Archive for May, 2012

One of the questions that has always shaped my study of Rushdie’s work is why he faced such venom over his publication of The Satanic Verses. Scholars have, of course, attempted in many ways to explain this – to illuminate the passages that angered Muslims, to recall the appeals, statements, and threats issued by different Muslim groups during the controversy, and to explore Rushdie’s responses to the affair. However, despite the stacks and stacks of books devoted to this controversy (and most of Rushdie scholarship privileges this moment), I still have nagging questions – why Rushdie of all writers/artists/politicians? Why The Satanic Verses in particular  (Midnight’s Children doesn’t exactly paint favorable pictures of all Muslims)? Why a work of fiction (aren’t there plenty of non-fiction works condemning/insulting/etc Islam)?

I am currently reading a study of the affair called  A Mirror For Our Times: ‘The Rushdie Affair’ and the Future of Multiculturalism by Paul Weller. Weller is looking at this affair through the lens of religious relations studies, and his main argument is “that the subsequent trends and tendencies of the past two decades can be better understood by revisiting the ‘magnifying mirror’ provided by the original controversy; while the implications of both the original controversy, and of the later trends and tendencies, can be better evaluated within the historical perspective that is provided by the passage of twenty years.” While I will have much more to say on how he connects current controversies with the Rushdie Affair (see my post on the “Salman Rushdie of Music”), I am right now interested in how he lays out the history and details of the Rushdie Affair. Using newspaper coverage and government reports only, he traces the development of the controversy including an often ignored faction which is the demands of various Muslim groups during that time (including legal action, simple apologies, the insertion of an addendum in the publication, and the ceasing of future editions). What emerges out of this history is some interesting data that complicates how many scholars and contemporary Rushdie-lovers see the Affair – in relatively black-and-white terms (freedom of expression versus Islam). One of the most interesting points Weller dives into is the attempted legal action through the blasphemy laws which were still on the books in England in 1989. In 17th century Britain, blasphemy against Christianity became a common law offence, punishable by common law courts. “All blasphemies against God, including denying his being or providence, all contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ, all profane scoffing at the Holy Scripture, and exposing any part thereof to contempt and ridicule were punishable by the temporal courts with death, imprisonment, corporal punishment and fine.”

In the wake of the Rushdie controversy, Muslims attempted to expand the law to include other religions, asking government officials to open up an investigation of the current law and its potential for application to other religious groups. In 2003, a committee assigned to investigate the blasphemy law acknowledged that it had little purchase in current British law practice. At the same time, British officials wanted to pass a law to criminalize incitement to religious hatred. Once the Racial and Religious Hatred Act passed in 2006, the government moved to abolish the original blasphemy laws (2008).

What I find interesting about this tidbit is the wider implications it has for the way the Rushdie Affair is typically discussed – as a matter of freedom of speech or expression, “eastern” attitudes towards criticism or satire, and the point of “western” progress. While a careful study of the controversy reveals it to be anything but a simplistic division between two cultures or ways of life, this particular point – that Britain had such a law on the books while many Britons were so outraged by the demands of the Muslim population for similar laws, is and should be significant in discussing the matter. Arguably, the law carried little weight compared to years past, but a look at its modern history suggests it still shaped British culture – a man was convicted of blasphemy as late as 1992. This is not a point that Weller pursues in detail, although he is one of the only scholars I have read so far that includes this point at all. I draw attention to it because even if the law’s impact was reduced by the 1980s, it still shapes the dialogue surrounding the Rushdie Affair; especially when outraged westerners (and particularly Britons) denigrate Muslims for being “backward,” “old-fashioned,” and “religious conservatives/fundamentalists.”  And how much did this appeal by Muslims to the British government for inclusion in the blasphemy laws affect the eventual abolition of those laws? How exactly did it shape the subsequent Racial and Religious Hatred Act passed in 2006?

