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The Boy From Bombay
Published on January 18, 2013

Novelist Salman Rushdie, famously, is something of an expert witness on the menace of blasphemy laws. On February 14, 1989, recall, Iran’s fanatical ruler Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa suborning the murder of Rushdie, a foreign citizen, for the crime of writing a work of fiction, The Satanic Verses. Agents of militant Islam from London to Lahore took to the streets crying for blood (though most of them, like Khomeini, had not, and perhaps even could not, read the book). The threat was quite real, and Rushdie swiftly vanished, as Martin Amis memorably put it, into the front page. The Islamic Republic renounced the death sentence nearly a decade later, but great blasphemer will likely be a target for the rest of his life. After Rushdie’s new memoir of his life after the death sentence hit the bookshelves, a semi-official religious foundation in Iran raised the bounty on his head.

In Joseph Anton, Rushdie reflects on his namesake: Ibn Rushd (Averroës), the 12th-century Arab philosopher from Córdoba who argued against absolutist readings of holy writ. “At least”, he told himself when the “black arrows” were released against him, “I’m going into this battle bearing the right name.” But he soon discovered that the holy warriors would prevent him from retaining even that. In order to cover his tracks, he became Joseph Anton, an alias fusing the given names of two favorite novelists, Conrad and Chekhov. In the aftermath of the fatwa, The Satanic Verses was “denied an ordinary life. It became something smaller and uglier: an insult.” And as the storm of controversy wore on, Rushdie was forced to restrict communication with his young son while conducting a frenzied search for safe houses. Many in polite society found him guilty of indecency, if not (in view of his Muslim origins) outright treachery.

Rushdie attributes his “presumption of freedom” to his boyhood in India, an open society surrounded by stultifying tyrannies. He always took pride in this place, “flawed, certainly, perhaps even deeply flawed, but free.” Over time, however, he became distraught to see his native land turning on its best traditions, trading the precious inheritance of freedom for a craven censorship unbecoming of the world’s largest democracy. (It is disheartening to learn that The Satanic Verses was, and remains, banned in India.) Rushdie shared with his birthplace, Bombay, the dubious fate of being renamed, also as the result of faith-based intolerance. He seems to have had a premonition of what would befall India if religious sectarians ever got hold of his beloved city. “Those who hated India”, he wrote in The Moor’s Last Sigh, “those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay.”

It soon became apparent that the ruin was scarcely confined to the Indian subcontinent. The harder he tried to insist on the requirements of freedom as well as on the literary merits of his work, the more he found himself reviled. He may well have echoed Ralph Ellison’s lament, “I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest.” But it was of no use to trade in dishonesty, either. The nadir came after many dispiriting months as his protectors begged him to “do something to lower the temperature.” Even the strongest have their moments of fatigue, and in a bid to placate clerical tyranny he signed a declaration of his adherence to Islam. With death squads on his trail, this submission was understandable but, as Rushdie is the first to acknowledge, not entirely pardonable. Predictably, this ploy only confirmed his assailants’ smirking disdain for the apostate traitor.

Rushdie had already pledged neither to be afraid nor angry, and after his declaration failed to improve his situation, he also eschewed the vain hope that he could ever be popular. He determined instead to stay on good terms with his inner Conrad. In the book it’s Conrad who gives Anton “the motto to which he clung as if to a lifeline in the long years that would follow. . . . ‘Joseph Anton,’ he told himself, ‘you must live until you die.’” Rushdie thus underwent a conversion of sorts. Cut off from the world, and contemplating his imminent extinction from it, he learned what he really “thought to be true and worth fighting for.” He became more convinced than ever that he was fully prepared to die for “a bloody book” if it came to that. At the same time, he nurtured a “pilgrim dream” to relocate to New York, embark on a “new life in the New World”, and to lead “a free man’s life.”

