I had read some of Salman Rushdie’s work before for a compulsory English course I took over the summer and had perused some of his short stories afterward. I knew he was in constant exile because of one of his works upsetting the Muslim higher-ups and his life was always in danger.
But I never really understood until now.
In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran declared a fatwa, or Islamic religious edict, on Rushdie for his book, The Satanic Verses, his fourth novel, published in 1988, criticizing the Islamic religion. Khomeini was the head of his religion in his own mind, even though Islam is without hierarchy. The fatwa Khomeini issued for in a radio broadcast was a call for “all zealous Muslims” to kill Rushdie. Naturally, parts of the global community were alarmed, and continue to be alarmed, as the request still stands. Presently, two of Rushdie’s translators and his publisher have been attacked by Muslim extremists.
[satanic] In March, Rushdie spoke at the Wharton Center as part of World View- the Lecture Series. The next week, the Islamic Student Association called a meeting to discuss Rushdie in response to his visit.
“How many of you have read The Satanic Verses?” Dr. Mohamed Al-Sayed, a guest speaker from Kettering University, asked the gathering of about 30 people. A sparse few raised their hands. “Good. You know, The Satanic Verses is the most unread bestseller.” He went on to say the book itself is perplexing, with bits of Farsi, Hindi and Arabic all mixed in and it is difficult for most to penetrate Rushdie’s writing. But I also believe he was genuinely glad so few of us had actually read the work.
Al-Sayed began by saying he wanted to give a basic biography of Rushdie and then move on to talk about the Muslim position on Rushdie’s blasphemous words, but it became apparent Al-Sayed had a personal comment for every part of Rushdie’s life: He was born in 1947 in Bombay to a Muslim family. He doesn’t know the meaning of his own name in Arabic, so how can he claim to be a Muslim? He moved to Britain, and that’s where he learned about Islam. And how can he call himself a Muslim when he’s been married and divorced as much as he has? His novel Midnight’s Children was offensive enough to Indira Gandhi that she filed a lawsuit against Rushdie — and won. No Muslim would ever live with a woman for years before marrying her; it just isn’t done. And so on.
This is not to say Muslims do not have good reason to be angry with Rushdie. If he is still a Muslim, which Al-Sayed insists he is, Rushdie does not follow the tenets of his religion and the Islamic way of life, and this is considered apostasy, the abandoning of one’s religion. But, if Rushdie has not abandoned his religion, then this charge is erroneous.
[satan1] Al-Sayed also said Rushdie uses the names of the prophet’s wives for characters that are whores in his novel. Attacking the wives of the prophet is far worse in Islam than insulting someone’s actual mother, as the prophet is the father and his wives are the mothers in the Qur’an. Chemistry junior and Islamic Student Association member Waleed Brinjikji attended the meeting and agreed that Salman’s words were hurtful. “It’s not a scholarly criticism, it’s an attack.”
While his attacks on Rushdie mostly fell flat, Al-Sayed did make some very compelling statements about the difference between the East and the West religions that can help Christians better understand where Muslims are coming from on this topic. He said Christianity is largely an egocentric religion – “Jesus died for me.” It therefore allows more freedom because one’s life is lived for oneself, and all that is important is that you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. However, many Christians also aim to live for the lord and would argue with Al-Sayed.
[waleed]In Islam, Al-Sayed says, you live your life for Allah. You are His alone and you must obey His word above all costs. The most important difference is that religion is simply religion here in the U.S., but when you’re Islamic, religion is life and guides everything you do. So an attack on religion here may get you a lot of angry people, but an attack on religion in the Middle East is an attack on the culture and everything it stands for. It says to Muslims, in no uncertain terms, everything they know is wrong.
Al-Sayed said the Western world is rife with resources Middle Easterners are lacking: “Islam was what unified the people.” He claims Rushdie is a Westerner at heart, and that in the late 1980s, he was being used as a “weapon for the West against the East.”
[satan2] After an hour, the question-and-answer session began, which lasted another hour and a half. Slowly, people began filing out of the building and the audience was reduced to less than half its original size. A student asked a question about Rushdie’s right to freedom of speech, to which Al-Sayed responded that Rushdie was libelous against the prophet’s wives.
After the presentation, I caught up with physics junior Matt Bentley who had also seen Rushdie the week before. “[Rushdie] joked a lot about the death sentence on his head. From what I understood, he said that he didn’t even really like religion at all,” Bentley said. In regards to the Islamic Student Association and Al-Sayed, Bentley said while he agreed on the points about free speech and could sympathize with the Muslim attitude towards Rushdie, Al-Sayed “seemed to be pretty closed-minded. He wasn’t open to the fact that maybe Rushdie wasn’t aware of his offense because Rushdie wasn’t a Muslim.”
I don’t agree entirely with this sentiment; he had to have some intentions in his writing because, as Al-Sayed said, all of his work does. Rushdie has written novels and short stories criticizing everything from the Indian government to fanaticism to the internal battle between good and evil.
[satan3] Another student had brought this point up in the question and answer session: perhaps Rushdie meant the book as only a piece of art? Suddenly, the entire discussion changed, drawing boundary lines between the Muslim students and faculty in attendance and the non-Muslims. When one student said Rushdie’s work was not a call to action, other students insisted that because The Satanic Verses caused the deaths of some people (in protests over the book’s publishing in India), it had incited violence and was like Hitler or the Communist Manifesto. No joke. Soon everyone was talking at once.
Al-Sayed then said, “..and no offense to the gays” but Rushdie having the “right” to say the things he said in his book was like a “homosexual pedophile” saying he has the “right” to rape little boys. As the discussion grew more heated, I grew colder. “No offense” that I had been just grouped de facto with child molesters.[michael]
And these weren’t radicals, these were moderates.
I was able to ask the last question of the night: “With the fatwa still standing and the bounty on Rushdie’s head constantly increasing, what do you believe is the proper punishment?” The reply: he should be brought before a Muslim court where he must either plead ignorance and be taught the true doctrine of Islam, or he should become “an enemy of Islam.”
But then what? I didn’t ask that question, because I knew the answer. The way I felt about Al-Sayed making the remark comparing homosexuals with pedophiles- hurt- was the way Al-Sayed felt about Rushdie. So hurt and anger begets hurt and anger begets hurt and anger. Maybe the West and the East aren’t very different after all.

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