Reporter’s Note: In the past few weeks, I’ve had plenty of time to consider what bias means. Looking at my piece before editing, I would say I was biased against both the speaker and the other looming presence that was in the Erickson Kiva that night: Christianity. My editors saw that, and corrected half the problem, which created a new one. I have re-edited this article myself; some parts of this article were kept the same, others restored and others changed yet again. I apologize to my editors and readers if they were offended by my original article, and I’d like to make my stance perfectly clear this time.
I’m not Muslim and I’m not Christian. I dislike hatred in all of its forms, and I found some of Dr. Al-Sayed’s arguments and sections of Salman Rushdie’s writing to be hateful. I hope this article was inflammatory to some extent. Muslims did not ask to be attacked by Rushdie, and Rushdie did not ask for a death sentence. My purpose with this article is to highlight the cultural differences between the East and the West (and there are many) and pose the question: If this relatively minor situation has remained irreconcilable for a decade and a half, what does that say about our attempts to regain diplomacy in the Middle East and our own tolerance within America?
I had read some of Salman Rushdie’s work for some compulsory English course I took over the summer and had pursued some of his short stories afterward. I knew he was exiled because one of his works was upsetting the Muslim higher-ups and his life was always in danger. But I never really understood the persecution he faced.
[satanic] In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran declared a fatwa, or Islamic religious edict, on Rushdie for his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. Khomeini was the head of his religion in his own mind, even though Islam is without an institutionalized hierarchy like that of the Catholic Church. The fatwa Khomeini issued was a radio broadcasted call for “all zealous Muslims” to kill Rushdie. Naturally, the Western world was alarmed, and continues to be alarmed, as the fatwa still stands. Since the broadcast, two of Rushdie’s translators and his publisher have all been attacked by Muslim extremists. It was and is an example of an unbridgeable gap between the West and the Middle East.
Further complicating matters is the 1998 Iranian president’s claim that the matter was resolved, although a private Muslim group continues the bounty on his head and the current Ayatollah says the fatwa remains in effect. The British government is backing the Iranian president and trying to downplay the words of the Ayatollah, but the statement is as alive as ever.
Rushdie had visited MSU’s Wharton Center the week before I wrote my first article. In response to his attendance at the university, the Islamic Student Association called a counter-meeting. “If it wasn’t for the fatwa, The Satanic Verses and Salman Rushdie would have gone unnoticed,” Dr. Mohamed Al-Sayed, our guest speaker from Kettering University, said.
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 comment for every part of Rushdie’s life. He was born in 1947 in Bombay to a Muslim family, yet 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 so offensive to Indira Gandhi that she filed a lawsuit against Rushdie — and won. And no Muslim would ever live with a woman for years before marrying her; it just isn’t done.
“How many of you have read The Satanic Verses?” Al-Sayed asked the audience. A sparse few raised their hands in the gathering of about 30 people. “Good. You know, The Satanic Verses is the most unread bestseller.” He went on to say the book itself was 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.
This is not to say Muslims do not have very good reason to be angry with Rushdie. If he is a Muslim, he does not follow the tenets of his religion, the Islamic way of life; this is considered apostasy, the abandoning of one’s religion. Al-Sayed insisted Rushdie still considers himself a Muslim, but if one of the charges against him is apostasy, then he cannot be.
The bulk of Al-Sayed’s presentation addressed the claim that Rushdie uses the names of the Prophet’s wives for characters who are whores. The scene in question has the youngest, most naïve prostitute “play-acting” as Ayesha, the prophet Mohammed’s wife, for her John’s pleasure. 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 was in attendance at the meeting and agreed Rushdie’s words were hurtful. “It’s not a scholarly criticism, it’s an attack.”
Al-Sayed also made some thought-provoking statements about the difference between — “though (he) hates to call them that” — the East and the West. 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 accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior and repenting. However, of course, he doesn’t account for the differences between Christian sects; Calvinists, for example, argue one is predestined to be saved or not be saved and must follow strict rules of conduct.
In stark contrast, he continued, Muslim live for Allah. They are His alone and must obey His word above all costs. The most important difference is that religion is religion here, 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 was rife with resources Middle Easterners were lacking: “Islam was what unified the people.” He concluded 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.”
After the first hour of his presentation, the question-and-answer session began, which lasted far longer than the information section. As the presentation progressed, 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 the freedom of speech, to which Al-Sayed responded Rushdie was libelous against the Prophet’s wives; even freedom of speech has bounds within America.
Then one student said perhaps Rushdie meant the book only as a piece of art, and the entire discussion changed – lines were drawn 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 some deaths (in protests over the book’s publishing in India) it had incited violence and was like Hitler or The Communist Manifesto. (As if the link between those two events wasn’t tenuous enough, can we at least agree that Rushdie is not Stalin or Hitler?)
[matt] Soon everyone was talking at once and things got increasingly surreal. Al-Sayed then said — “and no offense to the gays” — but Rushdie having the ‘right’ to say the things he said in The Satanic Verses was like a “homosexual pedophile” saying he has the ‘right’ to rape little boys. A few mouths dropped open, including mine. Others agreed with Al-Sayed’s assessment and defended it as valid. And as the discussion grew more heated, I grew colder. “No offense” that I had been grouped de facto with child molesters. And these weren’t radicals, of course. These were moderates.
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.” In regard 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, “[H]e 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 intention in his writing because, as Al-Sayed said and I can vouch for, all of his work does. Rushdie has written novels and short stories criticizing everything from the Indian government to fanaticism to the battle between good and evil internally.
Rushdie is an intelligent man and a good writer, but what he did was incomprehensible. Why attract the ire of so many people, whether or not it would cause him any personal danger? Rushdie did, as the presentation pointed out, grow up in an exclusive, racist British society as someone who didn’t fit in and couldn’t fit in – a recurring theme in his writing. This anger was possibly misdirected toward the Muslim community and fostered the growth of a seedling of hatred that grew into the culture clash it is today.
So what do I know now that I didn’t before? I was able to ask the last question of the night: With the fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s head still standing and the bounty on his head constantly increasing, what do you believe is the proper punishment for him? 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, and I think Rushdie knows the answer, too. He probably wouldn’t make it out of that courtroom alive. What I know now is that the feeling of hurt I felt when Al-Sayed made his pedophile comment was the same feeling he had about Rushdie. So hurt and anger begets hurt and anger begets hurt and anger. The West and the East aren’t that different after all.
It’s time all parties involved consider what reconciliation would mean to them, as dreary as the prospects are.