Saturday, 14 February 2009

Fatwa Day

Twenty years ago today a doddery old Ayatollah with only a few months to live issued a death sentence against a novelist he had never met, for writing a book he had never read. And so began one of the defining political and philosophical crises of our age. It still remains unresolved, though it's unlikely that The Satanic Verses would get published in its current form today. To a great extent, fear of the ugly mob has been internalised, even justified as sensitivity. The dying man's curse has not been exorcised; indeed, it has grown more potent with time. Only last year, a saccharine and (by all accounts) cringingly respectful historical romance about one of Mohammed's wives is withdrawn by a publisher fearing violence, or lost business, or both.

Yet Satanic Verses itself remains in print, and Salman Rushdie, once he emerged from some years in hiding, resumed a high-profile life of parties, writing, and divorces. You can buy a copy in any branch of Waterstone's, and you won't have to fight your way past demonstrators on the way out. Proof, surely, that facing down bullies works.

But what of the book itself? At around the time of the Fatwa, it was smart in some circles to dismiss it as unreadable, pretentious, not worth the trouble. "He should be killed for writing a rubbish novel", was a typical tear-him-for-his-bad-verses harrumph. It's an uneven book, to be sure: not a perfect work, like Rushdie's acknowledged masterpiece Midnight's Children; it has its longeurs. But in its depiction of the alienating experience of immigration it has seldom been matched. It is certainly superior to anything he has written since, with the possible exception of his miniature gem Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the child of his captivity.

And it has grown with time. There are passages and phrases that resound with pre-echoes of what was to come, as though the spirit of prophecy was upon him. Rushdie has always denied that he anticipated the fuss The Satanic Verses would cause. Yet it is impossible to read it today without feeling that, at some level, Rushdie knew exactly what would happen.

Take, for example, this.


The Grandee, vaguely, nods. "You like the taste of blood," he says. The boy shrugs. "A poet's work," he answers. "To name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep." And if rivers of blood flow from the cuts his verses inflict, then they will nourish him. He is the satirist. Baal.


Or this, that now seems terribly resonant:

"Things are ending," he told her. "This civilisation; things are closing in on it. It has been quite a culture, brilliant and foul, cannibal and Christian, the glory of the world. We should celebrate it while we can; until night falls."

And was it blasphemy? Was it truly offensive? The passages concerning things sacred to Muslims are not central to the book, though they give it its name: they are dream sequences, in which one of the characters imagines himself to be the Archangel Gabriel, delivering the Koran to Mohammed (here called Mahound). It satirises - or rather riffs upon - the origins of Islam. It tells a story that is not the official one, that is a work of imagination, but that scpetics might find all too plausible. There follows one of the most contentious passages.


Return to Jahilia

'I know you,' Baal said.
'Yes.'
'The way you speak. You're a foreigner.'
' "A revolution of water-carriers, immigrants and slaves,"' the stranger quoted. 'Your words.'
'You're the immigrant,' Baal remembered. 'The Persian. Sulaiman.' The Persian smiled his crooked smile. 'Salman,' he corrected. 'Not wise, but peaceful.'
'You were one of the closest to him,' Baal said, perplexed.
'The closer you are to a conjurer,' Salman bitterly replied, 'the easier to spot the trick.'


And Gibreel dreamed this:

At the oasis of Yathrib the followers of the new faith of Submission found themselves landless, and therefore poor. For many years they financed themselves by acts of brigandage, attacking the rich camel-trains on their way to and from Jahilia. Mahound had no time for scruples, Salman told Baal, no qualms about ends and means. The faithful lived by lawlessness, but in those years Mahound - or should one say the Archangel Gibreel? — should one say Al-Lah? — became obsessed by law. Amid the palm-trees of the oasis Gibreel appeared to the Prophet and found himself spouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation, Salman said, rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one's behind. It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free. The revelation — the recitation — told the faithful how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep, and which sexual positions had received divine sanction, so that they learned that sodomy and the missionary position were approved of by the archangel, whereas the forbidden postures included all those in which the female was on top.

