Walking the Tightrope
What happens in fiction resonates or clashes with the deepest parts of our identity: our sense of how the world works, of what it means to be human, and of who, as individuals and members of a community, we are. When we read fiction we either reaffirm or redefine our conception of reality to a degree surpassed by only one other type of story: religious revelation. And when fiction moves into a realm of mind where revelation holds sway, it will be the profoundest challenge to -- or affirmation of -- faith.
Muslims' very existence as a people depends on the holiness of Mohammed and the validity of his revelation from God. Their understanding of the way the world works depends on this. When Rushdie treated Mohammed with scorn and depicted him in a vulgar, low way, he challenged the foundation of their collective and individual identities. He tore at the very heart of who they are.
Satanic Verses is not "pure" artistic expression. (There is no such thing, anyway.) It was anti-Islamic literature -- a story by a former insider who deliberately struck at the very heart of the Islamic faith.
I remember my first exposure to hardcore anti-Mormon literature. I was in Brazil on my mission when a member brought us some pamphlets that a friend of his had been given. (You know the pattern -- nobody talks to the guy about religion in his whole life, but the minute they find out he's attending Mormon meetings, they have all kinds of "information" about the Mormons.)
As I read the pamphlets, I never felt my faith challenged -- I never was tempted to doubt. It was all silly stuff that I'd heard about before. But I found myself getting deeply angry because I imagined other people reading this stuff and thinking it was true. I wanted to go out and find every copy of those pamphlets and include with each one my own detailed refutation of every lie they told.
Yet that was impossible. So I found myself filled with helpless, impotent rage at how these people were creating a false image of Mormonism. They were defining for many people what the name Mormon stands for; they were defining the most powerful of the communities that comprise my identity; therefore they were defining me. I seethed for days, even after I carefully and patiently answered the questions these pamphlets had raised in the minds of the members and nonmembers I knew who had read them. It still hurts to remember -- for even though my faith is unchallenged by them, my public identity is profoundly challenged.
Those pamphlets were written by avowed anti-Mormons. People of reason and good will are usually repelled by such hate literature, and sometimes are even sympathetic to the victims of such obvious lies. But what about attacks on a community written by members?
Back to Rushdie. Remember that countless Western authors have written about Islam in a negative or demeaning way, with few or no repercussions. Muslims might resent such writing, might try to refute it, but as long as everyone knows that the negative stories are being told by outsiders, they pose no particular threat to the epic of Islam -- the more anti-Islamic they are, the less credibility they have.
But Rushdie was not an outsider. Rushdie might have lost his faith, he might be living in a Western nation, but to Muslims these matters are irrelevant -- he wrote as a member of the Muslim community. He knew all the buttons to push. He knew all the ways to offend. And he used them.