May 2, 2013 § 11 Comments
Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, has stirred up controversy with his claim, on Iran’s Press TV, that behind the Boston bombings lay anger about Western foreign policy and its attitudes to Islam:
There was such ignorance in the Bush White House about Islam and about the history of so many disputes that exist in the Middle East. People get angry. They lash out. It’s the whole squalid intervention that has disfigured the record of the Western democracies. I think this fuels the anger of the young men, who as we saw in Boston went out, and, out of anger and demand for revenge, claimed lives in the West.
Livingstone may have expressed his argument in a particularly crass fashion, but it is the kind of explanation that many have proffered over the past few weeks. Ever since Tamerlan Tsarnaev was shot dead and his brother Dzhokar captured, there has been a frantic search through their back history to discover the motivations of the alleged bombers and the reasons for their homicidal act. Their Chechen family origins, their attraction to Islam, their radicalization through jihadist sites – all have become part of the narrative of why the brothers could commit such horror. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 21, 2013 § 4 Comments
I have just taken part in an exchange of letters with Nada Shabout, director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies at the University of North Texas, which focused on the question: ‘Should religious or cultural sensibilities ever limit free speech?’ These first four letters are published in the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine. There was no room to take the debate further in print, but we are continuing the discussion. The new exchanges will be published on the Index website, and also here.
I regard free speech as a fundamental good, the fullest extension of which is necessary for democratic life and for the development of other liberties. Others view speech as a luxury rather than as a necessity, or at least as merely one right among others, and not a particularly important one. Speech from this perspective needs to be restrained not as an exception but as the norm.
The answer to whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression depends in large part upon which of these ways we think of free speech. For those, like me, who look upon free speech as a fundamental good, no degree of cultural or religious discomfort can be reason for censorship. There is no free speech without the ability to offend religious and cultural sensibilities. For those for whom free speech is more a luxury than a necessity, censorship is a vital tool in maintaining social peace and order. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 10, 2013 § 13 Comments
I am still closeted away, finishing my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought. So, here is another of my old book reviews, this one on Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning. It was first published in the Independent in August 2010.
In an age in which public intellectuals are often highly divisive figures – think of the storms surrounding Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins or Bernard-Henri Lévy – few generate more controversy than Tariq Ramadan. Political activist, Muslim scholar, and professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, he is to some the ‘Muslim Martin Luther’, a courageous reformer who helps bridge the chasm between Islamic orthodoxy and secular democracy. To his critics, Ramadan is a ‘slippery’, ‘double-faced’ religious bigot, a covert member of the Muslim Brotherhood whose aim is to undermine Western liberalism. When, in 2004, Ramadan was appointed professor of religion by Notre Dame, America’s leading Catholic University, the US State Department revoked his visa for supposedly endorsing terrorist activity.
The debate about Ramadan was re-ignited earlier this year with the publication of The Flight of the Intellectuals, American writer Paul Berman’s savage attack on European thinkers such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for what he regards as their appeasement of Ramadan. The Quest for Meaning, Ramadan’s first book aimed at a wider Western audience, arrives therefore at a timely moment. It is, he writes, ‘a journey and an initiation’ into the world’s faiths to discover the universal truths they hold in common and to set out ‘the contours of a philosophy of pluralism.’ Unfortunately it will do little to settle the argument about the nature of Ramadan’s beliefs. There is a willfull shallowness about this work, a refusal to think deeply or to pose difficult questions, that is truly shocking. Insofar as it is provocative, The Quest for Meaning seeks to provoke not through the excess of its rhetoric but through the banality of its reasoning. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 4, 2012 § 7 Comments
My essay on ‘The Myths of Muslim Rage’ sparked a debate about the relationship between religion and politics. Many challenged the idea that the conflicts over The Satanic Verses two decades ago, and over the Innocence of Muslims now, find their roots as much in political conflict as in religious belief. ‘Regardless of who may have been “pulling the strings” and for what reasons’, as one critic put it in commenting on the essay, ‘the fact that those strings can even be pulled in the first place has become a tragically predictable aspect of modern Islam. I would contend that religious sensibilities are firmly at the center of this situation.’
