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Another look at Rushdie

Ahmad Sadri
Chicago, Illinois
July 1996
The Iranian

From "Adjusting to the World According to Salman Rushdie", an essay by Dr. Ahmad Sadri, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College, Illinois. The essay, originally published in "The Subversive Imagination" (Rutledge, 1994), has been updated for The Iranian. Sadri's book "Max Weber's Sociology of Intellectuals" was published by Oxford University Press in 1992, 1994. He is currently doing research on the role of Iranian intellectuals in defining the political culture of Iran.

About eight years ago Salman Rushdie, an Indian-born Pakistani author who was educated in England, published The Satanic Verses, a highly stylized novel with vague references to events that had occurred some fifteen hundred years earlier at the dawn of Islam in the Arabian peninsula.

The novel caused such a stir that very shortly afterwards it was hard to find a corner of the earth in which people were not expressing strong feelings of sympathy or antipathy toward the elusive subject of the novel and its hybrid author.

Many of his compatriots in England, India, Pakistan and, later, other Muslims all over the world, denounced this novel as blasphemous for what they perceived to be its defamation of the of Prophet of Islam, and held demonstrations in which more than a dozen people were killed. Tracts were circulated and meetings held for and against the author everywhere.

Finally an Ayatollah from Iran decreed that the Muslim born, naturalized British author had forfeited his life according to the tenets of Islamic law. Since then violent death has ended the life of the Japanese translator of the novel and the fear of it has ended Rushdie's life as a free man.

He has tried, of course in vain, to mend fences with his Muslim critiques by appearing to embrace Islam, only to later retract this move as the desperate decision of a weak moment. On a larger scale, the Ayatollah's fatwa, the religious edict that condemned Rushdie to death, replaced the hostage crisis and the Iraqi campaign as the latest symbolic corner stone of Iran's anti-Western posture and of its claim to leadership of the translational community of Muslims.

On yet a different theater, intellectuals the world over, feeling that their freedom is also jeopardized by Rushdie's death sentence, continue to go to great lengths to publicly demonstrate their discontent and to persuade their governments to pressure Iran to retract the fatwa.

Let us remember that the main outline of this crisis was drawn within just a few weeks. Almost all of those who became emotionally invested in this affair, scattered as they were all over the planet and among divergent classes and ethnic groups, felt unthinkably abused; no one could believe the extent to which the offending party had gone either to trespass on the their treasured liberties or to justify the profanation of their sacred prophet.

More than a few might have seen an insidious enemy in their neighbor. Some must have realized that these days one no longer needs to be in politics in order to wake up to strange bedfellows.

Among the lessons we could learn from this sordid affair is the one about the state of the world that just a few decades ago promised to grow into a "global village." If what we inhabit is a global village, then it is one of armed clans feuding over real and imaginary issues in different languages but all couched in the universal rhetoric of violence.

This is what the world has come to: Never before have so many lived so closely to so many of whom they know so little. Instead of realizing the lofty visions of modern philosophies that had promised to emancipate and unify the humankind in the spirit of universality and rationality, our world has turned into a Gulliverian archipelago of incommensurable cultural islands; some sinking, others growing hostile and apart.

What can we say about the present state of the world in the wake of the failed promises of modernity, except that it is postmodern.

Salman Rushdie is more than a gauge of this century's disappointments, he is not merely the sun dial passively marking the elongating shadows of modernism. Rushdie is also an activist. Indeed there is a sense in which Rushdie is a typical Third World intellectual with modernist ambitions for writing politically relevant fiction, and for representing the plight of his people.

He once characterized The Satanic Verses as a "secular, humanist vision of the birth of a great world religion." Rushdie soberly envisions Islam as a civil religion for Pakistan, but seems to be just as happy to see it supplanted with the mythologies of the French Revolution. The modernist in Rushdie dismisses the post modernist case made for religion as just another grand narrative among other grand narratives (e.g. history, economics and ethics.)

Rushdie's conscious mind is set in modernist dichotomies: "Battle lines are being drawn up in India today... secular versus rational. The light versus the dark. Better you choose which side you are on." However, none of these, explains the magnitude of the reaction Rushdie has provoked among Muslims.