Gibreel further listed the permitted and forbidden subjects of conversation, and earmarked the parts of the body which could not be scratched no matter how unbearably they might itch. He vetoed the consumption of prawns, those bizarre other-worldly creatures which no member of the faithful had ever seen, and required animals to be killed slowly, by bleeding, so that by experiencing their deaths to the full they might arrive at an understanding of the meaning of their lives, for it is only at the moment of death that living creatures understand that life has been real, and not a sort of dream. And Gibreel the archangel specified the manner in which a man should be buried, and how his property should be divided, so that Salman the Persian got to wondering what manner of God this was that sounded so much like a businessman.

This was when he had the idea that destroyed his faith, because he recalled that of course Mahound himself had been a businessman, and a damned successful one at that, a person to whom organization and rules came naturally, so how excessively convenient it was that he should have come up with such a very businesslike archangel, who handed down the management decisions of this highly corporate, if non-corporeal, God.

After that Salman began to notice how useful and well timed the angel's revelations tended to be, so that when the faithful were disputing Mahound's views on any subject, from the possibility of space travel to the permanence of Hell, the angel would turn up with an answer, and he always supported Mahound, stating beyond any shadow of a doubt that it was impossible that a man should ever walk upon the moon, and being equally positive on the transient nature of damnation: even the most evil of doers would eventually be cleansed by hellfire and find their way into the perfumed gardens, Gulistan and Bostan. It would have been different, Salman complained to Baal, if Mahound took up his positions after receiving the revelation from Gibreel; but no, he just laid down the law and the angel would confirm it afterwards; so I began to get a bad smell in my nose, and I thought, this must be the odour of those fabled and legendary unclean creatures, what's their name, prawns.

11 comments:

Waltz said...

I'm not a fan of Rushdie's writing, but then I'm not a fan of modern literary writing anyway (Amis, Barnes, Winterson et al leave me cold). I also didn't used to like Rushdie himself much - he struck me as rather slimy and arrogant.

Then two (or maybe three?) years ago I heard him speak at the Hay Festival and completely changed my mind about him. He was funny, clever, surprisingly self-effacing, thoughtful and, I realised, incredibly courageous, sitting there in plain sight in a marquee full of people with no significant security. I still don't enjoy his novels but I have huge respect for the man himself.

Edwin Moore said...

Agree with Waltz (greetings Waltz) - and have to disagree with you Heresiarch that

'it is impossible to read it today without feeling that, at some level, Rushdie knew exactly what would happen.'

There is a TV interview done by Rushdie before the Bradford burning, which one occasionally sees repeated (wonder if it's on youtube), in which Rushdie is interviewed beside a mild-mannered Muslim who says things like 'you know the book is quite offensive'. Rushdie dismisses the guy with such obvious contempt that I would say he didn't see it coming at all.

The old sherrif says in the film version of No Country for Old Men something like 'you can't see what's comin'' and says it's 'vanity' to suppose that whatever it is, it's coming because of you.

A few months ago, on Byres Rd in Glasgow, I saw two men talking outside Thornton's. They looked to be of South Asian origin. One of the men had a woman in full bin liner standing behind him, and when he moved his position she moved hers to maintain her distance at his back, eyes fixed on his feet.

One of the strangest things about this was that I didn't find this tableau that strange, and neither did others passing by. Ten years ago people would have stopped - gobsmacked - and stared. Now such scenes look like a normal occurrence on the British street. None of us saw that coming, either.

valdemar squelch said...

I remember an arts prog from the time that dramatised passages from the novel. I recall one about the psuedo-Khomeini very clearly. It was obvious that nobody expected the shitstorm that erupted.

That said, I found the book unreadable.

The Heresiarch said...

Thanks for that, Edwin. I'm sure you're right that Rushdie didn't consciously know what was going to happen. But it's there in the book. Rushdie the man may not have realised, but the writerly spirit within him did know. That probably sounds way too esoteric.

Edwin Moore said...

Heresiarch, I am ashamed to concede I have never read the book so I suppose my hunch is as baseless as ever!

I missed being one of Midnight's Children by two days and am afraid that's only one of several of my no doubt deeply irrational prejudices against Rushdie and his work.

Am sure he is a great writer (though not for me).

WeepingCross said...

