Midnight’s Other Children: Reading Rushdie in the Middle East
Talk Delivered at a Panel in Honor of the Premiere of Midnight’s Children The Play in Ann Arbor
Wednesday, March 12, 2003
When I refer to reading Rushdie in the Middle East in my title, I do not, of course, mean to suggest that his novels are actually much read there. Ironically, the early 1980s translations of Midnight’s Children and Shame into Persian caused Rushdie to be admired in Iran for his anti-imperialism. After the infamous fatwa, the further translations in Persian showed on their title pages as place of publication exotic Estockaholm in the fabled land of Swed. A few Arabic translations in small print runs are rumored. Almost no one in the Middle East has actually read the novel, The Satanic Verses, and most of those who condemn it would be surprised to know that it does not call the wives of the Prophet Muhammad prostitutes, and does not suggest that the Koran was inspired by Satan. What I mean by “reading Rushdie” in the area is rather akin to the psychiatric idea of projection, defined as “a defense mechanism by which your own traits and emotions are attributed to someone else.”
I do not come to this subject as a cold stranger, but by way of autobiography. Midnight’s Children informs us that people seep into one another. Of no people is this more true than of us area specialists, into whom seep whole civilizations. Some of the Prophet Muhammad seeped into me when I studied Islam in Cairo, and I came to admire him. Then when I was researching Indian history in Lucknow in 1982 I read Midnight’s Children, and Rushdie began seeping into me, and I came to admire him. If I sometimes seem grouchy or disoriented, remember that like Walt Whitman I contain multitudes. Only some of my multitudes do not get on very well.
Like the impressive nose of Aadam Aziz, which contained dynasties, Rushdie’s Himalayan anathema contained clones. “The Rushdie of” this nation or that has virtually become a dead metaphor, like riverbed, so tired that one forgets it is figure of speech. Hamid Nasr Abu Zaid is the Rushdie of Egypt and historian Hashem Aghajari is the Rushdie of Iran (which has more Rushdies than most countries, having itself invented the idea of a Rushdie). This rushdification of religious dissent or free thought has elicited protests from the original Rushdie, who minds being “sloganized;” and from some of the Rushdies themselves or their supporters. When Aghajari called for independent religious thinking in Iran last summer, a provincial court summarily sentenced him to death. When he was arrested, Ayatollah Nuri-Hamedani thundered, “I believe that the remarks . . . are worse than Salman Rushdie’s words. This is because Salman Rushdie only insulted one of the Islamic principles. However, he, Aghajari has insulted all religions and world Muslims.”
A stalwart defender of Aghajari from among the hardliners, Muhammad Javad Akbarayn, replied with alarm, “A comparison between Hashem Aghajari [and] Salman Rushdie most regrettably gives credibility to Salman Rushdie, as well as false impressions to a younger generation unfamiliar with The Satanic Verses. They might overlook the fact that the author of the book “A critique of Satanic Verses Plot” . . . reprinted several times to meet the demand for it — is an academic who resigned from his post in protest at the Aghajari sentence.” The hardest of hardliners seemed to be saying that that Rushdie fellow wasn’t so bad after all, now that we have Iranian thinkers calling for freedom of religious thought among the masses. In the prevailing school of Shiite Islam in Iran, the laity is required blindly to obey the rulings of clerics on Islamic law. Aghajari called instead for each Muslim to be his own interpreter of the law.
Ironically, Akbarayn is clearly distressed by the possibility that the many ardent defenders of Aghajari among Iran’s youth will hear that he is a Rusdhie and will transfer their affections to the Bombay-born heresiarch himself. In short, the danger for his opponents in the area is that Rushdie will become an Aghajari, a symbol of the young reformers’ impatience with heresy trials of any sort.
This odd sort of reading, which the cynical might even call simply using Rushdie’s name to advance one’s own agenda, has killed people, and has produced the new phenomenon in history of the “Rushdie riot.” The old leftist warhorse of Turkey, Aziz Nesin, expropriated some passages from The Satanic Verses for his newspaper, under the sympathetic title: “Salman Rushdie: Thinker or Charlatan?” Although international copyright laws are generally respected in Turkey, Nesin declined to seek either Rushdie’s or his publisher’s permission. He simply wanted to bait the Islamists. Nesin very nearly paid for his piracy with his life. In July of 1993, a convention was held in Sivas of the esoteric Shiite Alawite sect in honor of one of their poets, to which Nesin was invited. Local Sunni activists have long persecuted and sometimes killed Alawites. Further inflamed by news of Nesin’s appearance on the roster, they formed rampaging mobs and set fire to the convention hotel and killed nearly 40 persons. Although Rushdie’s name was invoked in the incident, in fact, Sunni-Alawite riots have been common in modern Turkish history, as has a tendency for Alawites to align with or produce leftist intellectuals that enrage the Sunni fundamentalists. Once again, primordial rivalries and the nagging questions of secularism and Islamism in Turkey were projected onto Salman Rushdie’s balding pate.
The Egyptian short story writer and novelist Soleiman Fayyad, author of Voices, spoke for many Middle Eastern intellectuals when he wrote, “We Arab and Muslim writers are surely overwhelmingly with Salman Rushdie in spirit, then, even if we are not necessarily in favor of his novel, which the majority of us have probably not read . . . Nevertheless, there does exist among us an almost unanimous attitude of solidarity with Salman Rushdie as well as one of support for freedom of thought, whether religious or profane, and of artistic creation.” Fayyad’s comments point once more to projection as the main theme evoked by Rushdie in the Middle East. Even Fayyad has a reproach for Rushdie, however, of cosmopolitanism. He should have stayed in India and published the book in Urdu, which would have gained him even greater and more enthusiastic backing from writers “in this part of the world.” And, publishing in the West opened his work to exploitation by anti-Muslim Westerners, “an important supplementary grief this author did not need to be saddled with.” Fayyad is suggesting that his use of English and the publication of his book in the West allowed his Middle Eastern enemies to accuse him of seeking literary success among foreigners by putting down his own people. He thinks the positive impact of the Rushdie affair was unfortunately muted because it could be portrayed in the Middle Eastern press as yet another instance of neo-colonial hegemony. The courage of Fayyad’s statement should not be underestimated. In speaking out, he put his own life in danger. But his binary Arab nationalism makes him regret that Rushdie could not be claimed and defended unambiguously as one of “us.”