To return to some of my original questions, I have no doubt that part of the reason why Rushdie and his work faced so much controversy is because, up until that moment, he was lauded by many as the voice of the South Asian community. Even at that time, he had considerable public presence and cultural purchase – therefore, his work carried representational and cultural weight. Similarly, one of Najafi’s crimes (in addition to simply creating his insulting music) is making his images and music available on “high-traffic websites” (namely Facebook). It is clear in both of these controversies that cultural significance (and popularity) is a factor.  Rushdie was also considered “Muslim” even though Rushdie was open about being a non-practicing “cultural” Muslim. This point remains relevant today in light of the recent fatwas concerning Najafi: “If any abuse of the immaculate Imams and any obvious insult to them is committed by a Muslim, this person becomes an apostate. If this act is committed by a non-Muslim, he is considered a Sab ul Nabi, an insulter of the Prophet. ” And as the Ayatollahs note, every Muslim is aware that the punishment for apostates is death.

Tawnya Ravy is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University. She is currently writing her dissertation on Salman Rushdie in the 21st Century, and she is the creator of the digital humanities project the Salman Rushdie Archive. She is also one of the founding members and current secretary of the Rushdie International Society. Follow her @litambitions and/or salmanrushdiearchive.com  


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On May 7, 2012 an Iranian rapper song-writer named Shahin Najafi released a single titled “Naqi” on Facebook. This rapper was already widely known, with 200,000 followers on Facebook, and a record with Iranian authorities (he fled to Germany in 2005). After the release of the song, however, two imams (religious leaders in Iran) condemned the lyrics as blasphemy (arguing that it insults the 10th saint of Shiite Islam – Ali an-Naqi). Currently there is a reward for the rapper’s death set at $100,000 by Shia-Online with additional bounties in place. There has been no official word from the Iranian government. As a result of the growing controversy, the rapper has been dubbed the “Salman Rushdie of Music.” For the last couple weeks I have been watching the internet to see how bloggers, journalists, and commenters view this interesting cultural parallel. As you might expect, there has been a range of responses from defenders of the rapper (“his lyrics are nothing like the blasphemy of The Satanic Verses”) to those in support of freedom of expression (“it is happening all over again”).

What I find interesting is that this is not the first time (nor I’m sure the last) that Rushdie’s name and experience with the fatwa has been invoked in another debate, controversy, and/or geopolitical issue. I am reminded of another instance in which Rushdie’s name was consistently invoked and where he subsequently entered the fray himself – the Danish Cartoon Controversy of 2005. In September, 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed after issuing a call to cartoonists to “draw Muhammed as they see him” because “we are on a slippery slope where no one can tell when the self-censorship will end.” The initial publication and the subsequent reprints in other news outlets around the world sparked an international controversy. Indignant Muslims claimed to be offended not only by the general depiction of Muhammed (some sects of Islam forbid the depiction of the prophet) but also the many associations drawn into the depictions (including one of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban). I happened to be in Denmark while this controversy was raging. I only witnessed one small, peaceful demonstration by Muslims and sympathetic friends in Copenhagen. According to the news reports, however, the controversy resulted in many deaths due to embassy bombings, riots, and acts of violence. There was also a strong response from proponents of the cartoonists, mainly focusing on the freedom of expression. As you can imagine, the debate often came down to freedom of speech versus religion, the West versus the East. Of course many commenters referenced Rushdie’s brush with similar debates about freedom of expression and fundamentalism. In one of the most interesting moments of the debate, the Director of the Sakharov Museum in Russia wanted to do a Russian edition of The Satanic Verses illustrated by the Danish cartoons, solidifying what he saw as the connection between the two incidents. Finally, in March 2006, Rushdie joined others in signing the manifesto “Together Facing the New Totalitarianism.” The manifesto championed secular values and personal freedoms, comparing Islamic ideology to Naziism and Stalinism. One of Rushdie’s repeated stances is opposing “cultural relativity” or what he sees as pandering to special religious interest groups in an effort to be “multicultural.” He also gave an interview to Bill Moyers on his act of signing the manifesto and his beliefs regarding the controversy. Like many, Rushdie pointed to the fact that political cartoons are not supposed to be respectful, and that Islam needs to open itself up to modern forms of criticism including satire.

Now with Najafi’s death threat, as with many other incidents since 2005, the parallel with Rushdie’s experience is part of the controversy. In this case, it is easy to see how people make the connection. Rushdie faced a fatwa issued by an Iranian imam, and Najafi faces two fatwas issued by Iranian imams. Both artists have been/are in hiding as a result. They are both artists, and both face these threats because of something they produced (a novel and a song). Similarly, the cartoonists who published cartoons of Muhammed in the Danish paper, face/have faced threats from Muslim groups because of their products. In all three cases, at least one Islamic religious leader has condemned the works as “blasphemous.”

