Correspondence: The Satanic Verses Affair (2)

Lettre d’A. El Noor parue dans Solidarity. A Journal of Libertarian Socialism, 24, Summer 1990, p. 15-16

Obsessed with God’s Will

From A EL NOOR, London:

In my article ‘Who is afraid of Satan?‘ (Solidarity #21), I put forward the following ideas:
1. Capitalist technology undermines all traditional cultures and belief systems; 2. A traditionalist culture or belief system under threat will often defend itself by regressing to fundamentalism; 3. Religious fundamentalism is reactionary – spiritually, culturally, socially and politically; 4. A historical (and psychological) interpretation of religion is an essential component of the struggle against religious fundamentalism; 5. In the absence of a historical interpretation of religion people will accept a religious interpretation of history; 6. Atheist socialists and nationalists in Islamic societies have failed to produce and promote a historical interpretation of Islam; 7. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is a contribution to the struggle against Islam, which forms the major obstacle to spiritual, cultural, social and political progress in Islamic societies.

Two criticisms of the article appeared in the following issue. Liz Willis argued that I failed to deal with the internal power struggles within Islamic societies which may have contributed to the response to The Satanic Verses, nor did I mention other struggles, notably by women, against Islamic fundamentalism. True. Both issues require separate articles.

It is a common tendency of the left to reduce a struggle between ideas to a political power struggle. I wanted to emphasis the significance of ideas in the struggle against religion because the thinking of the left is dominated by economic and political categories, neglecting psychological and spiritual issues. This neglect, a byproduct of marxism and its « base and superstructure » theory, can cost dearly, as the Iranian experience has shown.

As for the women’s issue, I stated clearly in my article, « Women’s liberation may well be the most explosive social issue in Islamic societies ». I never underestimated the significance of women’s struggles in Islamic societies. However, if women try to achieve their liberation while being dominated by Islamic beliefs, or while lacking a coherent critique of Islam, their struggle is doomed to fail. This has been demonstrated more than once in the recent past.

Alison Weir is upset by my article (and by Rushdie’s book). She feels the article lacks compassion for the beleaguered Muslim community in the UK. She states her dilemma: « Yes, we want anyone to publish what they want (except pornography) but also… we want the large number of Muslims in our midst not to be misheard or misunderstood ».

I did not address the ‘freedom of speech’ issue because this can be dealt with adequately by liberals. I insist that Muslims everywhere be heard and understood. Does this imply that I – or Ms. Weir – have to refrain from a critique of Islam?

My article was a reminder of the right, and the duty, of socialists to criticise religion. Too many people on the left have succumbed to political or emotional blackmail and failed to come out openly against Islamic fundamentalism in its fanatic attack on Rushdie (burning his book in public, taking public oaths to assassinate him, burning shops selling the book, etc. I assume Ms. Weir is opposed to book-burning, but she seems to equate criticism of the ideas motivating the book-burners with persecution.

Criticising ideas does not imply persecution of the people who uphold these ideas. I defend the right of any group of believers anywhere to preach and practice their faith without being persecuted, but I insist in return on the right to criticise, blaspheme, and ridicule any belief, anywhere, without being persecuted myself.

I consider The Satanic Verses as a cry of pain by a sensitive writer deeply troubled by the suffering which Islamic beliefs inflict on Islamic societies. Sure, this book is not a historical interpretation of Islam, it is a work of fiction designed to ridicule Islam. I consider ridicule a legitimate, though insufficient, weapon against religion. It is often very effective, as the Rushdie affair shows. In their outrageous response to the book, the Islamic authorities revealed the nature of their beliefs, thereby promoting further criticism. The book thus contributed to the struggle against Islam. This process is painful to believers, but it is positive, for it will help rid some minds of an outdated, authoritarian belief system. This applies to any religious fundamentalism, be it Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim, and ought to be supported by any principled atheist.

Fundamentalist religion is obsessed with God’s Will, not with human welfare. It is the struggle against fundamentalism that is motivated by compassion for actual, living people. I suggest Ms. Weir direct some of her compassion for the beleaguered Muslim community in the UK towards the young women beleaguered within that community. She need not accept my views, she could conduct her own research in an Islamic community to find out from young women how Islamic beliefs of their fathers affect their lives. If she finds the results disturbing she will face a new dilemma: to spare the peace of mind of the fathers by allowing the daughters to succumb to total subordination to Islamic patriarchal authoritarianism, or to support the daughters’ struggle to liberate themselves from authoritarian domination at the expense of outraging their fathers and the religious authorities.

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