Rushdie Revisited and False Liberalism

My reluctance to publicly engage ‘controversial’ issues has never been on account of a fear of being judged or challenged, but rather a fear of being misunderstood. I would like to clarify a few points regarding my recent essay, “Salman Rushdie: A Question of Literary Genius or Family Loyalty?,” and offer brief remarks about one of the foremost sources of contrived controversy in the modern Islam, as I see it, and which I denote as “false liberalism.” This brand of ‘Islam’ stands in obvious contrast to authentic liberal Islam, for which I have very high regard. While wanting to maintain a sense of fairness and intellectual modesty, I must stand by my initial position on Salman Rushdie without apology.

It should be first noted that my appeal for a collective boycott of Rushdie’s writing was aimed at a narrow and specific demographic, namely committed Muslims who subscribe to a traditional understanding of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Although I put forth a “deductive” argument, its conclusion could only be shared by one who subjectively believed that the “The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves.” Second, it is axiomatic that a work of fiction literature cannot be dismissed as “blasphemous” without an honest and searching appraisal of its contents. How may a committed Muslim come to an evaluation of its substance? The obvious approach, particularly for independent thinkers who are mistrusting of religious authority, would be to read the work for oneself. The second, as I see it, is to rely upon the informed judgment of trustworthy institutions and scholars in the Islamic world. Reliance would necessarily be the more common method given the pervasiveness of illiteracy in the Muslim world. The pertinent question, however, is, how does one respond to a writer’s literary contributions once a negative appraisal as been arrived at? Third, a Muslim’s call for a collective boycott is not indirect admission that the book that is the subject of controversy poses a metaphysical treat to Islam’s essential truths. On the contrary, fiction literature is arguably the least effective way of advancing a theological challenge to a faith, insofar as it represents the diametric opposite of a careful philosophical deconstruction of a body of information. Indeed, the Qur’an encourages debate and intellectual controversy with non-Muslims in its famous adage, “Invite to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful admonition; and reason with them in ways that are best and most gracious.” (Qu’ran 16:125) That is, to heap scorn upon one who wishes to engage in rational debate is quintessentially un-Islamic.

Finally, a collective and sustained boycott of Rushdie would, in my mind, have been the most powerful moral response to Satanic Verses. Not only would it have rendered impotent the accusation that free speech was being subverted by religious extremism, but it would have also paid homage to the example of clemency shown by the Prophet Muhammad to the pagan Meccans who abused and disparaged him for a period of thirteen years. Commenting on my overall thesis, a professor with a PhD from Princeton who identifies himself as a devout atheist, acknowledged the logical consistency of my formulation. He writes, “The heart of your essay is the analogy with blasphemizing one’s mother and the consequences that ensue from it.  The analogy and the quote from the Cambridge professor were very compelling.  I don’t have an answer.”

There are Muslims, a small minority to be sure, who remain convinced that Satanic Verses does not contain offensive statements about Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and other symbols of Islamic piety, including Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him. One must be willing to allow for differences in interpretation of any text, be it secular or sacred; however this seems to me an extremely difficult claim to sustain in light of the nearly unanimous opinion of the world’s leading Muslim authorities. The most authoritative denunciation emanated from the oldest institution of higher learning in the Islamic world, Al-azhar, whose chief scholar called upon British Muslim organizations to initiate legal action to prevent publication of the book (while explicitly rejecting the Khomeini fatwa). Islamic organizations in the United States, including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) adopted a similar stance. To my knowledge, no prominent Muslim scholar in the West departed from this general view.

It must be emphasized that Muslims were not alone in recognizing the profane and incendiary character of Satanic Verses. In response to its publication, Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, explicitly called upon Britain to expand the UK’s Blasphemy Act to include Islam, recognizing the book’s extraordinary tastelessness. Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, went so far as to oppose the book’s publishing. The Indian novelist, Khushwant Singh, proposed a similar ban. Nobel Peace Laureate and former President Jimmy Carter called upon western figures to shun Rushdie, stating, “we have tended to promote [Rushdie] and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.” British writer Roald Dahl denounced Rushdie in uncompromising language calling him a “dangerous opportunist.” The English painter and art critic, John Berger, echoed Dahl’s views. Writing in 1989, Berger’s comments concerning Rushdie’s contribution to religious incitement are almost chillingly prophetic: “I suspect that Salman Rushdie, if he is not caught in a chain of events of which he has completely lost control, might, by now, be ready to consider asking his world publishers to stop producing more or new editions of ‘The Satanic Verses…Otherwise a unique 20th-century holy war, with its terrifying righteousness on both sides, may be on the point of breaking out sporadically but repeatedly – in airports, shopping streets, suburbs, city centers, wherever the unprotected live.” John le Carre, lauded by Time Magazine as among the most gifted authors of the second-half of the 20th century, expressed astonishment that Rushdie did not call for a revocation of the book’s publication when it was clear that “human lives were being wasted.” Some have speculated that Rushdie’s repudiation by such a distinguished class of Western intellectuals precipitated Christopher Hitchen’s “eureka” moment and subsequent intellectual and moral decay.