But are these incidents as connected as we think they are? How does looking at the Danish cartoon controversy and the “Naqi” fatwa through the lens of the Rushdie Affair change the way we understand what is going on? What are the connections people make across these incidents and what image, then, emerges about multiculturalism, freedom of speech, Islam, etc.? What is lost in conflating these incidents (state-sponsored death threats, definitions of blasphemy, historical moments like 9/11, immigration policies in Europe)? As responsible scholars, it behoves us to consider these questions in addition to the one hanging over all three of these examples – How do we navigate between freedom of expression and religious freedom? Is there a line? And if so, who is crossing it and who is not?

Tawnya Ravy is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University. She is currently writing her dissertation on Salman Rushdie in the 21st Century, and she is the creator of the digital humanities project the Salman Rushdie Archive. She is also one of the founding members and current secretary of the Rushdie International Society. Follow her @litambitions and/or salmanrushdiearchive.com  

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In 2002, Rushdie was elected to the Board of the American PEN whose mission is to oppose censorship and defend writers. Recently, Rushdie tweeted a video of his opening remarks at this year’s The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture.

He also tweeted a transcript of his remarks (“On Censorship” by Salman Rushdie) posted on the new PageTurner blog of the New Yorker.  Rushdie’s views on censorship are well known, and given his own experience with the 1989 fatwa after the publication of his book The Satanic Verses, not unexpected. Over the years, he has fought even his own favored party (and leftist friends) against even “well-meaning” censorship. In 1990, a film came out which depicted Rushdie as a Rambo-like figure. When the British Film Board attempted to ban it for tarnishing his reputation, Rushdie protested, arguing that banning it will increase its appeal and it would be a form of censorship. In more recent years, Rushdie has written repeatedly about policies which pander to special group interests under the guise of progressive politics (or more specifically, multiculturalism). In 2006, the British parliament passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act – a measure that Rushdie adamantly opposed. The act creates an offence for inciting hatred against a person for their religion. Rushdie sees this as an attempt to make nice with religious groups in England, but which has the potential to censor free speech because the language of the act is too general.

Listening to his PEN speech on censorship reminded me of many of these moments wherein Rushdie has entered the fray of multicultural politics and commented on the freedom of speech. More generally it reminds me of an on-going debate in multicultural scholarship about the effects of multicultural policies. In the past, Rushdie has supported banning the veil (also known as a burqa – a head-t0-toe veil worn by women) in Europe because he argues that its whole function is the limitation of women. However, liberals all over the world see the ban (for example in French schools) as a restriction on the freedom of religion. Last year I attended a presentation by Dr. Priyamvada Gopal titled “Is Feminism Bad for Multiculturalism?” and I posted a summary of her points here. Dr. Gopal was responding to a controversial article titled “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women” by Susan Okin. Although Dr. Gopal does not offer a solid answer to her query, it is thought-provoking, and useful in considering Rushdie’s comments on the same. I am currently reading and writing about Rushdie’s representations of gender, and I find it interesting that he supports banning the veil on the one hand and “women in red states trying to make free choices about their own bodies” (“On Censorship”) on the other. As of this moment, I do not have a solid position in answering this question, but I will continue to think about it. In the meantime, do you have any thoughts about Rushdie’s position?

Tawnya Ravy is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University. She is currently writing her dissertation on Salman Rushdie in the 21st Century, and she is the creator of the digital humanities project the Salman Rushdie Archive. She is also one of the founding members and current secretary of the Rushdie International Society. Follow her @litambitions and/or salmanrushdiearchive.com  

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According to Rushdie, one of the positive developments to come out of his exile in the aftermath of the fatwa in 1989 was to become closer with noted author, journalist, and political figure Christopher Hitchens who felt very strongly about the Iranian threat to Rushdie’s work and his life. In one of his last interviews, Hitchens spoke about his friendship with Rushdie, saying that he was proud to have been one of Rushdie’s friends during that time when so many other friends abandoned him and his controversy. He not only saw a friend in need, but also a principle that needed to be defended. Indeed, when author John le Carre criticized Rushdie for inciting controversy for his own gains, Hitchens entered the fray with his own powerfully-worded letter accusing le Carre of absolute stupidity. For Rushdie, this period resulted in an even stronger and closer bond with Hitchens even when Rushdie momentarily embraced Islam: “It was a weak moment for me, and he understood the reasons for that weakness” (Rushdie).