Just as Fayyad feared, Rushdie’s name has been exploited by Islamophobes. September 11 accelerated this process. Journalist Les Kinsolving is clearly annoyed that President Bush has defended Islam as a religion of peace. He pressed Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer at a press conference last year asking, “Are you and is the president prepared to contend that in the Koran, there are no passages calling for death to infidels such as Christians and Jews and no jihads (sic) as well for people like Salman Rushdie?” Kinsolving is apparently unaware that the Koran praises Jews and Christians and Judaism and Christianity, and only urges fighting against those who allied with the Meccans to attack Muslims. And there is not a single verse requiring novelists to be executed, even ones named Salman. Recently Jerry Falwell denounced Muhammad a terrorist, and other televangelists have monstrously called him a pedophile. Momentarily mishearing a few verses looks increasingly like a rather mild charge against him.
This use of Rushdie as a bat with which to beat all Muslims and Islam predates September 11, of course. One of the first books about the Khomeini fatwa was written by far rightwing commentator and Islamophobe Daniel Pipes, who is linked to the most militant sections of the Likud Party and to the pro-settler Gamla group. Pipes clearly had to hold his nose in defending Rushdie, a leftist anti-imperialist who thought well of the Sandinistas’ social programs for the poor in Nicaragua. Yet, he found the opportunity to lambaste Muslims too good to pass up.
Pipes’s book is shot through with essentialism and questionable generalizations. “Not only,” he solemnly tells us, “ are Muslims very touchy about perceived disparagements of their religion, but they tend to look at fictional works in a singularly literal way.” (107). Really? Muslims alone among human beings are touchy about their sacred cows, so to speak? Over a billion persons, crippled with a fiction deficit disorder that would stump even Oliver Sacks? But then, pray tell, how did such a community produce a Rushdie in the first place? Not to mention A Thousand and One Nights or Nobel prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz?
But Pipes has not finished characterizing the Muslims. He had already begun worrying about the immigration of these congenital, unrelenting realists to Europe and the United States. He complained (and remember he does so ostensibly in defense of Rushdie): “Unfortunately, the presence of Muslims in the West encourages the worst in each camp: ugly nativistic reactions from those who resent the growing numbers of dark-skinned, poor foreigners with strange eating habits and less-developed notions of hygiene; and arrogant fundamentalist Islamic ambitions among emigrants culturally unprepared for immersion in an alien civilization and therefore prone to insist on the most dogmatic version of their faith.” (245). Even if we allow that Pipes was in these characterizations adopting the “voice” of each of the two rival bands of extremists, his diction can only be seen as racist in its effect. All the blame for ugly nativism is put on the presumptuous presence of Muslims in the West. His diction is a recipe for the expulsion from the West of anyone who makes white racists upset. And, one would never know from such a passage that South Asian Muslim immigrants to the US are among the wealthiest and best educated groups in the country; or that pious Muslims wash five times a day and if anything are too worried about hygiene; or that large numbers of urban Britishers would starve to death were all those Indian restaurants serving what he calls “strange” food suddenly to close their doors.
Pipes’s are thus precisely the sort of anti-Muslim sentiments that The Satanic Verses was written to protest. In the subsequent decade he began taking an anti-immigration line redolent of French racist Jean Marie Le Pen. Not only should they be carefully caged in Africa and Asia, but, Pipes has now told the Jerusalem Post, Muslims must be kept under constant surveillance when not in their natural habitat. He writes, “There is no escaping the unfortunate fact that Muslim government employees in law enforcement, the military, and the diplomatic corps need to be watched for connections to terrorism, as do Muslim chaplains in prisons and the armed forces. Muslim visitors and immigrants must undergo additional background checks. Mosques require a scrutiny beyond that applied to churches, synagogues and temples. Muslim schools require increased oversight to ascertain what is being taught to children… “ (JP 1/22/03). From defending Rushdie’s right to freedom of speech, Pipes has gone to implicitly calling for him, like others of Muslim background, to be watched by the FBI for signs he might be a terrorist.
I should declare my interest and reveal that Pipes, in a bizarre twist, has even issued a fatwa of his own against me, calling for Juan Cole to be placed under constant surveillance by the people of Ann Arbor, who should report to him on me so that he can keep a file. (I hope you are all taking good notes). This tactic recalls Khomeini’s boast that he had 37 million spies in Iran. Apparently even studying Muslims can give you the new disease of surveillance-itis. I told you it was autobiographical. Way too much seeping.
Many have drawn the lesson from September 11 that Rushdie was a canary in a mine, that his ordeal presaged that of all who stood against a new wave of religious fanaticism. But there is an additional lesson, which is that whenever you give governments or other organizations the right to tell people what they can say, they will use it. When Disney’s ABC network fired comedian Bill Maher from Politically Incorrect for mouthing off about US military tactics, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer announced, “These are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say and what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that. There never is.” Khomeini would have said the same thing about The Satanic Verses. Having now been guilty of it myself, let me end by sympathizing with Salman Rushdie about the ways he has been used so extensively to further the agendas of others, and to congratulate him on having become such a powerful symbol of liberty to so many in the Middle East and elsewhere, whether he likes it or not, and even whether they like it or not.