Victor Klemperer served as a celebrated professor of literature at the Dresden University of Technology in the early part of the twentieth century. A Jew who was forced to flee Nazi Germany, Klemperer composed a diary during his time in captivity in which he expressed his unreserved revulsion for the German intelligentsia that lent intellectual support to the Nazi regime. Martin Heidegger, uncontroversially one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, was one such intellectual. About them Klemperer wrote, “I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lamp posts for as long as was compatible with hygiene.” In short, Klemperer regarded their support for Nazism, and rightfully so, as an act of unforgivable treachery. It was a betrayal of their responsiblity as public intellectuals.
Consider other examples of gifted men who were condemned by their contemporaries for putting their intellectual, oratorical, and literary gifts to sinister purpose: the Arab orators of the 7th century, whose poetic verse could move grown men to “tears and ecstasy,” were condemned by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) for sowing dissension and enmity within the Arabian polity. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus (pbuh) warned against the “false prophets” whose sophistry caused listeners to believe that black was white, noting, “they come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matthew 7:15). In ancient Greece, Socrates repeatedly condemned the sophists and rhetoricians for using their oratorical gifts for mendacious ends, which culminated in his wrongful execution. Scientists in the 20th century put their brilliance and ingenuity to use by developing weapons of mass destruction, including a brand of napalm that was resistant to the cooling-effect of water. Let us not allow the Vietnamese peasants to feel a moment’s respite by jumping in water, let them die in proper agony, so they thought. That is, artistic and intellectual talent, standing alone, has never been sufficient-cause to endorse another’s contributions to humanity. Pragmatic and moral considerations are inseverable from one’s appraisal of any work of “genius,” no matter how unquestioned its intellectual character may be.
With these introductory notes in mind, I want to consider the literary contributions of contemporary author, Salman Rushdie, his place in the modern Muslim consciousness, and what I regard as false and unfaithful behavior by “liberal” Muslims who insist that he is a great novelist. I place “liberal” in quotations because I emphatically believe that a sincere liberal Muslim has a place in Islam, no matter his shortcomings, as much as any other Muslim. I have written several essays in which I have made my unqualified opposition to the following human rights abuses known publicly: the blasphemy law, the contemporary application of capital punishment, the suppression of freedom of conscience and expression, terrorism, the abuse of women, the persecution of religious minorities, and indeed religious extremism of every variety; thus it goes without saying that I regard the “fatwa” against Rushdie to be categorically wrong and immoral. Furthermore, I wish to note that I have no misgivings whatsoever about non-Muslims who read Rushdie’s works and, were I not a Muslim, it is quite possible that I would have developed an appreciation for Rushdie as well.
Although Salman Rushdie is almost universally reviled in the Muslim word for his bizarre and tasteless depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in his now infamous Satanic Verses, some Muslims, particularly of the more liberal and secular bent, often express profound admiration for his literary gifts and regard him as one of the greatest writers of our lifetime. With respect to Satanic Verses, they insist that Rushdie’s depictions of Prophet were expressed in the context of fiction writing, “magical realism” to be more precise, and that it would be wrong and intolerant for Muslims to ignore his important literary contributions. “This is about art, literature, and freedom of expression”; ”Midnight’s Children is a work of genius”; “only a zealot could fail to appreciate Rushdie’s artistry,” we are told. Speaking from personal experience, “liberal” Muslims who support Rushdie are generally rather emphatic, almost belligerent, about proclaiming their admiration for the writer. It is as though they are anticipating intolerant criticism from conservative Muslims and thus feel compelled to issue a pre-emptive endorsement that leaves no question about their veneration for the novelist. “Another conservative Muslim who cannot separate art and religion, I’m going to shut this fellow up,” so goes their thinking.
To ensure that my argument is not mischaracterized, I wish to make several concessions before formulating my position. Let us assume that Rushdie is indeed one of the most gifted fiction writers of all time; let us assume that, even if one insists Satanic Verses contains offensive statements about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Rushdie’s prior and subsequent writings are expressed with a grace, sublimity, and power that no other contemporary writer possesses; let us also assume that the collective opinion of Western literary critics is that Rushdie’s place among the pantheon of great writers is secure for posterity; furthermore, let us even concede that Rushdie’s decision to write Satanic Verses was not the product of an opportunistic impulse, as many Muslims insist, but rather a genuine artistic expression intended to inspire, humanize, and enrich the world in which we live, as art is intended to do. All of these assumptions are, of course, open to very serious scrutiny; however, in an effort to keep the discussion focused and organized, I will make these allowances. I have read Satanic Verses, or at least most of it, but to those who have not, a Wikipedia search will suffice to gain a basic understanding of its plot and major themes.
First, under any reasonable interpretation of the term, “blasphemy” need not be expressed in the first person to constitute an offensive utterance; in many ways, an indirect disparagement in the context of art and literature may be construed as even more blameworthy, since the author is effectively distancing himself from the utterance under the guise of artistic license. No matter how sinister one’s motives, such camouflaging makes it virtually impossible to prove them as such. Nevertheless, even if one imputes benign motives to Rushdie, it was clearly foreseeable that publication of Satanic Verses would cause profound offensive to Muslims throughout the world and incite a firestorm of controversy. As the great moral philosopher, Noam Chomsky, famously said, “One is responsible for the actual and foreseeable consequences of one’s actions.” Regardless of how forceful “liberal” Muslims are in asserting that Rushdie did not commit blasphemy, any sincere and practicing Muslim, even while allowing for great artistic liberty, would regard the depictions of Muhammad (pbuh) in Satanic Verses as utterly offensive and profane.
