East, West: Salman Rushdie and the Question of Civilization

This is an article by Oscar Clarke. It appears in the May/June 2013 issue of The Humanist. You can read other articles from this issue and subscribe to the magazine by going to their website.

Note: All URLs below are my own additions, because I thought they’d be helpful.

In a fantastically unfair appraisal (that ran in the New York Review of Books last December) of Salman Rushdie’s account of the years of freedom that were stolen from him by humorless, illiterate thugs, Zoë Heller’s last misrepresentation is the most bitter. She writes:

Now he regards any efforts to separate reactionary forms of Islam from Islam itself as dishonest and wrong. They are, he claims, embarrassing corollaries of the old attempts by Western Marxists to separate the “true” Marxist way from the horrors of Soviet Communism. Islam is not, after all, a heterogeneous entity but a sickening, murderous monolith, and Western “respect” for the religion—to be placed, at all times, in scornful quotation marks—is only ever “Tartuffe-like hypocrisy.”

The passage from which Heller offers this reading can be found on page 357 of Joseph Anton: A Memoir. It did not escape my notice that Rushdie’s discussion of the ideal and the actually existing Islam is sandwiched between an elucidating preface and an important coda, neither of which are given consideration in Heller’s account. By their addition, Rushdie’s position appears more nuanced and thoughtful than Heller’s portrait of the artist as a bigot could have allowed (note: Rushdie’s memoir is written in the third person):

But something was eating away at the faith of his grandfather, corroding and corrupting it, making it an ideology of narrowness and intolerance, banning books, persecuting thinkers, erecting absolutisms, turning dogma into a weapon with which to beat the undogmatic.

I don’t wish to ventriloquize Rushdie in quite the way that Heller allows herself to, but this seems to be a clear indication that he’s talking about a modern phenomenon: the faith becoming an ideology, being usurped by children of the twentieth century — the Maududis and the Qutbs — and turned into a political instrument. This is one of the themes in his 1983 novel, Shame, which satirized the idea at the heart of the state of Pakistan — the belief in a perfect Islam and the creation of a society that could wash away sin and replace it with pure faith.

That is what V. S. Naipaul encountered on his Islamic journey; Pakistan was a country where every failure was attributed to imperfect piety, where Islam could not be the problem, it could only be — in the form of the slogan that Qutb’s followers in Egypt have adopted — the solution. If only the faithful could be faithful enough, could live in complete submission to God, then Pakistan would be a modern utopia. That was the founding myth of the state, and it certainly did resemble the founding myths of a few other twentieth-century projects. When Rushdie writes about actually existing Islam, he appears to be writing about Islam as something other than a personal belief, about Islam as a project, an idea out of which to mold a society.

The fact that he compares it to Marxism is another indication of this; one can be a historical materialist with a more or less Marxist outlook and have reservations about the idea that a society could succeed by following those principles. Similarly, one can be a Muslim and believe in a secular society. The people who talked about the real Marxism were the people who believed, in spite of Stalinism, that a Marxist society could still be successful. No one would be too concerned about what the real Islam is if the faith wasn’t connected to the modern ideology. I don’t much care what the real Christianity is because the idea of Christendom died when all of the Christian empires of Europe decided to go to war with one another. Political Islam is a totalitarian system that will never rise above the abjection that is its demonstrable quality.

Rushdie continues: “He [Rushdie] wanted to speak too for the idea that liberty was everyone’s heritage and not, as Samuel Huntington argued, a Western notion alien to the cultures of the East.”

The author who decided that he was the comma that he placed between East and West in the title of one of his collections of short stories has never been a proponent of the Clash of Civilizations. The idea that the civilizational struggle could be reduced to the Islamic East against the secularized Christian West is the idea of the theocrats in Iran and the suicide armies who dream that their sacrifice will help facilitate the rise of a new Caliphate.

Rushdie, in fact, is so opposed to the Huntington hypothesis that he rebukes it on more than one occasion, his particular scorn for the idea of cultural relativism running throughout his memoir. He shows himself perceptive — as always — to the sufferings of Muslims in Kashmir and Bangladesh at the hands of other Muslims, and to the diminishing freedoms of writers in the Arab world (in inverse correlation to the rise of political Islam). There is, for instance, the late Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel-winning author of the Cairo Trilogy who was stabbed in the neck by Islamists who decided to take exception to his work after he had called the Ayatollah Khomeini by his proper name: a terrorist. He survived, but the attack more or less destroyed the eighty-two-year-old’s ability to write.

Rushdie was particularly proud of some of the reviews that he received from Muslim writers. One hundred of them came together to publish essays in support of their beleaguered fellow scribbler. The Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb, author of Islam and its Malcontents, wrote: “instead of condemning you, in the name of Islam, I congratulate you,” and Zhor Ben Chamsi of Morocco wrote, “we should really be grateful to Rushdie for having opened up the imaginary for Muslims once again.”

But there are other ways of looking at it, I suppose. Here’s another lowlight from Heller’s dire review, referring to the immense struggle Rushdie faced to keep The Satanic Verses in print:

Readers will differ in their opinions of whether the free speech represented by The Satanic Verses paperback was worth upholding at any cost. But even those who take Rushdie’s side on this will be hard pressed to match his scorn for the opposing point of view. By the time the Rushdie affair was over it had resulted in the deaths of more than fifty people.

Heller, who did her best in the conclusion of her review to turn the support Rushdie received from Arab and Muslim writers into a reason why he should have affected a more credulous tone — even if that would have meant relinquishing the artistic freedom that they wrote in support of — might benefit from reading more of them herself. She might not so easily have evaded the question of whether the free speech represented by the book was worth upholding if she could have understood how the fate of Salman Rushdie and that of his Arab and Muslim supporters intertwine.

