Tabish Khair finds the controversy over The Satanic Verses tiring as it bears echoes of a larger problem.
I am not going to write (again) about Rushdie or his beleaguered novel; I am simply going to discuss why the entire controversy leaves me tired.
For one, both the “contending” sides seem to be on different modes of denial. The Islamist side is not willing to concede, mostly, that no matter how offensive you find a text, it does not justify a physical threat against its author. Hypocrisy is not the preserve of any group but Islamists — as their smug blindness to seriously deficient minority rights in some Muslim countries suggests — are fast overtaking the hypocrisy of the “West” that they often (rightly) castigate.
Freedom of speech
The free speech contingent is also not willing to concede that Muslims might find parts of The Satanic Verses offensive for at least two generic reasons: The core practice in Islam to revere sacred personages, and particularly its prophet; the fact that many Muslims detect clear Euro-colonial echoes in the narrative of the novel. This does not justify the gagging of the author, for the simple reason that the gag you thrust down someone's throat today might be thrust down your own throat tomorrow. Freedom of speech is not a sacred mantra, but it is true that in a democracy one has to defend the rights of those one disagrees with.
Unfortunately, in the current political climate, religious fundamentalists are not the only people who seem to be willing only to fight for their own rights and the rights of those they agree with — quite forgetting that democracy exists only to the extent that we defend the rights of those we do not agree with. No, not just democracy, the very fabric of civility (I avoid a loaded word like “civilisation”, long since abducted by the “West”)!
Defenders of Rushdie also need to stop portraying anyone who finds the novel offensive as a semi-literate idiot. It might be that cultural and economic deprivations lead to emotional over-compensation on the part of minorities or that those who do not control economic and cultural capital are more likely to fall back upon old (physical) modes of power/protest; it might even be that there are fascist elements in Islamist parties; but all this does not mean that the Muslim who finds The Satanic Verses offensive is a semi-literate idiot who needs a crash course on reading novels!
The two common strategies to defend Rushdie have been to stress the fact that Rushdie “knows” his Islam or to give lessons to Muslims on how to read novels, and in particular The Satanic Verses. Both are deeply flawed, class-conditioned or colonial, strategies. The sooner defenders of The Satanic Verses concede that some Muslims have a right to feel hurt, offended, even vilified, the sooner we can move this pointless drama to the point of some dialogue. It is sheer sophistry to retort (with Rushdie) that such Muslims can choose not to read the book. Would we say the same to feminist women who can also choose not to read a sexist text? Or to anti-racist coloured men about a racist text?
Whether Rushdie knows his Islam or not is also beside the point, for the same reason why one cannot provide just a single, sanctified, correct reading of any novel. Rushdie's defenders are sometimes as guilty of offering a kind of correct mode of reading as his most rabid persecutors. If most Islamic persecutors of Rushdie are in a mode of denial regarding certain aspects of the controversy, so are some defenders of Rushdie regarding other aspects.
The violence implicit in this makes me feel much more tired than its disturbing political overtones. One of my favourite philosophers, Emmanuel Levinas defined violence as any act in which we behave as if we are alone to act. It is a definition both sides should bear in mind.
Finally, the controversy tires me because it bears echoes of a larger problem, and one which afflicts Islam as well as the “West” in these days of “terror” and the “war” against it. Following centuries of denial on the part of ordinary people and (most) intellectuals in the “West”, denial that forcibly sheared “Europe” from its fruitful history of borrowings from non-European cultures (particularly Arab and Moorish ones), we have come to a point where the Islamic East and the West are viewed as irrevocably opposed. Nothing can be further from the truth. The entire tradition of the Enlightenment and Reason in Europe cannot be understood without reference to Arab thinkers and books; the entire ideology of Islamism (or Hindutva, for that matter) cannot be understood without reference to factors like European Romanticism and European modernisation/colonisation. But today, both sides stand convinced of the other's absolute, negative otherness, of their own “purity”.
As a so-called “Europeanised Muslim” from the (once, unabashedly) syncretic land of India, I can only see the two sides as “mirror images” of each other. Centuries of denying the non-European and the Muslim in themselves gave the “West” this current nightmare of an Islamism which often sees the “West” only as an alien threat. I can see that this reduces the richness of not just the “West” but also of non-European and Muslim societies. And the controversy around The Satanic Verses tires me because, despite the proclaimed intentions of its author, it always adds to this growing impoverishment.