Consider the following analogy; if there are meaningful distinctions between the example that follows, and a sincere Muslim’s perception of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), please point them out:
Imagine your aging mother is a public personality who you regard as a woman of unquestioned virtue and moral uprightness. Imagine that she has devoted her life to a moral cause calling upon her people to feed the poor, to protect the weak, to stop the oppressor, to help the oppressed. Imagine she is possessed of such soft-heartedness that your mere presence, as her child, moves her to tears.
Imagine, then, that a highly gifted writer authors a book in which your mother’s good name is repeatedly disparaged, invoked in a profane context, and that the sincerity of all her life’s efforts are thrown into question. Imagine your mother, her relatives, and all of her friends subjectively perceive the writer’s depictions as extremely offensive. Finally, consider that the book goes onto become an international best seller that generates a multi-million dollar windfall for the author.
It must be asked, based on moral principle, and family loyalty, would one cite the writer’s authority on any subject, purchase his books, or fall over oneself proclaiming his literary greatness? Could one, in good conscience, support his literary contributions, even those works whose brilliance is unquestioned and speak nothing about one’s mother? Would one lend intellectual and moral support to the man who reviled the person they loved most in this world? Would one insist that he is an “oustanding and prolific” writer, no matter how objectively true, as was the case with the Arab poets and Greek sophists? Would one look down upon their younger brother who insisted that he would not read, or support, or publicly endorse the writer because he had hurt his, and one’s, mother?
In commenting on my essay, What Blasphemy Means to Muslims, Cambridge professor and Muslim intellectual, T.J. Winter, noted that my commentary did not adequately capture the degree of offense that blasphemy engenders in the heart of a believing Muslim. In other words, in his learned opinion, I did not go far enough. I have secured his permission to quote from our correspondence:
“Blasphemy is offensive [even] at a deeper level, because it threatens the human connection to the Real, and thence to one’s entire structuring of reality. To deploy not only criticism but scorn at one’s metaphysical anchorage is necessarily an act of violence. Although Western secularity restricts freedom of speech in important ways (libel, slander, treason, etc) it has found it hard to identify blasphemy as equivalently offensive; despite the fact that believers experience it as more offensive still. ‘The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves.’ To tell Western legists that Muslims would rather be tortured than hear the Prophet scorned makes no sense to them, because they lack any equivalent to that inward warmth.”
That is, to a sincere and believing Muslim, blasphemy subjectively constitutes an act of metaphysical violence. Were the Prophet Muhammad to learn that his “followers” were lavishing praise upon a man who invoked his sacred name, peace be upon him, in a book replete with grotesque and unsavory imagery, would it not break his heart? Could a sincere Muslim, in good faith, face the Prophet and say “Ya Rasulullah, I reject what was written about you in Satanic Verses, but your disparager’s writings are of such high-minded genius that I must proclaim his greatness”? Could the Companions be found saying, “Ya Rasulullah, we love you, but the Arab poets that disparaged your name are possessed of such moving eloquence, we must make their poetry known to all of Arabia”? I cannot help but feel profound disgust for contriving such an indecent hypothetical, but it serves to highlight the ignobility and faithlessness into which “liberal” Muslims have descended. Have such Muslims dispossessed themselves of all sense of decency and family loyalty?
Why, of the numberless literary talents God has put on this earth, both past and present, have “liberal” Muslims come to proclaim Rushdie’s greatness? Of the nearly seven billion in this world, is Rushdie such a gift to humanity that he cannot be boycotted on moral principle? Cannot Muslim unite upon the most elementary moral teaching, that is, loving the Prophet unconditionally and defending his honor? Is their “intellectual” lust for Midnight’s Children and The Ground Beneath Her Feet simply too powerful to overcome? Imam Malik’s reverence for the Prophet (pbuh) was such that he refused to mount his horse when he entered the Prophet’s City of Medina. What a long way Muslims have come. Indeed, the moral “progress” of modern Muslims is captured rather well by Bertrand Russell when he writes, “A process which led from the amoeba to man appeared to the philosophers to be obviously a progress, though whether the amoeba would agree with this opinion is not known.”
No doubt, the “blasphemy” committed by Martin Heidegger is unlike Salman Rushdie’s in important ways; nevertheless, both achieved a common end: to sow rancor and division in a world already hanging in the balance. Today, countless Jews and non-Jews who, while acknowledging Heidegger’s significant contributions to modern philosophy, choose to boycott his writings on moral principle. Heidegger betrayed the Jewish Family, he lent his imprimatur to an ignoble enterprise. I cannot help but respect those who shun his books. What, then, of the Muslim Family? Do Muslims not have an atom of decency and love for the man who was sent as a mercy to their own souls? Are they so bent upon reducing this to a debate about “free speech and tolerance”? Free speech and tolerance are axiomatic principles but, I’m afraid, have little, indeed nothing, to do with the matter at hand.
Had I been of age to express my view on this controversy when it was ripe, I surely would have. Going forward, my belief is that Muslims throughout the world would do well to unite upon a common sense of moral principle and family loyalty, and shun Salman Rushdie with a Gandhi-like resolve. Not kill, not abuse, not threaten, not silence, not even censor–but shun. Such a collective censure, which would ensure Rushdie’s divine rights, but simultaneously expose his moral hollowness, would speak far more loudly than any fatwa.