In Rushdie Affair, Daniel Pipes, director of the foreign policy research institute in Philadelphia, explain why the publications of The Satanic Verses become a cataclysmic event, with far-reaching consequences. Pipes details what the fundamentalists perceived, and what the novel actually said, that proved so offensive to some Muslims. In fact, for many, the novel’s title was enough to enrage them without even reading the text.
Pipes explain how Rushdie’s book created a new crisis between Iran and the West disrupting international diplomacy, billions of dollars in trade, and the prospects of Western hostage in Lebanon. He also spells out the chilling, long-term implications of the crisis. If the Ayatollah so easily intimidated the West, can others now do the same? Can millions of fundamentalist Muslims now living in the United State and Europe possibly be assimilated in a culture so alien to them?
Insightful and brilliantly written, The Rushdie Affair provides the reader with a full understanding of one the most unexpected and significant events in recent years. Far more than creating a month of headlines, the events surrounding Rushdie’s book could have a major impact on the future of our civilization.
Daniel Pipes is the author of five books on the Middle East, including The Long Shadow: Culture and Politics in the Middle East and in the Path of god: Islam and Political Power. He has written over 80 magazine and journal pieces and is the editor of ORBIS, the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Quarterly journal of world affairs. He also served in three positions at the Department of State. Pipes, who frequently appears on national television, received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and has taught at Harvard, the University of Chicago and the U.S. Naval War College. Currently, he is Senior Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two daughters.
Robert MacNeil, co-host of the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," leaned across the television studio desk and told me in mid- February 1989, "You know, I've been reporting the news for decades, but I've never before seen a novel as the lead item in the day's news." And he was right; not only had a novel never dominated the news before, but there was never before anything quite like the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie and his novel The Satanic Verses.
Together, Rushdie and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stirred powerful emotions on a global level. Censorship, protests, riots, a death edict, a break in diplomatic relations, even a confrontation of civilizations-it all had a fantastical quality which made the incident more appropriate to the world of magical realism found in Rushdie's novels than to the sober world of politics. Or, to switch literary genres, the incident had the making of an international thriller. As Jean-Claude Lamy observed, it has all the elements: "At the center, a single man (sacrilegious apostate for some, innocent novelist for others) chased by a multitude of killers, a clash of civilizations, geo-strategic rivalries, and the wrath of God! And there is even blood, which has already flowed in Islamabad, Kashmir, and Bombay, and is more than likely to flow elsewhere." But the event was real, not literary. More than that, it had a significance that went far beyond the actors directly involved. The following pages attempt to explain what happened, why it happened, and what the implications of the incident are for East and West alike, for ayatollahs and novelists.
Though the event seemed to come and go in a moment, the full story actually lasted half a year, from September 1988 to March 1989. Small as it first appeared, the incident was actually far- reaching. The controversy began in India, moved to Great Britain, then travelled to the United States, South Africa, Pakistan, and Iran. It engaged thousands of individuals in protest, from renowned American writers to obscure Bengali rioters. It caused the deaths of over twenty people, disrupted billions of dollars in trade, brought profound cultural tensions to the surface, and raised issues about freedom of speech and the secular state that had seemingly been settled decades or even centuries earlier. The Rushdie controversy raised important questions about the many millions of Muslims now living in the West and their relationship to the civilization around them. On a more mundane level, it led to a church being destroyed, book store windows being smashed, movies not distributed, and musical records withdrawn. At least three persons lost their jobs: a radio talk show host, a comic book writer, and the editor of a religious monthly.
The reason for the incident needs explanation. Comparison between The Satanic Verses and other writings reveals that Rushdie's novel contains by no means the most blasphemous thoughts expressed by a Muslim in recent years. Why then was it the book that sparked a furor? Did Muslims in many countries find it a convenient vehicle for political protest? Or did the book have some feature, possibly one even unknown to the author, which sparked protests in such diverse places?
The complexity of the Rushdie incident makes it not possible in short compass to cover its every aspect. Writing primarily for a Western audience, I have therefore emphasized those events which are less likely to be familiar to it. The controversy prompted much discussion about freedom of expression, the nature of blasphemy, and the role of the literati. These issues have been treated at length by others, so I cover them lightly. Instead, I emphasize equally important topics which received less attention, including such matters as the Muslim understanding of The Satanic Verses and the Soviet response to the controversy. Most important, I hope to explain the long-term importance of this event for Muslims resident in West Europe and North America, and why it augurs the beginning of a new era for them and for their host societies.
Recounting the Rushdie incident presents one special challenge, especially for an analyst who writes when the events are still fresh. The tumult of February and March 1989 engaged the emotions of almost everyone who followed the news; it was one of those pure cases where ideologies and religions clashed, and when all concerned had strong feelings. The newspapers and magazines were full of glib comments about the Muslims' "return to barbarism," the "unquestioning, perhaps fanatical" faith of the East, and the like. For their part, Muslims answered with accusations of cultural imperialism and a new Crusading spirit. With such recriminations in the air, simple stereotyping became a real trap. Accordingly, the Westerner who would describe the controversy must take special care not to condemn without understanding. He need not sympathize with the Muslim rioters and Khomeini, but he must understand their motives and explain their views. As John Voll, a historian of Islam, requests, "Even scholars who personally condemn the action of the Ayatollah need to be able to present Khomeini's views in such a way that they would at least be recognizable to his followers."? I endorse Voll's approach and aim to present precisely such an understanding.
The pages that follow begin with a detailed account of the events that took place in the half year between September 1988 and March 1989. Part I then focuses on two texts, The Satanic Verses and Ayatollah Khomeini's edict, and attempts to explain why the one led to the other. After one layer and another have been peeled away, a conclusion emerges: the key to the controversy lies in a terrible misunderstanding about the book's title. Part II surveys the responses to the texts, from conspiracy theories in Iran to petitions in the United States, and then considers the implications of this controversy. Two issues receive special attention: the perennial problem of censorship (Is it justified if it saved dozens of lives? How extensive will the chilling effect be?) and the very new questions raised by millions of Muslims living in the West. It appears very likely that the Rushdie affair will have a lasting impact on relations between this Muslim diaspora and its host population, and not for the better.
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