Satanic Wimps

June 21, 2007 | By | 5 Replies More

Salmon Rushdie is back in the sights of Iranian clerics and Pakistani antiwesterners. Things had been quiet for the writer since Iran dropped the reward for his death and withdrew the fatwa placed on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini back in 1989 after publication of The Satanic Verses. But Britain just knighted him and so, with this renewed honor, he is once more held up as a standard of the disregard–-no, the utter disrespect—the West has toward Islam.

This cannot be doing the reputation of the broader Islamic population on the globe any good. This is a schoolyard game of “Take It Back!” Carried, certainly, to extremes. I find it ironic especially since the purported “insult” to Islam is nonexistent. Rushdie novelized an episode in Mohammed’s life which is known and discussed among Islamic scholars. His title refers to “insertions” in the Qu’ran which, historically, exist, and are attributed to Shaitan. Where is the insult?

Twofold, I believe. The first is quite simple and explicable in political terms. As in other instances of books which draw the fire of the intolerant, the “real” problem is not the stated problem. The stated problem is a question of ecclesiastical philosophy and common knowledge among mainstream thinkers. Rushdie possesses a sense of humor, evident in his writing, which usually rubs religionists of any stripe the wrong way. (I urge all to read Umberto Eco’s marvelous The Name of the Rose for a look at the problem of humor in religious scholarship—the maguffin in the murders is the existence of Aristotle’s apocryphal book on Humor, which an old priest believes must never come to light, since if Aristotle, the “good pagan”, declares humor acceptable, then ridicule will pour into religion, and the “seriousness and integrity” of faith will suffer.)

No, I do not believe that the real reason Khomeini declared his fatwa had anything to do with his portrayal of the Prophet’s life. It has to do with Rushdie’s characterization of a Khomeini in the same book, which is not flattering. Rushdie did not name Khomeini as such, but it’s clear to whom he refers, and his return from exile brings “the non time of the imam” to his native land. In my opinion, either Khomeini read this and thought “Why you nasty little…a writer…no, worse, a novelist—“ and, in a fit of personal pique, had his scholars come up with a larger excuse to rub the man out. Because Khomeini has spent many years in the west, he knew the power of fiction to undermine, to influence, to cause perceptions to shift, to draw the venom from self righteousness.

In this sense, the condemnation of Salman Rushdie was an assault on the whole edifice of western culture. Part of the difficulty in the west even our own homegrown clerics must deal with is our built in capacity to fatally cripple any extreme movement by simply rendering it human…

Which is the second part of the problem Khomeini and the radical elements in Islam have with Rushdie’s novel. It renders Mohammed human. Really human. Even though the Qu’ran does not deify him, even though it is a given in Islam that the Prophet is not divine, he is nevertheless exalted to such a position that to discuss him as a real, living human being risks Insult To Islam.

We have precisely the same problem in christianity. You can’t talk about Jesus as a man without getting some “cleric” all in a huff. Take, for example, our own instance of outrage over Nikolas Kazantsikos’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ. I do not know if it caused much furor upon publication, but Msrtin Scorcese’s film. And, just as in the instance of The Satanic Verses, the rank and file fundies didn’t even protest the truly radical part. They got all bothered by the suggestion that Jesus got laid. The genuinely radical element had to do with a post-crucifixion Jesus’ encounter with Paul, who is preaching in the square about the Jesus who died on the cross. When Jesus confronts him and tells him “You don’t know what you’re talking about–I’m Jesus and I didn’t do that” Paul smiles and says “I’m glad I met you, because now I can forget you–because my Jesus is stronger than you.”

That’s powerful. But the robots marching up and down in front of theaters protesting didn’t know about that. It may be uncharitable of me, but frankly I don’t think most of them would have understood it. Such theological speculation is fairly sophisticated and sophistication is not a product of the kind of environment in which people can be molded and made to march in lock-step to autocratic mandate.

Just as with Rushdie.

In an exchange many years ago over this issue with a relatively moderate Moslem, I was astounded that this person (living in Canada) had not read the novel. She could not get past, she said, the sexual perversion in the opening scene.

“What perversion?” I asked, wracking my brain.

The opening scene is the Lockerby airplane explosion. The two main characters are falling to earth and have a conversation. There is nothing sexual in it at all.

