an orthodox Jewish woman the victim of horrifying taboos?

A El-Noor then alludes to North American Indians, the Japanese, the Jews… and finally the Amish (how did they get in here?) as offering examples of those who did accommodate themselves to modern ways, or did not, it is not at all clear.

A El-Noor next has the bright idea that “Iran’s clergy” is suffering from paranoia. He graciously admits that Western governments, too, cannot see the Ayatollah’s fatwa as anything other than a political move. Impasse. But if the Ayatollah and his successors “fail to grasp that Western governments cannot allow a book to be burnt or an author to be proscribed”, isn’t it also true that very little understanding or sympathy has been offered to the Muslim community living in Britain?

They, moderate or fanatical, are under no illusions about the flippant blasphemy that is expressed in most of the book. It offends, as it was intended to; Salman Rushdie slags off his religion in the most obscene way, rather like feminists of yesteryear used to slag off the convent, and no doubt with the same personal intention in mind.

Islam, says A El-Noor kindly, was “progressive” in the time of Mohammed. Marxist critics of Islam are mostly dead – sadly true. But The Satanic Verses does not offer what A El-Noor describes as a “historical service”; it is too silly for that. Where the novel is truly moving is in its moments of recording vile racism on the part of immigration officers and members of the National Front. There the collective experience stands Rushdie in good stead; the episodes sound horribly convincing and the re-telling of them inspires him with a passion that results in good writing.

The article ends with praise for Salman Rushdie’s “historical service”, agrees that Iran is heavily stained by the threat, let alone the death of the author, bewails the failure of the left in Iran to confront the religious issue (in the Shah’s time), and winds up asking “Who believes in Satan?” and invites all those of similar views to “follow Rushdie”. Since I read no ‘historical’ analysis into The Satanic Verses I cannot see where Rushdie would be leading us.

I had hoped this piece would address the double dilemma that confronts us: yes, we want anyone to publish whatever they want (exception pornography) but also, and very important to socialists and all thinking people, we want the large number of Muslims in our midst not to be misheard or misunderstood.

Read Nawal El Sadawi’s The Fall of the Imam (recently published by Methuen) or listen to the Black Sisters in Southall if you want a serious discussion on this subject.


Best-buy mystifications

From LIZ WILLIS, London:

A El-Noor’s article on Islam in the last issue provides an insightful and thought-provoking treatment of the cultural dimensions of the Satanic Verses affair. At the same time, it seems taken by itself a little insufficient as a response. Of course ideas are important, indeed essential, to the discussion (and to most others, as Solidarity has always recognised), but they seem here to be dealt with too much in isolation and taken too much at face value. Some of the elements of Solidarity’s good old-style analyses surely have a contribution to make, notably the key themes of authority relations, conditioning, repression and ‘the irrational in politics’. To present the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism simply as a collective wish to hold on to a traditional culture misses a whole lot of points.

Just because the leaders of the movement probably hold their beliefs more or less sincerely (the proposition loses some credibility with Rafsanjani in charge) does not exclude their being engaged in power struggles, in Tehran or in Bradford, or in a search for an external enemy or scapegoat. We also need to consider how and why they manage to acquire a following: El-Noor mentions the spiritual bankruptcy of western societies without investigating the ‘pull’ factors that draw numbers of alienated youth – a stratum where libertarians have often looked for hopeful signs – towards the best-buy among authoritarian patriarchal mystifications. The psychology of adolescence may have considerable relevance, touching on attitudes to sexuality, aggression, group identity, rejection of authority in some aspects and acceptance of it in others (fear of freedom), and so on. It may be some consolation in this context to remember people’s capacity for holding numerous contradictory ideas simultaneously, and for acting in ways at variance with their professed beliefs (which is not to disregard the menace of the genuine, even temporarily convinced fanatic).

The danger is not only to Salman Rushdie, peace be upon him (a blasphemy, this!), but to all those who would suffer from the implementation of the fundamentalist project even on a limited and local scale. Some of them are well aware of it, and the resistance is under way: the group ‘Women against Fundamentalism’ has confronted at least one anti-Rushdie demo with the slogans “You do not speak for us” and “Fear is your weapon, courage is ours”. They know they’ll need courage, but the threat of hard-line Islamic domination is worse, and they can’t wait two or three generations for a cultural critique based on a reasoned historical critique. Vital as such a critique may be, it has the air of being rather a long-term project, and quite a lotis happening now. Let’s not forget the people in struggle – another good old Solidarity preoccupation – who are themselves part of the historical critique. Our best hope is that the struggle, and the reasoning, will lead to the emergence of something more acceptable than either ‘assimilation’ or time-warped isolation.

As usual the difficulty is to escape from the treadmill of unacceptable alternatives. Even when some are manifestly more unacceptable than others, we can still at least hint at the possibility of looking at things in a different sort of way. I think that’s what Solidarity is there for.

All the best.

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