After all he is not the only contemporary secular author in the Islamic world who has nursed doubts about the origin of Islam and its role in the modern world. The volatility of The Satanic Verses consists not in its modernist criticism of Islam but in the framing of modernist doubts in the compass of post modernist fiction, where text and context are deliberately conflated. It is Rushdie's unsurpassing talent for this kind of amalgamation that causes the world incarnated in his fiction to easily merge with the one that he aims to shape. Rushdie's talent in collapsing fact and fiction, is more than successful. It is indeed daunting.


During the fall of 1992, which I spent in Iran, the immense curiosity of my students and colleagues about the forbidden author's work propelled me to agree to give a public lecture on his work. When a sudden political turn of events caused the postponement of this lecture.

A campaign was waged by the extreme right wing daily Kayhan, against the "moderates" who favored economic reform and were conducting semi-clandestine negotiations with the world bank officials in Tehran. The right wingers decided to use the fatwa against Rushdie as a rallying point, both to symbolize the uncompromising attitude of Iran and to make sure that it remained in place as an obstacle in the way of normalization of the relations between Iran and the West.

I could not help but nod at Rushdie's complaint that his book has become a political football. But this is misleading. Rushdie's book was already causing quite a tempest months before it became the means of scoring easy political points. Indeed my own interest in Rushdie was generated not by Rushdie's fiction but by the Rushdie controversy.

Unable to find myself as an Iranian and a Muslim represented in ghastly contracts put on Rushdie, I took to reading the compendium of Rushdie's works. I never doubted that understanding Rushdie as a writer could not be separated from understanding him as a social and political phenomenon.

Despite my sympathetic reading of Rushdie's book in respect to the question of blasphemy, I question his judgment as a political actor. How could the author who had portrayed the bloody language riots of India doubt that Gibreel's dream sequences would raise more than eyebrows in his native India?

Could Rushdie have been naive about the consequences of tinkering with much more explosive subjects as revelation of holy books? Did he really expect his book to engender enlightened debate and at worse a few unfavorable reviews in a country where the last major religious massacres did not occur five centuries but five decades ago, and where blood still flows over the question of whose holy temples were built over whose?

Or maybe he thought he was writing only for a Western audience. In this case how long did he think he could be straddling the fence and convert one side's live ammunition into the other's fireworks? Even if we grant that Rushdie could not possibly anticipate the extent of opposition to his Satanic Verses, his attitude toward the events precipitated by the book is puzzling.

More than a dozen people had been killed in India and bloodier communal riots were anticipated when Prime Minister Gandhi decided to ban the book in India. This was a painful political decision aimed at preventing riots and preserving human life at the expense of the principle of freedom of expression. This is a kind of difficult balancing act that constitutes the essence of most political decisions.

If the tone of the intellectual discourse about Rushdie is anything to go by, it must be concluded that most Western observers fail to see the significance of Mr. Gandhi's decree. After all it is not a Western sacred cow that is being gored here. One must not, therefore, judge the strength of libertarian tendencies in the West by how many support Rushdie's unconditional right to freedom of expression.

This question in its context is at least as thorny as the issue of race relations in the United States. Every public remark, expression and even joke is carefully monitored for implied racism in a way that is hard for outsiders to understand.

To give just one graphic example, the 1915 masterpiece of D.W Griffith The Birth of a Nation arose indignant voices of many African Americans who protested to being mocked in this otherwise grand exercise in the art of filmmaking. The director's forays against "Intolerance" after his bigoted portrayal of blacks in The Birth of A Nation did not win him many supporters, especially liberal ones.

The complex controversies surrounding certain rap artists' fantasies about women, quotation of sections from Mein Kampf in a student newspaper, trampling on the American flag in an art show, displaying pictures of a cross dipped in urine and even photographs of male nudes must indicate that the ease with which the question of Rushdie is decided in his favor is due to the cultural distance of the observers more than anything else.

Why did Rushdie write to denounce Mr. Gandhi's decision? His position is indeed very clear: adherence to the principles of liberty and principles of freedom of expression without compromise and irrespective of the cost even in human life.