The question of intentionality and assuming responsibility for “the actual and foreseeable consequences of one’s actions” is also instructive to consider. Dahl wrote, “[Rushdie] must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise.” Carter likewise stated, “[Rushdie], a well-versed analyst of Moslem beliefs, must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world.” In short, the notion that Satanic Verses is objectively free from blasphemy, or that Rushdie was unaware its dissemination would sow such rancor and vituperation in hearts of tens of millions of believing Muslims, is rather indefensible, it seems to me.

Several prominent Western intellectuals, including the late Edward Said, who was a close personal friend of Rushdie, insisted that the writer expressed contrition for Satanic Verses and that his views about Islam evolved considerably since its publication. Assuming the many apologies Rushdie has issued were sincerely expressed, it would necessarily imply that Rushdie acknowledged his moral wrongdoing, thereby undercutting the position of Muslim apologists who insist that his book is not profane. Nevertheless, in light of Rushdie’s repeated vacillation between apology and audacity, it is quite impossible to know what this self-obsessed man is thinking at any given moment. But one point  is rather certain: Rushdie’s repeated inconsistencies and prevarications render him an untrustworthy source as to ascertaining his true intentions; Dahl and Carter are more authoritative in this regard, as far as I’m concerned.

What, then, accounts for starkly different attitudes Muslims have towards Rushdie? With rare exception, I found that Muslims who resented my thesis did not share the spiritual premise upon which my argument was base. That is, after engaging in back-and-forth correspondence, it was mutually determined that our respective interpretations of Islam were radically different, particularly our view of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his proper place in the heart of a believing Muslim. In such a case, it is obvious and inescapable that disagreement would ensue. As I stated quite unequivocally, were I not a believing Muslim, my perception of Rushdie would likely be altogether different. I would not, and cannot, expect a non-Muslim (or secular Muslim?) to agree with my position on Rushdie. This point must be underlined and italicized many times over.

This brings me to the issue of contrived controversy in modern Islam. There are Muslims, their names and numbers I cannot say, who reflexively reject any legal or moral conclusion that is at variance with a secular-humanist worldview. Such Muslims have adopted a “result-oriented” approach to Islam rather than one defined by an honest, impartial, and searching assessment of its textual and moral traditions; in other words it represents the counterpart to “false conservatism,” which I have discussed elsewhere. The methodological approach of false liberalism, if it may be called that, is to come to a pre-formulated position on an important social or moral issue and work retrospectively to find justification in the Islamic tradition. In other words, it amounts to “shopping around” for a self-serving legal result, not a careful exegetical, historical, and linguistic analysis that any intellectual tradition demands. Such an approach is entirely bereft of all intellectual honesty and quite impossible to engage in a meaningful manner. The celebrated Hungarian Orientalist, Ignaz Goldziher, characterized this form of religious interpretation as “exegetical rape.” That is, forcing a contrived interpretation that has no basis in scripture or tradition, even under the most liberal jurisprudence.

It seems to me that if Muslims, regardless of ideological leaning, wish to enter into an honest dialectic with co-religionists, they must make the ‘epistemological’ basis for their understanding of Islam known, assuming Islam is one of those bases. If basic elementary understandings are not it shared (i.e. the Qur’an is a divinely-revealed book) it will necessarily result in irreconcilable conflict and disagreement, as the Rushdie controversy suggests. The key, it seems to me, is to make one’s positions known openly and unapologetically in order that points of disagreement are understood in advance, and common understandings can be arrived at.