Well, it all makes me think - not just this post, but all the Wildersbeest business as well. We all very blithely talk about the essential need for freedom of speech, and how exposing the arguments of fools rather than simply silencing them is the way to deal with them, because rational argument inevitably leads to the victory of truth. Do we really have any reason to believe this? How many people change their minds on the basis of argument? I became a Christian because of what I believed was the balance of the evidence, yet the majority of contributors to HC regard this as close to an admission of mental illness. When sensible human beings can look at the same facts and draw opposite conclusions from them, what exactly is going on when we debate with one another? Several people have in different contexts on this blog remarked about Icke-ites and the like to the effect that 'there's no use arguing with these people'. I still believe in freedom of speech, but only because I think oppression is evil and love cannot be compelled, not because I think that, left to their own devices, the majority of people will come round to the side of sweetness and light. That doesn't seem borne out by experience at all.

Waltz said...

@ WeepingCross - I suspect that the mistake you're making is to isolate debate and discussion from crucial contextual factors such as education - and not only education in terms of learning facts but also in terms of learning how to think analytically and critically.

IMO, every society will always have a small minority (say 5-10%) of extremists and nutjobs, be they of the far right, the far left, Heaven's Gate cultists or whatever. And, yes, "it's no use arguing with those people". But others can and do evolve or radically alter their views. If this wasn't the case, we'd all still be wearing skins and searching for the Magical Lake where sun drowns every night.

The Heresiarch said...

When sensible human beings can look at the same facts and draw opposite conclusions from them, what exactly is going on when we debate with one another?

What a deep question. But may I first beg leave to doubt that you became a Christian because of the "balance of evidence". I doubt anyone converts to any religion out of a weighing up of evidence: what comes over them is rather a sense of a divine presence in the universe, or in their own lives, or whatever. The evidence is then re-interpreted in that light. Take a matter such as the Resurrection: some evangelists take the view that they can "prove" the resurrection by appealing to "the evidence"; but if you take the view that the resurrection is a priori impossible, then any other theory, however outlandish, is more plausible - as Hume noticed. It's only once you've already come to believe in an interventionist God that the story even makes sense.

But to your main question. Most "debate", I agree, consists of little more than the assertion of opposing points of view. But that doesn't mean that it's impossible to sway the undecided, simply that (usually) it's impossible to sway the decided.

But does this really matter? I agree that free speech advocates usually claim that "exposing the arguments of fools rather than simply silencing them is the way to deal with them". And I made that clichéd claim myself; and I think to some extent you're right that it's often bullshit. Suppressing dissident opinions, if it were possible to do so rigorously, would defeat them because it would prevent most people from hearing them. (Though clearly that tactic has backfired rather spectacularly with Wilders). I would take my stand on a different consideration: that the price paid for censorship is too high, that silly, bad or unpleasant opinions shouldn't be suppressed, even if arguing against them wouldn't lead to their defeat, simply because it is not the business of the state or the law to police ideas.

I entirely agree with Waltz about the importance of education "in terms of learning how to think analytically and critically". On the other hand, I wonder to what extent this is actually achieved, or is any longer the aim of a system designed around the sausage machine of exam targets.

valdemar squelch said...

Father W, what were you before you became a Christian?

WeepingCross said...

Waltz: But do people actually change their ideas, or are they merely replaced by other people with different ideas affected by, as you so correctly say, different contextual factors?

Heresiarch: No, I may be exceptionally unusual (in fact my impression is that I am), but I didn't believe in God. Why on earth would I decide my vague sensations of peace, unity with things, and so forth, could justify believing in God? As you say, any other explanation is more plausible.
On the main matter: yes, I think you're right. The main justification is the limitation of human competence and power: we cannot know what the right opinions to enforce are. Probably. As to education, I mention only as an aside what the organiser of the Goth group I toddle along to said to me, that he was grateful to his Jesuit teachers 'for showing me how to think for myself'!

Valdemar: I was an atheist who thought Christianity was beautiful, to sum it up.

Waltz said...

@ Weeping Cross - yes, people sometimes change their ideas but I doubt it's often in a radical "I used to think X but now I think the opposite" sort of way". More likely, they modify some of their ideas. This can work in lots of ways - for example, you might think "I think X should be done!" and someone might point out to you that, yes, it seems desirable but it will also have certain unintended, undesirable consequences. So, although you might still want a particular outcome you can recognise that in fact it wouldn't really work that way, or would do more harm than good, or whatever.

This is where analytical and critical thought is crucial but - as Heresiarch points out - our education system no longer seems geared towards teaching kids these skills. Hopefully that will change before it's too late.