As a dogmatic position (not a political stance) it leaves its author with a righteous after taste of having done the right thing without heeding the price. Yet it is not Rushdie that sets this tone; he suffers from a common condition that prevails in contemporary Western circles: the lack of a tradition for political engagement by intellectuals.

In the wake of the 60s shallow fad of dabbling in politics by slogans and folk songs and especially in the wake of the demise of the Stalinist ideology of "socialist realism," nothing is easier than castigating (as kitsch or totalitarian) the idea of intellectual and political engagement, except in such ostensibly non-controversial issues as preservation of the environment. Thus Intellectual and artistic political expression have been reduced to making erratic gesticulations, throwing puerile tantrums, and in short "acting out."

If politics is the art of the possible, political writing must also explore ways of achieving what is possible rather than dogmatically insisting on what (aesthetically, logically or ethically) ought to be. The core of intellectual engagement is the acceptance of moral "responsibility" for both anticipated and unanticipated consequences of one's expressions.

Only in the presence of a tradition of political engagement will it become self-evident that to be "responsible" and non-dogmatic about one's sense of aesthetic calling and political mission does not necessarily amount to compromising ones integrity. The absolutism of those who come to the world with pure passion, unadulterated will and the purest of intentions to save it often yields horrific consequences.

Many catastrophes in recent history, (especially the history of twentieth century social movements and revolutions envisioned and heralded by intellectuals) can be traced back to the certainties of sincere and uncompromising believers who backed into the arena of political action while keeping their gaze on some high ideal.

Such people are apt not only to precipitate calamities but also to give up in the face of complications that they have created and blame the absurdity of the world for refusing to abide by their commandments. Our century has surely seen enough of this kind of irresponsibility and of those who are involved in creating their ideal world too much to deem the existing imperfect one worthy of saving.

Political action is often monotonous and quite unheroic. It is far from a knightly quest, an uncompromising crusade in a shining armor against darkness and evil. It involves choosing goals and soberly assessing the possibilities for their achievement. Political action requires balancing the positive and negative consequences of any action and possibly retreating from a perilous path. Compromise may be a dirty word in the universe of arts and intellectuality, but it is a practical and moral necessity in the world of responsible politics.

None of the above lessons are new to students of politics who have meditated upon such texts as Max Weber's Politics as a Vocation, but politically inclined intellectuals are well advised to review them in current vacuum of political mores.

The task of such a political actor is creative and patient engagement with the issues and engaging in genuine debate those who need it most but happen to live beyond the pale of intellectual or intellectuals' culture. Far from an invitation to docility and compromise, this is a challenge to undertake the heroic task of modifying ones message in view of its possible effects and consequences: to synthesize artistic creativity and political effectiveness without sacrificing one for the sake of the other.

The price for becoming socially relevant and politically influential is to take the long and arduous path of responsibility and adjustment. This approach demands the harder rout of challenging and educating instead of the shortcut of shocking and alienating. Even pure aesthetes must face the music and realize that their Romantic ivory tower of art and intellect has long been open to herds of uncouth sightseers.

To neglect the unwanted (in the case of political art, the wanted) audiences, or to wishfully reinvent them as more tolerant, knowledgeable and open than they are, is at the melting core of many of our current cultural Chernobyls including the one that has consumed Salman Rushdie.

My aim in this article has been to shed light on the import of Salman Rushdie's work and on the concept of political engagement that this affair has occasioned. I have assumed a Western audience for this paper. But I also belong to the Iranian and Muslim communities and as such I feel responsible to facilitate the badly bungled task of creating a dialogue between quite dogmatic sides.

I appeal to Ayatollah Khamenei to heed the letter and spirit of his own decree of February 17, 1989 in which he judged Rushdie as pardonable and to repeal his death sentence.

As a Muslim I would like to remind my fellow Muslims of the damage that has been done to their communities as a result of this bitter confrontation and urge them that, even if they do not share my reading of Rushdie's intent in discussing the issues relating to blasphemy, to overlook him altogether in their time -- honored tradition of tolerance tasamuh.

I ask them to regard Rushdie's writings not as a sworn enemy's vilification but as "admonitory evidence" (ebrah) relating the torments of a soul lost to what he calls "soft siren temptations" of Occidental shores.


VisaHoushmand Rad

Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form.

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