When faith leaders worldwide seemed to condone his persecution, Rushdie wasn’t much surprised by this curious example of what Christopher Hitchens termed “reverse ecumenicism.” The archbishop of Canterbury was among the first to say of the controversy that he “understood the Muslims’ feelings.” Soon the pope “would understand those feelings too”, and the British chief rabbi, and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, and the cardinal of New York.

Rushdie was more distressed by the similar sentiment among those in his own milieu.  Somehow many on the contemporary left extolled multiculturalism to the point of barely disguised contempt for the Enlightenment. Perhaps for some it was sheer cowardice, but they also had a vexing tendency to put in a good word for any movement—no matter how racist, misogynist, homophobic, theocratic, totalitarian, imperialist, or genocidal—as long as it opposed the liberal world order that American power made possible.

For Rushdie, the greatest enemy of civilization is religious fanaticism, tout court. He doesn’t put up with any cant about Islam being a religion of peace. “Mayhem was not the prerogative of Islam alone”, he notes, but “actually existing Islam” was nothing short of a “poison” coursing through the Muslim bloodstream. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali, another persecuted infidel, recently argued in Newsweek, the Muslims who “support—whether actively or passively—the idea that blasphemers deserve to suffer punishment are not a fringe group. On the contrary, they represent the mainstream of contemporary Islam.” Indeed, such intolerance has become the “defining characteristic of Islam.” Just so. Nonetheless, Islam is not a monolith. Those who professed sympathy for Rushdie’s “victims” inflated the notion (insulting to decent Muslims everywhere, I need hardly add) that a senile ayatollah spoke for all Muslims.

This view is belied by the long and pitiless struggle between secular liberals and religious dogmatists across the lands of Islam. It also ignores the considerable support Rushdie enjoyed among Muslims after the fatwa. In “For Rushdie”, one hundred Arab and Muslim intellectuals expressed solidarity with their beleaguered comrade. Among their number was Antoine Sfeir, the great Lebanese historian, who declared, “We will never say it enough: to attack the Islamists, to denounce their actions and their lies, is not to attack Islam. To attack the Islamists is, on the contrary, to defend the Muslims themselves, the first though not the only victims of the Islamists.” And yet, much of the Right had been too dull to spot the exemplary cause that Rushdie’s case presented, while much of the Left failed to recognize an enemy in a blood-drenched cleric halfway around the world.

The Rushdie fatwa marked the beginning of a pernicious trend as Islamist wrath spread: liberal societies according special respect to the most unreasoning adherents of that unreformed faith. Consider the fatuous charge of “Islamophobia”, which, according to Rushdie, meant that “to criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot.” In subsequent years, this trend accelerated with alarming speed, as meticulously documented by Paul Berman in The Flight of the Intellectuals (2009) and by Kenan Malik in From Fatwa to Jihad (2010). The “cancer of cultural relativism” infecting the West has recast the defense of liberty as a “liberal inquisition.” There is such a thing as secular religion, but secularism is not one of them. Any suggestion of moral equivalence between “Enlightenment fundamentalism” and the other sort is repugnant. Intense devotion to free expression has no resemblance to reactionary Islam. As Christopher Hitchens observed, Islamist gangsters are distinguished by a peculiarly toxic mixture of self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred.

Such qualities are in no way comparable to those that animate the friends of liberty. One who uses or threatens violence to suppress the first freedom, the freedom of speech, is in thrall to the injunctions of a cruel faith.

Joseph Anton’s ordeal gives way to the thrill that comes from defiantly upholding Enlightenment principles, and recognizing that the world does not belong to those who mindlessly proclaim the authority of one unfalsifiable book. The Rushdie affair offered a dual warning: first, of this new enemy—the initial “shrieking blackbird”, in Rushdie’s haunting description—and, second, of the fear and “respect” with which good men greeted it. That enemy has since migrated into the wider world beyond Islam, while the supine posture of compromise continues to characterize what we still quaintly call the “free world”—a world whose freedom, Rushdie darkly concludes, is not properly understood and therefore not properly guarded.


Brian Stewart is a political writer based in New York.