Rushdie is wary of absolutists. He is one too
To bay for Salman Rushdie’s blood is to let the “absolutism of the pure” fight a gory battle against the “hybridity” and “impurities” of cosmopolitan “mongrelization”. Not acceptable.
The words in the inverted commas, Rushdie’s own, sum up not just his attitudes to culture and ideas, etc, but also his feverishly dreamlike Satanic Verses.
The phrase “absolutism of the pure” represents, if you have not guessed already, a relentlessly monotheistic Islam. “Hybridity” is the desirable as well as fashionable mix of ideas, thoughts and cultures, etc — the hallmark of modern cosmopolitanism that regressive Islam seeks to negate.
And Satanic Verses, in Rushdie’s own view, is that perfectly mongrelised world. To “mongrelise” is to subject a breed or group, etc. to such crossbreeding that it produces something creatively new. Openness, we are told, is its necessary condition, which Islam definitionally lacks.
There is a reason why I begin this essay the way I have. Islam and modernism, as philosophical systems, are deemed incompatible, but since they are also deemed reconcilable within the framework of political liberalism, that reconciliation remains the crucial challenge for Islam of our times. That is the reason why I ended the introductory lines by adding my own incomplete phrase “not acceptable”. The death fatwa against him is unacceptable.
The unacceptability of the death sentence on Rushdie does not automatically mean his craft is eminently acceptable either because it raises larger questions about the concept of freedom, the bedrock of modernity.
In brief, Rushdie is located in this sphere of modernism: like all those against Islam as it exists, he is not merely critical of a faith that doesn’t conform to modernity and shows no willingness to shift boundaries. He will fight this faith’s manifestations tooth and nail, the way he best knows. Therefore, the raison d’etre of his craft is to stab, maul, mock, abuse, insult, maltreat, lampoon, mischaracterise, harm, torture, poke, taunt and offend Islam and its ethos. This is evidently Rushdie’s admitted position. Writers, we are told, don’t exist to condone what they don’t like, but to crush it.
Without the right to offend, freedom ceases to exist, Rushdie has told us. If this is true and acceptable within the meaning of modernity, then such free speech too is an absolutist concept, especially if it is not governed by “reasonable restriction”.
The reverse logic – of Islam being the “absolutism of the pure” – would equally apply to modernity. Rushdie therefore is an absolutist himself, without him being aware of it.
“Absolutism”, in this context, stems from the lack of an ability to shift boundaries. Free speech, short of any reasonable restrictions, must be absolute. And if absolutism makes Islam undesirable, then how could it make modernity any more desirable?
Voltaire’s offer to defend till death the other’s right to say disagreeable things has to be understood as an endorsement of criticism, not abject offence. For instance, would it be perfectly acceptable if, standing on Manhattan’s 56th street, one were to pillory America’s founding fathers, its Constitution and its very being under the armour of free speech?
However regressive Islam may be, it is possible to argue that its adherents have the right not to be offended, or “non-offensiveness” within the meaning of modernity.
To view Rushdie as anti-Islam is only a partial view, for he is anti-God and anti-theology. “I don’t think there is a need for an entity like God in my life.” (Interview to David Frost).
Yet, Rushdie is in awe of Islam, short of its theology. He is “determined to make my peace with Islam, even at the cost of my pride”. “But Islam doesn’t have to mean blind faith. It can mean what it always meant in your family, a culture, a civilization, as open-minded as your grandfather was, as delightedly disputatious as your father was. … Don’t let the zealots make Muslim a terrifying word, I urged myself; remember when it meant family.” (address at Columbia University )
So, he aspires to develop the “nascent concept of the ‘secular Muslim,’ who, like the secular Jew, affirmed his membership of the culture while being separate from the theology”.
This dissociation of Islamic culture and faith has a problem. It reeks of some degree of intellectual dishonesty. You cannot savour the fruits and yet despise the tree because of its thorns.
In many ways, Rushdie’s offensiveness results from a lack of reconciliation between what Islam is and isn’t. He remains an anathema to many Muslims because his works leave a bitter aftertaste. And this emanates not from just free speech but his idea of freedom — that it also means the right to be downright offensive (Interview to BBC’s Jonathan Duffy). And not because he is merely anti-Islam, which about two-sevenths of humanity currently are.
Britain has laws against incitement to racial hatred, the common law prohibition of blasphemy, and libel laws. The Tony Blair government had made a failed attempt to pass a law that would make it an offence to deny the Jewish Holocaust.
For freedom to be downright offensive to be upheld as a universal right, it must be uniformly applied and accepted. This would make it impossible for governments to criminalise “online jihad” and “zealots” Rushdie hates. It would also militate against many of the Western world’s settled views, such as what constitutes libel. It could, for instance, also make a case for the right to Holocaust denial. Just about anything cannot pass as free speech. Or we might have to contend with Khomeini’s very speech that pronounced the death sentence on Rushdie.