THE MYTHS OF MUSLIM RAGE
September 26, 2012 § 58 Comments
Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, has hit the bookshelves just as the world has become embroiled in a new controversy over Islamic sensibilities. The extraordinary violence unleashed across the Muslim world by Innocence of Muslims, an obscure US-made video, has left many bewildered and perplexed.
Rushdie was, of course, at the centre of the most famous confrontation over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. The publication in 1988 of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, launched a worldwide campaign against the supposed blasphemies in the book, culminating in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on 14 February 1989 condemning Rushdie to death, and forcing him into hiding for a decade.
Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s account of the fatwa and the years that followed. So, what does the battle over The Satanic Verses tell us about the current controversy over The Innocence of Muslims?
The Rushdie affair is shrouded in a number of myths that have obscured its real meaning. The first myth is that the confrontation over The Satanic Verses was primarily a religious conflict. It wasn’t. It was first and foremost a political tussle. The novel became a weapon in the struggle by Islamists with each other, with secularists and with the West. The campaign began in India where hardline Islamist groups whipped up anger against Rushdie’s supposed blasphemies to win concessions from politicians nervous about an upcoming general election and fearful of alienating any section of the Muslim community. The book subsequently became an issue in Britain, a weapon in faction fights between various Islamic groups.
Most important was the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for supremacy in the Islamic world. From the 1970s onwards Saudi Arabia had used oil money to fund Salafi organisations and mosques worldwide to cement its position as spokesman for the umma. Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the Shah, established an Islamic republic, made Tehran the capital of Muslim radicalism, and Ayatollah Khomeini its spiritual leader, and posed a direct challenge to Riyadh. The battle over Rushdie’s novel became a key part of that conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia made the initial running, funding the campaign against the novel. The fatwa was an attempt by Iran to wrestle back the initiative. The campaign against The Satanic Verses was not a noble attempt to defend the dignity of Muslims, nor even a theological campaign to protect religious values. It was part of a sordid political battle to promote particular sectarian interests.
The second myth is that most Muslims were offended by the novel. They weren’t. Until the fatwa, the campaign against The Satanic Verses was largely confined to the subcontinent and Britain. Aside from the involvement of Saudi Arabia, there was little enthusiasm for a campaign against the novel in the Arab world or in Turkey, or among Muslim communities in France or Germany. When Saudi Arabia tried at the end of 1988 to get the novel banned in Muslim countries few responded – not even Iran. It was that fatwa, imposed for political reasons, that transformed the controversy and the confrontation.
The biggest myth of the Rushdie affair is the belief that best way to prevent such confrontations is by restricting what people are able to say to or about each other. In the battle over The Satanic Verses, many intellectuals and politicians sympathized with Muslim anger, blaming Rushdie himself for his plight. ‘There is no law in life or nature’, the novelist John Le Carré insisted, ‘that that says great religions may be insulted with impunity’. ‘We have known in our own religion people doing things which are deeply offensive to some of us’, Margaret Thatcher observed. ‘And this is what has happened to Islam’. After riots in Islamabad, the American embassy there expressed its ‘wish to emphasize that the US government in no way associates itself with any activity that is any sense offensive or insulting to Islam or any other religion’. It became accepted in the post-Rushdie world that it is morally wrong to give offence to other cultures and that in a plural society speech must necessarily be less free.
These myths about the Rushdie affair have shaped responses to every similar conflict since. Every one is being reproduced in the current debate about Innocence of Muslims: the belief that violence is being driven by religious sensibilities, that all Muslims are incensed, and that Muslim anger is reason for new restrictions on free speech.
It is true that Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude, bigoted diatribe against Islam. But the idea that this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till this month is the source of worldwide violence is equally risible. As in the Rushdie affair, what we are seeing is a political power struggle cloaked in religious garb. In Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, the crisis is being fostered by hardline Islamists in an attempt to gain the political initiative. In recent elections hardline Islamists lost out to more mainstream factions. Just as the Ayatollah Khomeini tried to use the fatwa to turn the tables on his opponents, so the hardliners are today trying to do the same by orchestrating the violence over Innocence of Muslims, tapping into the deep well of anti-Western sentiment that exists in many of these countries. The film is almost incidental to this.
The insurrections that have transformed much the Arab world over the past year have certainly created a new terrain. They have undermined old security structures, created a greater sense of social fragmentation, and opened up new spaces for Islamist politics. What has really changed, however, is that over the past decade political rage has become far more inchoate and increasingly shorn of political content. To be ‘anti-Western’ used to mean to take a political stand against Western policy. Now, it simply expresses an unformed sense of fury, leading to a random, frenzied outpouring of anger. The nihilistic character of anti-Western sentiment today means that it can attach itself to the most arbitrary of causes. Even an obscure YouTube video can seemingly launch worldwide protests.
While the hardline Islamists have managed to bring out thousands of people on to the streets in violent protest, there is little to suggest that the majority of Muslims, even in Egypt, Libya or Pakistan support them. Indeed, hardliners are only forced into organizing such demonstrations because of their lack of popular support. Those who do not support the Islamists do not take to the streets, so are generally ignored in the West. The reactionaries come to be seen as the true voice of Muslim communities. At the same time the perception that the violent mobs are representative of Muslim feeling has lent support to calls for offensive works such as The Innocence of Muslims to be made illegal and, in this case, for the film maker to be arrested.
At the height of the battle against The Satanic Verses Shabbir Akhtar, the Muslim philosopher who acted as a spokesman for the anti-Rushdie campaign, mocked the equivocations of Western liberals. ‘Vulnerability’, he wrote, ‘is never the best proof of strength’. The more you cave in to those who would censor, the more they wish to censor. And the more you seek to appease the hardliners, and view them as the ‘real’ Muslims, the more you marginalise progressive movements in the Muslim world. The myths enshrouding the Rushdie affair have ensured that the lessons we have drawn from the battle over The Satanic Verses are the very opposite of the ones we should have learnt.
A version of this essay was published in the Swedish newspaper Expressen.
For a full discussion of the Rushdie Affair, its roots and its consequences, see my book From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy.
‘Gripping… The Rushdie affair has shaped all our lives. This book shows us how.’
‘An important intervention in the current debate on freedom of expression’
‘A riveting political history… Impeccably researched, brimming with detail, yet razor-sharp in its argument.’
Lisa Appignanesi, Independent
‘Few writers have untangled the paradoxes and unintended consequences of political Islam as deftly as Malik does here.’
Maureen Freely, Washington Post