I must acknowledge that my attitude towards Muslims who promote Rushdie, for better or worse, has always been one of almost uncontrollable disgust. Starting at 10 pm and writing past 3 am, I composed my original write-up with a sense of bitterness, a fact evidenced by a tone that oscillates between equanimity and emotionalism. I find it rather shameful that one must devise elaborate analogies, resort to comparisons of Martin Heidegger and Nazism, and cite the authority of non-Muslim intellectuals simply to enable Muslims to come to a common understanding that boycotting Rushdie is a question of basic moral principle. In invoking the Jewish-Heidegger analogy, I reasoned that, perhaps if an opinion emanates from the pen a ‘civilized’ westerner, it will be regarded as more worthy of acceptance. But I question the entire utility of writing an essay of this sort. Have I persuaded a single Rushdie-reading Muslim to join in a collective boycott? I very much doubt it; indeed I may have only increased them in their stridency.

My strong sympathizes have always lied with members of the liberal Muslim community who too often find themselves derided by their more outwardly religious counterparts. Islam is a wonderfully accommodative tradition that is incapable of being monopolized by any brand of religiosity; liberal Muslims ought to never be made to feel that their place in Islam is not secure. They must be inspired and uplifted, not shunned and demoralized. Muslims who have a penchant for drink, philandering, and every other vice known only to God, have a claim to Islam as real and authentic as any conservative Muslim. I regard liberal Muslims as the true ‘underdogs’ of modern Islam and believe that it is my moral duty to put whatever little knowledge I have in service of their defense. In a famous tradition reported in the authentic collections of Imam Bukhari, the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were prepared to reprimand a man who suffered from a craving for liquor; however the Prophet categorically prohibited his followers from harming him stating, “let this man be, for he has love for God and His Messenger in heart.” Islamic exegetes interpreted this tradition to mean that one can be involved in a blameworthy act and remain a deeply committed Muslim; and that is improper to judge another on account of his sins, mistakes, and lapses. Some of the sincerest, most introspective, and indeed intelligent Muslims in modern Islam are those engaged in the ever-elusive balancing of vice and virtue. Even the most ‘pious’ will never come close to achieving the Prophetic Ideal. Judging moral character purely by outward conformity to divine law is a non-starter, it seems to me.

However, there is a violent contrast between a sincere advocacy of a liberal Islam and an earnest struggle to conform one’s actions to God’s will, and what amounts to a co-option of sacred tradition in service of one’s egotistical ends. As to the latter, perhaps false conservatives and false liberals have much in common in their narcissistic approach to religion. As to the former, the genuine struggle to reconcile one’s moral conscience with scared tradition is quite beautifully expressed by a liberal Muslim friend:

“I am unwilling to give up the name Muslim or to give up my claim to Islam.  It’s not simply because of my parents’ attachment to it or out of a sense of obligation and duty to them.  I have an earnest, undeniable connection to it and I don’t want to surrender it.  It is my culture and a big part of my identity…it is my heritage and my inheritance.  I’m not going to walk away from it.  I won’t be forced out.  I am willing at this point to live with the intellectual discord it creates.”

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2 Responses to Rushdie Revisited and False Liberalism

  1. Spencer J Follows says:

    It is a real shame that someone who is obviously insightful and such an excellent writer as the author of this site will always be hamstrung by the irrational belief in a ridiculous and untrue religion. I hate to have to be the one to break the news but the Quran was written by men, not Allah. There are many reasons for this but the main one is that there is no Allah, he doesn’t exist.

    But you are free to believe in whatever you like and, although I can’t respect you for suspending all critical faculties, I would never try to prevent you from holding your own personal beliefs. What is harder to stomach, however, is your position regarding Rushdie. First, please try to understand that the Satanic Verses is a novel – not non-fiction, but a novel. A made up work of story and imagination (same as the Quran). Now if people have been hurt or killed because of it’s publication, that is not the author’s responsibility, it is the responsibility of those perpetrating the violence.

    Muslims often seem obsessed with offence and blasphemy – do you not understand the offence and blasphemy that you yourselves are guilty of against Jews for not following Judaism, Christians for not following Christ, or any other religion that’s out there. Should scientologists take to the streets and kill Muslims if one was to draw a cartoon of Ron L. Hubbard?

    If Islam was true then there would not be any need for aversion to books like the Satanic Verses; no useful concept of blasphemy. Imagine if I was to write a book about how 2 + 2 = 6, a book which ridiculed maths – would there be an uprising, would people kill me and each other? No, there would be no need because maths can be demonstrated as being empirically true.

    Because all religions are false they have nothing to lean on as support except aggression, coercion and violence. Rushdie really is a superb author, far superior to the likes of Dahl or Le Carre, his book Shame is among the best novels I have ever read and I’d encourage anyone else out there to do the same.

  2. Great article, exactly what I needed.

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