A dead debate resurrected?

Lest anyone wonder why I’m posing with a copy of The Satanic Verses, I’m posting my ancient, dog-eared copy to demonstrate that I have actually read the novel several times, hardcover to hardcover. And in the light of the recent attempt on Rushdie’s life, I plan to peruse it again. Fortunately for me, nowhere near as accomplished an author as Sal the Man, I am not likely to invite designs on my life by reading this ponderous tome, rescued from obscurity after lying dusty and forgotten at the bottom of my bookshelf for decades.

Why now, after all this time? Is it a case of the way my father would admonish, with a wagging finger: What has missed you hasn’t passed you? (Tringlish: ‘Wha miss yuh eh parse yuh.’)

The Satanic Verses was published in 1988, after Rushdie’s novels Midnight’s Children (1981) and Shame (1983) and before one of my favourites, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). Salman came to our attention through images on the BBC of South Asian Muslims kicking the bits of the books that had not yet been consigned to the flames towards a bonfire prepared specially to incinerate them. I was twenty-seven years old at the time and felt immediately conflicted. Torn between love for the Prophet and his companions on the one hand, and the prohibition of free expression on the other, the implications of which have been etched on Europe’s consciousness since the Nazi burning of books in 1933 (by a German students’ union, of all things). It was portentously whispered at the time, that people who begin by burning books will end up burning people (and now, beheading people?) So it was written; so it was done.

The Satanic Verses represented a paradigm shift on several levels across the Islamisphere, not least among converts in the West. For one thing, the original text was written in English, which saved many of us the time-consuming argument that something must have been lost in translation. With the proverbial zeal of the con and his companionsvert, many of us rallied around the Ayatollah’s fatwa that Salman Rushdie should pay with his life, even though a minority withheld their fullest support, suspicious of the Shias who issued it.

At the time there was less of a divide in the UK South Asian community along sectarian and ethnic lines. In the 1970s, the majority of the South Asian population, more Muslim than Sikh or Hindu, found it politically expedient to identify as black. The Bangladeshis were the last to arrive, in the aftermath of a civil war which secured their independence and to which India had given its support. By the time the 1980s started, the general South Asian community, in finding its feet, had become more brown than black.

With the release of The Satanic Verses another fault line opened — this time along the lines of religion. The minority Hindus, eager to appease the establishment, or perhaps, preferring to protest using the now-universally respected Gandhian tenet of ahimsa, were desperate to distance themselves from the foam-flecked beards of the ranting, stamping Muslims of South Asian origin.

The old hurts and memories of post-Partition India were revivified and given free rein, whether about Sikh involvement in the murder of Indira Gandhi or the formation of the two Muslim states bookending Mother India, twin stains on the face of Bharat Mataji. No longer just South Asian shades of brown, the Satanic Verses brought into still bolder relief the hitherto muted differences in the UK, between Muslims and the other religious communities of the subcontinent. And into this bubbling ferment we, the recent Caribbean converts waded, wielding worry beads and joss sticks, reeking of incense oils, with our salaams sounded at full throat, a certain Blackistani minority sporting imitation moustache-less beards, some kitted out in chappals and shalwar kameez.

In the vanguard of the protests against The Satanic Verses stood the stalwart Kaleem Siddiqui, later the inspiration behind the Muslim Parliament (1992). In the UK back then, the cleavage in the South Asian community along the lines of religion had not yet fractured into a Shia-Sunni divide; a fact that might have facilitated the appeal of Kaleem Siddiqui. Siddiqui appealed to the younger generation of South Asian and other Muslim minorities growing up in the UK as British Muslims, increasingly alienated from their parents’ brand of village-Islam, which they continued to practise in Tower Hamlets and Bradford, unaltered, as though they were still living in Sylhet or Rawalpindi.

The youth, however, confronted the problems of racism with a defiant approach that alarmed their parents’ generation. The war between Iraq and Iran was dragging on, the plight of the Palestinians was being highlighted by western, secular celebrities while the Russians were beginning a retreat, pushed onto the back foot in Afghanistan. It was a febrile atmosphere that had brought mainstream ‘eastern’ Islam to the full attention of the West, attracting and poaching converts aplenty from the Moorish Temple of Science, the Nation of Islam, the Ansaaru Allah Community, the Fuqara Movement and other so-called Western-born heterodoxies

To counter this growing militancy, the West devised a plan to drive a wedge through any common cause developing between Shia and Sunni, as epitomized by Kaleem Siddiqui’s Islamic Movement. Saudi Arabia was promoted as a counterweight to upstart Iran, which, under Ayatollah Khomeini, was attempting to usurp the role of the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques as the mouthpiece of the Muslim world. Enter AmeriKKKan arms, ammunition and funding, first to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, then to the embryonic Taliban in the mountains of north-west Pakistan.

How does Salman Rushdie fit into all this? The famed writer was increasingly disgusted by the ease with which AmeriKKKa seemed able to manipulate Muslims for their own ends, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, by using Muslims against their archenemy the USSR, as well as Sunni and Shia against each other. The novelist writes with a sense of ambivalent feelings, even a healthy helping of cognitive dissonance. To be a Muslim, on the outside looking in, between two cultures, is often a writer’s technique, distance placed betwixt them, so as to see the full mountain in perspective. His approach was not so much to deconstruct or defame Islam, I think, but just to ask: What if, just what if, all this dicing into finer and finer conflicts, ends up in our simply cannibalizing each other out of existence while our petroleum and natural gas are being pumped west to feed the addiction of the AmeriKKKan oil junkie?

In writing, cartooning and stand-up comedy, exaggeration and hyperbole are essential components, designed to focus attention on the central point being made. It can be argued that Salman Rushdie went too far. However, whenever Rushdie tried to explain himself, no Muslim left in the room would bother to listen; only hypocritical westerners prating about the freedom of expression which they never extend to those who insult the Stars and Stripes, even inadvertently. Yet the same Americans who supplied the military and logistical assistance necessary to allow the USSR their experience of Vietnam in Kabul were the same ones calling the Muslim anti-Rushdie protests sclerotic and symptomatic of an ossified religion.

As a Trini, from a society that has had the freedom to express itself (look at the medium of calypso, eg.) I tend to baulk at any notion of censorship. There is a tendency for groups to advocate freedom of speech, except when the expression of that freedom offends them. The very Quran, in that case, is offensive to Christians, since it denies the notion of a holy trinity, the cornerstone of the Christian faith.

Should the Quran therefore be subject to censorship in a society dominated by Christians? That is the burning question.

Juma Bihari studied Politics and History at UWI (St. Augustine Campus), later Anthropology and Linguistics at SOAS/London University (School of Oriental and African Studies) in the UK. He studied Egyptology and Arabic at Alexandra University, Egypt, and has travelled, lived, researched and worked in eighteen African countries and many in the Middle East, including Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Oman.