What Do You Do With a Problem Like Salman?

He’s back in the news, folks. After a recent spate of badly written books, (perhaps the world’s most famous living) novelist Salman Rushdie is once again in the center of controversy after Britain awarded him a knighthood on Saturday, June 16th. Once again, Iran is at the helm of the controversy, being one of the first countries to publicly announce that Britain’s honoring “one of the most hated men in the Islamic world” is a clear insult to Islam. And once again, the conflict is centered around Satanic Verses.

The situation, of course, is by no means simple since there has already been much violence done surrounding Satanic Verses. Starting eighteen years ago, there was a spate of riots, burning embassies, attacks on the novel’s translators, and, of course, the fatwa that, though thankfully did not ever come to death itself, meant the constant possibility of Rushdie’s own end for a good ten long years. I guess I’m trying to say that the actual material harm that has surrounded Satanic Verses came from both the insistence that the book be removed from bookshelves, and the responding insistence that book be continued to be published, or vice versa.

When asked how he felt about all that’s been done, Rushdie said that he can’t be responsible for the acts of madmen. This is, of course, undeniably true, but I can’t imagine that it’s easy for anyone to walk away from the idea that one’s own book has caused so much strife, and that his arrival on this conclusion was as simple as the manner in which he declared it.

In the same recent lecture (actually, it was more than a year ago, now) at the University of Minnesota, Rushdie made two separate, funny remarks, that have stuck with me since then. The first was an anecdote—he recollected a television interview of an imam who was reiterating all the reasons why Rushdie should be killed for writing Satanic Verses. When asked if he’d actually read the book, the imam supposedly smiled and said something to the effect of “no, because he wasn’t really much for books.” We all laughed with Rushdie at the absurdity of this man calling for a man’s death based on a book he hadn’t read.

The second one was just a pithy witticism—Rushdie asked us, riddle-fashion, what is the best way to not be insulted by a book? The answer—close it! Ha ha, we laughed, how true. How little a book affects us if we shut it.

But much later, the combined implication of these two remarks hit me—if I feel insulted by a book I haven’t read, shame on me for being hypocritical. If I feel insulted by a book I have read, shame on me for choosing to continue reading it and being hurt by it?

Rushdie, of course, has made no comments on the current controversy, except to say that he is humbled by the knighthood conferred on him. This is a fair position, for what can he say? For at least the last two decades, he’s been talking incessantly about the right to free speech (though, I feel I have to note, he has concentrated mainly on the right to make declarations and said little to nothing about two-sided debates), and once again he’s surrounded by people who strongly object to a book he wrote almost twenty years ago.

Obviously, knighthood isn’t actually an expression of free speech as much as a state’s approval of a man’s works. Still, how fair is today’s decision by “Hardline” Pakistani clerics who have bestowed upon Osama Bin Laden the religious order of “Sword of Allah” as a response to Rushdie’s knighthood? Is it a proportionate response? Unforgiveable?

3 Responses to What Do You Do With a Problem Like Salman?

  1. Kris says:

    Rushdie and Osama . . . peas in a pod!

    Well, they’re both the recent recipients of high honors–which was the point of the Pakistani clerics awarding bin Laden the title of Saifullah, I suppose, to bring the two into comparison–and compare their activities.

    As a former English-major, I’m gonna have to go with the book-writing as being less bad than the terrorist acts. Not to say that books aren’t powerful, or can’t have far-reaching, lasting effects. The Satanic Verses is blasphemous–on purpose. It tells a story about the life of Muhammad, and what if some of the words of God he received were really the words of Satan? Rushdie didn’t make that part up–it’s an interpretation of the Qur’an others have talked about. But lots of Muslims disagree.

    But the book is also the story of a father and a son. And Bollywood actors. And a guy that turns into a goat, among other things.

    As Rushdie has said, free speech means nothing if you don’t have the right to offend. But that also means people have the right to be offended . . . And the right to do something offensive in response; like honor a man who plots, and enacts, murder.

  2. Pulao says:

    I completely agree with your “book-writing being less bad than the terrorist acts,” though I’m always interested in the “English-major” reason. It has always seemed to me intuitive that those who deal with books regularly– as close readers, as writers, as students– would appreciate more the power of books. Wasn’t it Lincoln who credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with starting the Civil War? (Deeply exaggerated credit, I’m sure.)

    Also, I like that you point out that the novel is fundamentally about so many things. It’s a point that Rushdie makes, too. And it’s true that fatwa imposers and (excuse the pun) executors have largely ignored those other aspects of the novel. You know who else has decided to concentrate almost entirely on the more controversial aspects of the novel? The talk-show circuit that pays Rushdie tens and tens of thousands of dollars to come talk about what it means to be a symbol of free speech. Somehow, I get the feeling that they’re not really asking him about his decision to portray his own relationship with his father on paper.

    That said, obviously Rushdie is nothing like Osama Bin Laden– and the
    very few Pakistani clerics who did decide to equate the two have done so to make a strong rhetorical point, and in doing so reinforce some artificial West/East divide, where the West is everyone who believes in Free Speech (which apparently is now the same thing as respecting Rushdie) and the East is a group of deeply religious folk. And as despicable as their acts are, at least they’re not inciting violence. (Unlike,some might argue, Pakistani Religious Affairs Minister Mohammad Ejaz-ul-Haq.)

  3. Aakaash says:

    Wait, the East-West divide is artificial? There goes my proposed career as a bridge.
    Seriously, though, Rushdie has some brilliant stuff and some pretty terrible stuff (Fury, anyone?). What offends can be either one of these. But Rushdie becoming a poster boy for the freedom of speech (although the fatwas make it more like the “freedom to live after having written something down”) chooses to take everything that makes him a novelist and throw that out of the window for the flashier, and as Pulao mentioned, the “talk-show circuit”, cred.
    George Orwell discusses, eloquently, the essentially political nature of writing and the censorship that is often imposed on it. What impressed me what the prescience of what he was saying, even if he was talking about the blindness of a left-leaning government (apparently such things existed).
    Another novelist, another poster boy. What is the difference between Rushdie and Orwell? Besides the flash and the snazz, Orwell’s essay is far better written than Rushdie’s statements; Midnight’s Children is far better than 1984.
    That’s all I got.

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