Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie

In his more-relevant-than-ever memoir of life under the Iranian fatwa announced on Valentine's Day 1989 and only lifted over a decade later, Salman Rushdie chronicles with unvarnished exactitude the life of a man constantly under death threat. He lived with police protectors ("prot"), doing battle with their higher-ups who would have been happier had he simply retreated to some unmarked hole in the ground never to re-emerge.  His team told him he was as vulnerable as any head of state - yet those people were allowed to set foot outside, and the world knew where they lived - he was hidden away, and it was only the flawless cooperation of his friends and family that prevented his home from being known to those bent on murdering him.

The point on which he continued to insist, unheeded, is that The Satanic Verses, far from being a satire on Islam, actually reflected the history of that religion, which he studied at Cambridge. He writes about Muhammad's revelation:

"But the Qur'an spoke of how all the prophets had been tested by temptation. "Never have We sent a single prophet or apostle before you with whose wishes Satan did not tamper," it said in Sura 22. And if the incident of the Satanic verses was the Temptation of Muhammed, it had to be said that he came out of it pretty well. He both confessed to having been tempted and also repudiated that temptation. Tabari quotes him thus: "I have fabricated things against God and have imputed to Him words which He has not spoken." After that the monotheism of Islam, having been tested in the cauldron, remained unwavering and strong, in spite of persecution, exile and war, and before long the Prophet had the victory over his enemies and the new faith spread like a conquering fire across the world.
"Shall God have daughters while you have sons? That would be an unjust division."
The "true" verses, angelic or divine, were clear: It was the femaleness of the winged goddesses - the "exalted birds" - that rendered them inferior and fraudulent and proved they could not be the children of God, as the angels were. Sometimes the birth of a great idea revealed things about its future; the way in which newness enters the world prophesied how it would behave when it grew old. At the birth of this particular idea, femaleness was seen as a disqualification from exaltation."

Across the Muslim world he was vilified, officially and personally, by people who did not read The Satanic Verses nor bother to know anything more about them than that they referred to the Qur'an and used the word Satanic, which must mean the author was calling the Qur'an Satanic. Once the fatwa was in effect, the truth scarcely mattered - his novel was unavailable in those countries and so people had only the imams' and Ayatollahs' word for what he had written: blasphemy.

One cannot fault Rushdie, living so long in the crosshairs, for speaking out against the way the liberal tolerant cultures of Europe and the Americas defended what they thought of as Islam, up to and including citizens who made specific death threats against him. He makes the case for the right of artists to say what they think, to imagine what they dare, and to share those visions with the world without the censorship of offending those who can't even be bothered to know what they are condemning.
"Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance. It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know. A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot... 
It was Islam that had changed, not people like himself, it was Islam that had become phobic of a very wide range of ideas, behaviors and things. ... There were Islamist attacks on socialists and unionists, cartoonists and journalists, prostitutes and homosexuals, women in skirts and beardless men, and also, surreally, on such evils as frozen chickens and samosas."

Once the fatwa was lifted he was eager to resume his disrupted creative life:
"It would be wise to withdraw from the world of commentary and polemic and rededicate himself to what he loved most, the art that had claimed his heart, mind and spirit ever since he was a young man, and to live again in the universe of once upon a time, of kan ma kan, it was so and it was not so, and to make the journey to the truth upon the waters of make-believe." [emphasis mine]

Thank you, Salman Rushdie, for your courage and for sharing your long drinks from the Sea of Stories.