East, West: Salman Rushdie and the Question of Civilization

By Clarke, Oscar | The Humanist, May-June 2013 | Go to article overview

East, West: Salman Rushdie and the Question of Civilization


Clarke, Oscar, The Humanist


In a fantastically unfair appraisal (that ran in the New York Review of Books last December) of Salman Rushdie's account of the years of freedom that were stolen from him by humorless, illiterate thugs, Zoe Heller's last misrepresentation is the most bitter. She writes:

   Now he regards any efforts to
   separate reactionary forms of
   Islam from Islam itself as dishonest
   and wrong. They are,
   he claims, embarrassing corollaries
   of the old attempts by
   Western Marxists to separate

   the "true" Marxist way from
   the horrors of Soviet Communism.
   Islam is not, after all,
   a heterogeneous entity but a
   sickening, murderous monolith,
   and Western "respect"
   for the religion--to be placed,
   at all times, in scornful quotation
   marks--is only ever
   "Tartuffe-like hypocrisy."

The passage from which Heller offers this reading can be found on page 357 of Joseph Anton: A Memoir. It did not escape my notice that Rushdie's discussion of the ideal and the actually existing Islam is sandwiched between an elucidating preface and an important coda, neither of which are given consideration in Heller's account. By their addition, Rushdie's position appears more nuanced and thoughtful than Heller's portrait of the artist as a bigot could have allowed (note: Rushdies memoir is written in the third person):

   But something was eating
   away at the faith of his grandfather,
   corroding and corrupting
   it, making it an ideology
   of narrowness and
   intolerance, banning books,
   persecuting thinkers, erecting
   absolutisms, turning dogma
   into a weapon with which to
   beat the undogmatic.

I don't wish to ventriloquize Rushdie in quite the way that Heller allows herself to, but this seems to be a clear indication that he's talking about a modern phenomenon: the faith becoming an ideology, being usurped by children of the twentieth century--the Maududis and the Qutbs--and turned into a political instrument. This is one of the themes in his 1983 novel, Shame, which satirized the idea at the heart of the state of Pakistan-the belief in a perfect Islam and the creation of a society that could wash away sin and replace it with pure faith.

That is what V. S. Naipaul encountered on his Islamic journey; Pakistan was a country where every failure was attributed to imperfect piety, where Islam could not be the problem, it could only be--in the form of the slogan that Qutb's followers in Egypt have adopted--the solution. If only the faithful could be faithful enough, could live in complete submission to God, then Pakistan would be a modern utopia. That was the founding myth of the state, and it certainly did resemble the founding myths of a few other twentieth-century projects. When Rushdie writes about actually existing Islam, he appears to be writing about Islam as something other than a personal belief, about Islam as a project, an idea out of which to mold a society.

The fact that he compares it to Marxism is another indication of this; one can be a historical materialist with a more or less Marxist outlook and have reservations about the idea that a society could succeed by following those principles. Similarly, one can be a Muslim and believe in a secular society. The people who talked about the real Marxism were the people who believed, in spite of Stalinism, that a Marxist society could still be successful. No one would be too concerned about what the real Islam is if the faith wasn't connected to the modern ideology. I don't much care what the real Christianity is because the idea of Christendom died when all of the Christian empires of Europe decided to go to war with one another. Political Islam is a totalitarian system that will never rise above the abjection that is its demonstrable quality.

Rushdie continues: "He [Rushdie] wanted to speak too for the idea that liberty was everyone's heritage and not, as Samuel Huntington argued, a Western notion alien to the cultures of the East. …

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