With the approach of Hitchens’s memorial in April 2012, Rushdie began commenting via his social networks on his relationship with the famed “contrarian.” April 13, 2012 (what would have been Hitch’s 63rd birthday) Rushdie, Amis, Fenton, and McEwan spoke about Hitchens on the Charlie Rose show. In this interview, Rushdie illuminated the nature of his relationship with Hitchens,  recounting his first meeting with Hitchens, and that Hitchens was first afraid Rushdie was the wrong kind of “leftist” like may of Rushdie’s friends. According to Rushdie, Htichens was relieved to find that he was not the kind of leftist he had imagined. Not that they always agreed on everything. One of the markers of the friendship, Rushdie said, was that you could violently disagree with Hitchens without at all damaging the friendship.  Rushdie also changed his title photo on his Facebook page to one featuring him and Hitchens standing with a bust of Voltaire, writing: “This was the last time I saw him. Houston, Texas, on his birthday last year, at the home of Michael and Nina Zilkha.” This is not only a personal photo of one of Rushdie’s best friends (made more personal by the setting – the home of a friend), but also a strong statement – here standing with two bastions of Enlightenment thinking, civil liberties, and freedom of religion.

Hitchens, Rushdie, and Voltaire

Even though Rushdie admits that they did not always agree (on the war with Iraq, example), it was hard not to see certain similarities and connections while watching the Charlie Rose Show in April, 2012. First, in that Hitchens found a home in America, and not just a home, but a new love. He was very vocal about his interest in America’s history and politics. He deeply admired the American revolution, claiming that it was one of few revolutions that actually worked. He was impressed and excited about America’s potential to spread revolutionary and enlightenment culture to the rest of the world. And he loved that America was an immigrant society. Having taken a careful look at Rushdie’s writing trajectory over the past few years, I see some similarities in Rushdie’s stance on America as well; not only as a subject of his work, but as a place of personal investment.

In the interview, Rushdie was most impressed with Hitchens’s stance on the end of his life, or the act of dying. Rushdie recounts a familiar story about seeing Hitchens the day he found out about his cancer. Despite the news, Hitchens was at the top of his game, speaking to 1,000 people and attending a dinner party. Rushdie notes that he would not have been able to pull off such a performance in the face of a potential death sentence. At this point in the interview, it is hard not to imagine Rushdie flashing on his own experience with being handed a death sentence, and the panicked days that followed. Even so, Rushdie arguably performed in similar fashion, showing up with a game face to the memorial of another friend only one day after he learned about the fatwa. On the Charlie Rose Show, Rushdie said that Hitchens’s painful attempt to keep on writing up to the very end was an act of resistance to that death sentence, an attitude with which Rushdie can identify. Shortly after he was forced into hiding by his own death sentence, Rushdie realized that he needed to keep writing to not only resist that sentence, but also to maintain his sense of identity.

On December 16, 2011 Rushdie tweeted: “Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops. Christopher Hitchens, April 13, 1949-December 15, 2011” after waiting by the phone for the news. Shortly afterward, Rushdie published an article about Hitchens in Vanity Fair and on his personal tumblr blog. In April 2012, Rushdie tweeted about attending the Hitchens memorial and provided links to both the Vanity Fair article covering the event (Christopher Hitchen’s Memorial) and the Vanity Fair Video: Christopher Hitchens Remembered. Later, Rushdie posted all four parts of the Hitchens Memorial on his Facebook page and twitter feed (see part 3 for Rushdie’s remarks). Rushdie read an excerpt from Hitchens’s God is Not Great – the chapter titled “A short Digression on the Pig or Why Heaven Hates Ham” in which Hitchens discusses the reason why the pig is characterized as unclean by some of the world’s religions. Rushdie picked this passage, he said, because Hitchens had found Rushdie’s own first pork experience (his “loss of porcine virginity”) to be hilarious.

Tawnya Ravy is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University. She is currently writing her dissertation on Salman Rushdie in the 21st Century, and she is the creator of the digital humanities project the Salman Rushdie Archive. She is also one of the founding members and current secretary of the Rushdie International Society. Follow her @litambitions and/or salmanrushdiearchive.com  

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