Literary criticism by fatwa
A year or so after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took out an Islamist mob contract on Salman Rushdie, the novelist appeared, after elaborate security arrangements, on a television arts show in London. His host was Melvyn Bragg, a long-time British telly grandee, and it was striking how quickly the interview settled down into the usual cosy lit.crit. chit-chat. Lord Bragg took Mr. Rushdie back to his earlier pre-fatwa work. “After your first book,” drawled Mr. Bragg, “which was not particularly well-received.”
That’s supposed to be the worst a novelist has to endure. His book will be “not particularly well-received” — i.e., some twerp reviewers will be snotty about it in the New Yorker and the Guardian. In the cozy world of English letters, it came as a surprise to find that being “not particularly well-received” meant foreign governments putting a bounty on your head and killing your publishers and translators. Even then, the literary set had difficulty taking it literally. After news footage of British Muslims burning Mr. Rushdie’s book in the streets of English cities, BBC arts bores sat around on talk-show sofas deploring the “symbolism” of this attack on “ideas.”
There was nothing symbolic about it. They burned the book because they couldn’t burn Mr. Rushdie himself. If his wife and kid had swung by, they would have gladly burned them, just as the mob was happy to burn to death 37 Turks who made the mistake of being in the same Sivas hotel as one of the novelist’s translators. When British Muslims called for Mr. Rushdie to be killed, they meant it. From a Yorkshire mosque, Mohammed Siddiqui wrote to the Independent to endorse the fatwa by citing Sura 5 verses 33-34 from the Koran:
“The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Apostle, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land, is execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land.”
That last apparently wasn’t an option.
I was with various British parliamentarians the other day, and we were talking about the scenes from Islamabad, where the usual death-to-the-Great-Satan chappies had burned an effigy of the Queen to protest the knighthood she had conferred on Mr. Rushdie. I told my London friends that I had to hand it to Tony Blair’s advisers: What easier way for the toothless old British lion, after the humiliations inflicted upon the Royal Navy sailors by their Iranian kidnappers, to show you’re still a player than by knighting Salman Rushdie for his “services to literature”? Given that his principal service to literature has been to introduce the word “fatwa” to the English language, one assumed that some characteristically cynical British civil servant had waved the knighthood through as a relatively cheap way of flipping the finger to the mullahs.
But no. It seems Her Majesty's Government in London was taken entirely by surprise by the scenes of burning Union Jacks on the evening news.
Can that really be true? In a typically incompetent response, Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, issued one of those obviously-we’re-sorry-if-there’s-been-a-misunderstanding statements in which she managed to imply Mr. Rushdie had been honored as a representative of the Muslim community. He’s not. He’s an ex-Muslim. He’s a representative of the Muslim community’s willingness to kill you for trying to leave the Muslim community.
This is where we came in two decades ago. We should have learned something by now. In the Muslim world, artistic criticism can be fatal. In 1992, the poet Sadiq Abd al-Karim Milalla also found his work was “not particularly well-received”: He was beheaded by the Saudis for suggesting Muhammad cooked up the Koran by himself. In 1998, the Algerian singer Lounes Matoub described himself as “ni Arabe ni musulman” (neither Arab nor Muslim) and shortly thereafter found himself neither alive nor well.
These are not famous men. They don’t stand around on Oscar night congratulating themselves on their “courage” for speaking out against Bush-Rove fascism. But, if we can’t do much about freedom of expression in Iran and Saudi Arabia, we could at least do our bit to stop Saudi-Iranian standards embedding themselves in the Western world.
So many of our problems with Iran today arise from not doing anything about our problems with Iran yesterday. Men like the Ayatollah Khomeini despised pan-Arab nationalists like Abdel Gamal Nasser who attempted to impose a local variant of Marxism on the Muslim world. The Ayatollah Khomeini figured: Why import the false ideologies of a failing civilization? Doesn’t it make more sense to export Islamism to the dying West?
And, for a guy dismissed by most of us as crazy, he made a lot of sense. The Rushdie fatwa established the ground rules: The side that means it gets away with it. Mobs marched through Britain calling for the murder of a British subject — and, as a matter of policy on the grounds of multicultural sensitivity, the British police shrugged and looked the other way.