Friday, June 22, 2007

Arise, Sir Salman!

All too predictably, Islamic extremists have reacted with gleeful outrage to the news of Salman Rushdie's knighthood. I write 'gleeful' because there is something orgiastic about the 'spontaneous' demonstrations that have taken place in Karachi, Kashmir (whose sad fate Rushdie has so beautifully fictionalised) and, um, Regent's Park. There is no need to wonder how many of these 'defenders of Islam' have actually read The Satanic Verses: reading a work of fiction is an individual act and so, by definition, inimical to the mob.

Riots in Pakistan and elsewhere are nothing new. Nor do they have much to do with faith. They are, rather, a perfect example of what Aldous Huxley termed 'downward transcendence', offering the thrill of belonging, the exaltation of righteous anger and the sanctionable release of sexual tensions. All repressive societies need safety valves to contain the pressure of the discontent they brew, and the mullahs are only too happy to have a bone to throw to their followers. Hating a novelist whose work you've never read is easy; hating the people who govern and control you is difficult and, potentially, dangerous.

But I don't want to heap invective on the mob: it is only behaving as mobs do, to the collective discredit of our species. No, what most amuses and infuriates me is the reaction to such behaviour in our conservative press.

Back in 1988, when Rushdie was sent into hiding by Khomeini's fatwa, many right-wing opinionati in this country were loath to defend the author's rights to life and freedom of expression. Not, you understand, because they didn't believe in those rights for people of the requisite political and racial persuasions, but rather because Rushdie was a foreigner and an intellectual whose Satanic Verses was savagely critical of Thatcher's Britain. Rushdie may not deserve to be murdered, these columnists seemed to opine, but he did rather ask for it.

Eighteen years on, the same bad faith is still alive in the Daily Mail. Ruth Dudley Edwards cannot comment on the literary value of Rushdie's fiction, chiefly because she hasn't the wit to read it. (Nothing will endear a columnist to Mail readers more efficiently than a display of philistinism.) The real reason for denying Rushdie a knighthood, according to Ms Edwards, is that he has consistently sniped at Britain and 'British values'; he has not shown sufficient gratitude to that same country for upholding those values by protecting him from assasination; worst of all, he no longer lives here but enjoys the high life in Manhattan with a wife who is far too good-looking for propriety.

Personally, I don't think Rushdie has been much cop as a novelist since The Moor's Last Sigh. But his remains one of the great imaginations working in the English language and he deserves to be feted for his earlier novels - not least Shame, whose scathing portrayal of a corrupt Pakistan may have as much to do with that country's current fervor as any religious grievance.

Oh, but speaking of grievance brings me to the point of writing this post. There is, in the Islamic world, a cult of it which fuels terror and keeps that world in its benighted condition. Rushdie has long recognised that the cult must be abandoned if there is to be a decent future for the world's Muslims. Normally, right-wing columnists blame the Left for adding to this sense of grievance. On the evidence of the Daily Mail, at least, j'accuse the unusual suspects!


Blogger Zamboozee said...

Eleftheria, n. The Greek word for freedom not usually utilized outside Greece, as it is hard to translate, but in its true Classical sense meaning not only acceptable freedom kept neatly under control, but near enough complete freedom to do as one pleases, which is an action not particularly popular with an established authority, as they “don’t like it up ’em!”

12:29 PM  

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