“He has them doing a 69 with each other,” she said.

“Huh?”

The configuration they fall into as they plummet is head to toe. Since, as the novel proceeds, it is clear that these two personify good and evil (loosely speaking—it’s more complex than that, but for now it will do) I read it as a symbolic Yin-Yang motif.

“What is that?” she asked.

She simply did not know.

This was not an unsophisticated woman, but she was culturally provincial and isolated. She didn’t bother studying any other religions, even lightly, or take any interest in cultural motifs outside Islam. She had no other way to “read” that scene other than through the lens of assumed Western hypersexualization–-and it was an absurd reading.

The ability to interpret—creatively—is a learned skill. Certainly some native intelligence and talent is required, but you can have an I.Q. in the stratosphere and if you are never exposed to a range of ideas in opposition to each other, you never develop the ability to sort them and understand them. I doubt seriously that the throngs of protestors in the streets of Islamabad, calling for renewed condemnation of Salman Rushie—Sir Salman Rushie—have seen a copy of The Satanic Verses much less read it. Such people rely on their leaders to tell them what the think, what to read, what to feel—who to condemn and, in some instances, who to kill. Their leaders for the most part keep them isolated from any range of competing ideas, because to do otherwise would risk their power base.

The irony in all this is that Shaitan is itself no more than an idea, and if these people actually sat down with the idea and examined it they would find that the devil they fear is nothing, and exists only and ever in the presence of ignorance.

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About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (5)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Jason the Grammarian: In the sites (as in locations), or in the sights (as in targeting)? "Sites" just looks wrong, to me. Please cite the site you've sighted.

  2. Mr. Eddie says:

    There are no demons except thos of our own making. There are no ghosts except for those of the dead incompletely mourned.

    Mr. E

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Wonderful post. Full of interesting ideas. Most of all, I reacted to the lack of humor in religion. Amen to that. There is a long tradition that Jesus is simply not the kind of guy who would wise-crack or play a practical joke. The dialogue of Jesus in most religious movies is stiff and concocted. The alleged quotes in the Gospels and Epistles have that same quality. Anyone reading them knows, in his or her heart, that this is not how real people talk (even allegedly divine people).

    As a topic, religion was so stilted that kids in my grade school couldn't wait until class was over. Out on the playground (I went to a Catholic school) we told each other lots of jokes involving Jesus on the cross ("Hey, Peter . . . " "Yes, Lord." "I can see my house from up here!"). The jokes made him seem more real than any of the somber religion class lessons.

    And yes, no sexuality, please! Everyone knows that our religious icons are above all of that animalistic stuff. I'd bring up the Virgin Mary once again, but regulars at this site are starting to think that I'm becoming obsessed with the Virgin. But, really, doesn't her alleged virginity fit in quite well with this quest to keep these New Testament all-stars "above-it-all"? Those that push bureacratic religion on the rest of us can't stand the thought of us thinking of the Gods, saints and cherubim eating, peeing, picking their noses or farting. To do ANY of this might, indeed, "fatally cripple [a religion] by simply rendering it human…" I'm Exhibit A, regarding that theory, it seems.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    "I doubt seriously that the throngs of protestors in the streets of Islamabad, calling for renewed condemnation of Salman Rushie—Sir Salman Rushie—have seen a copy of The Satanic Verses much less read it."

    The same is often true of Christians who vehemently oppose the teaching of evolution, the legality of birth control, the morality of atheism, the practicality of stem cell research, or most of the other things that radical believers get exercised about. Many are astonishingly underinformed about the causes they fight for, especially given the vehemence with which they express their beliefs.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Bill Moyers interviewed Salman Rushdie as part of his Faith and Reason series. You can watch this one-hour video here. http://www.pbs.org/moyers/faithandreason/portrait

    Much of the conversation concerns the birth and practice of Islam.

    Rushdie argues that what we are facing now is a new tyranny, that radicals are using religion as a new form of totalitarianism. He holds that most of the people oppressed by this new totalitarianism are followers of Islam. This totalitarianism has stifled creative and skeptical thought regarding Islam.

    He argues that freedom is something for which we must continually fight by speaking up. "Offense is not the limiting point."

    Much good discussion about censorship and religion.

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