Farag Fouda was less fortunate than his fellow Egyptian, Mahfouz. His satires on Islamic fundamentalism were punished too — he was shot and killed. Still, by the formula which implicates Rushdie in the deaths caused by an affair he never asked for, Fouda and Mahfouz would have to be blamed for the attacks that they suffered — they could have laid off the theme of fundamentalism, capitulated out of fear, which Heller seems to suggest would be the most noble option.

I don’t feel it’s right to encourage an Islamist silence to descend over the Middle East. Azar Nafisi’s memoirs, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s essays, and Boualem Sansal’s novels deserve to be read, just as Solzhenitsyn’s novels and Vaclav Havel’s Letters to Olga deserved to be read.

I salute the writer who understood the importance of opening up the imaginary; and it is the celebration of it which provides the most touching and rewarding extract in the book. Returning to India for the first time since the Fatwa, Rushdie is greeted at the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize reception by jubilant writers — Raj Kamal Jha, Namita Gokhale, Shauna Singh Baldwin — who want to talk to the novelist about his work and the influence that it has had upon their own, and have nothing to say about the fatwa. To live, to borrow Havel’s formulation, “as if” he were free, a novelist among novelists, is the thing that Rushdie craves throughout the memoir. It’s beautiful when it comes: “The defences fell away and happiness rose like a tropical dawn, fast and brilliant and hot. India was his again. It was a rare thing to be granted one’s heart’s desire.”

Oscar Clarke is a freelance writer who recently graduated from the University of the West of England. His work has appeared in the English webzine the Commentator. He can be found on Twitter @oaclarke.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • The Captain

    “The people who talked about the real Marxism were the people who believed, in spite of Stalinism, that a Marxist society could still be successful.” well there you go, you are doing exactly what Zoe Heller claims Rushdie is doing, you are in in effect saying the Stalinism is the “real marxism”. This is not the “more nuanced” position you claim it is.

    “one can be a historical materialist with a more or less Marxist outlook and have reservations about the idea that a society could succeed by following those principles. ” But that begs the question, what principles then should society be following? And then are there those that use those same principles as a foundation for a system you dislike? Free markets for many in the west is to be practiced as the Ayn Rand version of social darwinism and is the only “real capitalism” would you then agree with the sentence “The people who talked about the real Capitalism were the people who believed, in spite of Rand, that a Capitalist society could still be successful.”

    • Houndentenor

      I’m happy to have read both Animal Farm and see The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Orwell and Brecht/Weill each give a fictional reading of the horrors of living under a society with alternately too much and two little government. Neither extreme is preferable over the other.

    • Randay

      Your first paragraph is self contradictory. You speak of people who believed in “real Marxism” “in spite of Stalinism”. Then you say that they are saying that “Stalinism is the ‘real’ Marxism”.

      Personally, I don’t accept the idea of historical necessity but rather am a Proudhonist accepting the analysis of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who was a teacher of Marx. Proudhon wrote at the time of the Luddite revolt in England and the Canut revolt in Lyon in France. These revolts were not against “modernization” but against the reduction of wages imposed by the new, improved Capitalist system. This was long before Ayn Rand. Capitalism can only be regarded as “successful” because it eliminates, often violently, any other attempts at the organization of society. So there is nothing real to compare it to except dictatorships.

      Capitalism itself is dictatorial in its fashion.

      • The Other Weirdo

        Very true. Agree 100%. Quite unlike all of the Marxist-based regimes.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Harrison/23417637 Michael Harrison

      I read that sentence about “the real Marxism” a bit differently. Following the analogy, if we’re dealing with a Muslim who believes in secular society (which I interpret to mean a society not based on religious tenets), then “the real Marxism” corresponds to theocracies, and is being denounced. The question that leaves for me is: in what sense is someone Marxist who does not believe government should be founded on the tenets of Marxism? I suspect the answer to my question is found in the difference between economies and governments.

  • Mario Strada

    FYI, I have been subscribing to “The Humanist” for about a year. I get the digital copy on my Kindle and it’s one of the best magazines I have ever read. I wish Skeptic had such a good digital edition (theirs is a pain).

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    I don’t much care what the real Christianity is because the idea of Christendom died when all of the Christian empires of Europe decided to go to war with one another.

    i have to take you to task for that one. such a statement hardly supports the credibility of your authority to argue about concepts like political or personal Islam. not only is this statement about christianity historically incorrect, it fails to balance the importance of understanding the essential role Christianity, and more than one “real” form of it, played in the development of Islam- political, personal, and ‘real.’ and does to this day.

    sorry, that’s a grave analytical error.

    oh, and nobody has taken Huntington seriously outside of the corporate paid pundit class of academic for a long, long time. real historians and scholars recognize and attribute what is at this point decades of excellent criticism of his claims, the paucity of some of them exposed in rather dramatic fashion by various ‘sub altern’ and other post-colonial schools. huntington may be taught in intro classes or at conservative schools, but unless things have changed dramatically since i was in the biz, he’s been deconstructed rather seriously by more than one rising star.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    … but this seems to be a clear indication that he’s talking about a
    modern phenomenon: the faith becoming an ideology, being usurped by
    children of the twentieth century — the Maududis and the Qutbs — and
    turned into a political instrument

    Excuse me, but when was Islam ever not political?

  • https://sites.google.com/site/ferulebezelssite/ Ferule Bezel

    The A+, FTB, Skepchick crowd would be better off reading the cover story.


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