There are, I think, two problems with the insistence that these are primarily religious confrontations. The first is what I see as a literal reading of the clashes: that because religion is the language in which a particular conflict takes place, so that conflict must necessarily be religious in content as well as in form. I have observed before how those who are most hostile to religion often ‘take as literal a view of religion as the fundamentalists themselves’.
The second problem is the failure of many to recognise that the very character of religion has changed in recent decades. There is a tendency to view the contemporary resurgence of religion as a throwback to the past, as simply the return of old-fashioned faith. In fact contemporary forms of religion are often very different from, and hostile to, traditional varieties. What we are witnessing is not so much the return of religion as its remaking. This was the theme of a talk I gave three years ago at a conference provocatively titled ‘The Return of Religion and Other Myths’ organized in the Netherlands by the Utrecht art centre BAK , as a part of an ongoing project on ‘post-secularism’. So, I am publishing here an edited version of the first part of that talk.
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? « Read the rest of this entry »
September 20, 2012 Comments Off
When he was a child Salman Rushdie’s father read to him ‘the great wonder tales of the East’ – the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, the animal fables of the ancient Indian Panchatantra, ‘the marvels that poured like a waterfall from the Kathasaritsagara’, the famous 11th-century Sanskrit collection of myths, the ‘tales of the mighty heroes collected in the Hamzanama’, that tell of the legendary exploits of Amir Hamza, uncle to the Prophet Mohammed, and the ancient Persian classic, The Adventures of Hatim Tai. Rushdie’s father ‘told them and retold them and remade them and reinvented them in his own way’.
To grow up ‘steeped in these tellings’, Rushdie writes, ‘was to learn two unforgettable lessons’. First, that ‘stories were not true… but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him’. And, second, that all stories ‘belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else’. Most of all, the young Rushdie learnt that ‘Man was a storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away’.
Except that by the time Rushdie was old enough to read these stories to his own son that was exactly what many people wanted to do. And to take away not just his birthright but his life too. When the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on Valentine’s Day 1989, for the ‘blasphemies’ of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, Rushdie was in effect sentenced to death for writing a story. Many were to be killed for translating and publishing that story. Bookshops were bombed for stocking it. It is a measure of the strangeness of the world in which we now live that storytelling can be such a hazardous craft. It is a world far stranger than any imagined in Rushdie’s tales. ’It would be absurd to think that books can cause riots’, Rushdie told an Indian journalist shortly before the publication of The Satanic Verses. In today’s world, we know that not just books but films, plays, cartoons, ideas, images – all can cause riots. Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s memoir, is the story of how that world came to be. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 16, 2012 § 5 Comments
Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton is published tomorrow. (Joseph Anton, for those who don’t know, was the name that Rushdie adopted during his years in hiding, a name borrowed from two of his favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.) Joseph Anton is not simply a memoir; it is a vital piece of social history. It is Rushdie’s first real account of the years under the shadow of the fatwa, the story from the inside of a changing world.
I will review the book next week. In the meantime, here are four interviews from my book From Fatwa to Jihad which explored the Rushdie affair and its legacy, and in that sense treads across some of the same ground as Joseph Anton, though peering in from the outside, as it were, rather than narrating from the inside. (And, yes, I know, this is the second batch this week of extracts from the book; think of these interviews as complementing the previous extracts.) The interviews (some of them slightly shortened from the original) are with four people intimately involved in the life of Joseph Anton: Peter Mayer, CEO of Penguin at the time of the fatwa; Sher Azam, chairman of the Bradford Council of Mosques at the time, in an interview I conducted shortly after he helped torch Rushdie’s novel in an infamous demonstration in Bradford in January 1989; William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, who was shot and left for dead; and Rushdie’s close friend, the novelist Hanif Kureishi. « Read the rest of this entry »