Salman Rushdie, or zero empathy*

The cultural battles continue and resemble each other. The establishment has always sought to silence innovative and sacrilegious minds. Some authors have survived the ire of readers, but were they within their rights?

Salman Rushdie almost missed certain death on August 12, just as he missed the Nobel Prize for Literature for the year 2022 in favor of Madame Annie Ernaux. If he had passed away under the blows dealt to him by our compatriot Hadi Mattar, he would most likely have taken his secrets with him. Because, although everything has been said, or almost, about him and about The Satanic Versesand although he revealed himself widely in his autobiography titled Joseph Anthony1it remains an enigma.

Who is this man who wrote a dreamlike novel, where magical realism competes with historical fiction, this master of the English language who raised waves of protest, who was sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and who caused the UK to sever diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran? And what are these satanic verses whose publication caused the death of about fifty people, including five in Pakistan and twenty in Bombay? And we haven’t left the inn yet.

Regarding this Anglo-Indian writer, the political-literary world was divided into two camps: on the one hand the camp of those who favored the rights of the community, and on the other those who advocated individual rights.2. It was like a remake or the echo of an old quarrel between those nostalgic for the Old Regime, a time when blasphemy was severely punished, and the supporters of the Age of Enlightenment which had consummated the break with the revealed texts and the power of the clergy.

But let us judge a work on its literary qualities, not on the extent of the damage it has caused. Otherwise, we would make auto-da-fés Sufferings of young Werther and Goethe would be burned in effigy on the pretext that his book had led to an uncontrolled wave of suicides in Western Europe. The fact remains that the outlawed Salman continues to affirm that he did not seek to offend his co-religionists. This banished being, who is accused of having committed sacrilege, cannot explain the outcry that accompanied the publication of his work.

By whom the scandal arrives.

Satire and mystery of the sacred

From the outset, let’s say that this novelist has a problem with the sacred and a spoiled child’s attitude towards liturgical ceremonial. The very day of the announcement of the fatwa who condemned him to death, he was going to attend, at the Orthodox Church of Saint Sophia in London, a « religious office » celebrated in memory of one of his friends, Bruce Chatwin. He relates the scene to us in these terms: « The ritual was full of Byzantine ornaments. Blah blah blah Bruce Chatwin, intoned the priests, blah blah Chatwin blah blah. They got up, sat down, knelt down, they got up to I immediately sat down again. The air was charged with the smell of incense. »3 And so on. You have to be the author of satanic verses to denigrate Byzantine decorum or contest its solemn beauty. The man clearly had a problem with anything that didn’t contribute to his own consecration. And indeed, Sir Ahmad Salman Rushdie proved to be greedy for honours: he collected decorations and awards and would never have missed an opportunity to be praised at a « secular service » for the awarding of prizes. He never had the soul of a Julien Gracq who refused the Goncourt Prize, nor that of a Jean-Paul Sartre who disdained the Nobel Prize.

To show off, he knows how to show off…

And frankly, said fatwa assured him a place of choice in the cohort of the Greats of history, those victims of clerical fanaticism who were persecuted for their opinions: henceforth Rushdie was to be a Giordani Bruno who would have survived the stake, a Galileo who would not have not retracted before the Holy Office, a Diderot or a Voltaire having escaped censorship. He now had the beautiful role, that of the apostate and the rebel. He was finally the hero of the novel of his life. So, in the limelight, he wrote a poem that applies to all those who are trying to gag. Here is an excerpt:

Still, nameless-and-faceless or not, here’s my choice:
not to shut up. To sing on in spite of attacks,
to sing (while my dreams are being murdered by facts)
praises of butterflies broken on racks4

What a hymn to resistance, and against oppression! This author is good at showing off. In the wake of the Ayatollesque decree condemning him, he retorted to the BBC Radio 4 journalist, who questioned him: « Frankly, I wish I had written an even more critical book »5. He was not lacking in cheek when he continued « that a religion whose leaders behaved in this way probably needed some criticism »6.

However, contrary to what he had just declared, he had not criticized Islam and he could not be likened to Faraj Fouda, Ahmad Soubhy Mansour or Nasr Hamed Abou Zeid, etc. The latter had allowed themselves a revision of the Muslim doxa while our novelist was in the parody or the satire, that is to say in the writing which turns something into ridicule or treats it casually as had Diderot or Voltaire, cited above, before him. But if he, Salman Rushdie, had shown impertinence, he had never claimed to revise the sharia through a rereading of the texts.

Salman Rushdie, seated cross-legged.

Collateral damage and denial

Perhaps his intention was not malicious? Nevertheless, he ventured into minefield.

But Rushdie, born in Bombay and ethnic Kashmiri, could not ignore the satanic verses constituted an insult to Islamic values. To use, among other examples, the names of the Prophet’s wives to embellish his narrative and tell the Muslim public that they have no reason to feel offended is still mind-boggling. This denial cannot be explained; it could come from an unconscious defense mechanism that would serve as protection against an agonizing reality.

No empathy! Refusing to admit that he had hurt millions of Muslims, he did for them in his autobiography Joseph Anthony no gesture of sympathy. Nothing, not a smile. On the scene that he tells us in detail, there is him and his supporters, and in front of them there are evil beings who wish him harm, without having even taken the trouble to read it. Convinced of his rights, he deplores his status as a fugitive throughout the pages. He comes to regret not being able to accompany his son to a cricket match or to a ski resort. It is indeed annoying! But did he at least ask himself that « telling » to millions of young people of the age of this son, millions who have suffered the affront does to their intimate convictions?

Because, whatever we say, The Satanic Verses inflicted a « wound » on believers, as a Catholic prelate did not fail to point out7. This remark made by an ecclesiastic was immediately relayed by John le Carré who, condemning his fellow writer, did not hesitate to say: « It seems to me that he has nothing more to prove than his own insensitivity »8.

In short, Salman Rushdie did more than show off, he refused to recognize a legitimate emotion in others, he goes so far as to challenge their right to feelings.

‘Offensive literary content’ as Stefan King would say9 and an egotist who would cultivate the state of denial, that secret of creativity.

*Do not distort the meaning of my remarks: if they allow themselves a questioning of Salman Rushdie, they do not intend to approve the fatwa, any more than to strengthen the arm of the assassins. But if the freedom of expression is absolute and does not suffer any exception, it does not prevent that what the writer said in his defense does not always hold water.

Editor’s note: The articles in the « Opinions » section engage only their authors and do not necessarily reflect the point of view of Ici Beyrouth.

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