In the wake of the protests that are rocking the Muslim world, Sir Salman Rushdie has been all over the news, giving us his views on free speech in this BBC interview (and innocently promoting his soon-to-be-released memoirs.) I’m interested in how this reflects events historical and current, and it’s relation to my current work-in-progress novel, which until circa May included a graphic depiction of Muhammad, and still contains a lot of Gods acting badly. As a writer and a thinker and a person, I disagree with him.
In 1988 Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, a magical-realist novel about the experiences of two Indians migrating to Britain, one of whom has long vivid dream-sequences. In one such sequence, there is a clearly fictional (rather than ‘truth-claiming’, ’historical’, ‘academic’ or even ‘realistic’) account of a disputed episode in the life of Muhammad, Allah’s Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), in which Muhammad briefly embraces polytheism, then rejects it as the Devil’s influence. This caused huge controversy and violence in the Muslim world, including a fatwa (demand of murder) called by the paramount Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, which caused a huge diplomatic rift with Iran, forced Rushdie into 24 hour police surveillance, and resulted in the wounding or outright assassination of several of his publishers and translators, plus the bombing of bookstores.
Before I launch into another inarticulacy, I’ll state a few things straight. I am 100% opposed to anyone being threatened or killed for exercising free speech, or facilitating it. Also I am largely convinced that Rushdie did not foresee the levels of violence his novel would cause, and did not intend such consequences. Good, that’s out of the way. Now I can be offensive.
In the interview, Rushdie calls for ‘bravery’, implying both that his own publication was brave, that the Danish Cartoons and American “The Innocence of Muslims” film are valuable in their contribution to free speech, and that more ‘brave’ individuals should publish similarly inflammatory works in the name of free speech. Having literary pretensions, and having written then deleted a scene wherein an alcoholic creates graffiti showing Muhammad having anal sex with a white prostitute, this was interesting to me.
But I completely disagree. I think the works above (mine included) are stupid and offensive. I don’t think anyone should have had a hair on their head harmed for creating them, but the idea that they are some paragon of virtue is insane. Why?
It’s all been done before without such offense or violence. The satanic verses were first written down in Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah – The Life of the Prophet of Allah, in the 760s. This was the first known account of Muhammad’s life, and originals no longer exist, so the best we have is a transmission by Ibn Hisham from c.830, critically translated into English by Alfred Guillaume in 1955. Bear in mind that Muhammad supposedly died in 632, so even Ishaq’s original was based on over a century of oral transmission, a Bedouin tradition which theoretically maintains authenticity through isnads (recitation of the chain of transmission at the end of each episode.)
Since then, both Muslim and non-Muslim academics have known about them and discussed them, their most damning implication being that Muhammad was fallible (the devil tricked him) and thus the rest of the Qur’an might be compromised. Moreover, Western academics have discussed much more offensive issues; from the 1970s John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, Patricia Crone and Christoph Luxenberg began different types of academic evaluations of Islamic tradition and sources, generally concluding that the received history of early Islamic expansion is a total fabrication, that Muhammad (as we imagine him) did not exist, that Islam was a heretical branch of desert Judaism which was forced to retrospectively construct a separate identity after the radical success of the Radishun and Umayyad conquests, oooh the list goes on. Really fucking offensive stuff.
Most of these guys did cause ‘furores’, but nonviolent ones, largely consisting of a variety of secular and Islamic scholars criticising their methods. The debate continues today, and was ineptly summed up by Tom Holland in the Channel 4 documentary Rushdie describes (which, by the way, did air – I literally watched it.)
These historians, and many many others of various faiths and proficiencies, have investigated the issues raised in the naughty video. I should know, I had to read lots of them for my degree. I watched the naughty video, and I can tell you, the articles were more compelling, more comprehensive, more believable, and best of all, not outrageously and unnecessarily blasphemous. Decent works continue to be published investigating topics that the video criticises, including but not limited to:
-Muhammad being insane and/or illegitimate
-Early Muslims converting for riches, status, sexual benefits or power
-Muhammad taking multiple wives, some by force, one (Aisha) being extremely young
-Early Muslims slaughtering Jews and others
-Early Muslims praying towards Jerusalem, not Makkah, on Muhammad’s direction
Given that such works are being quietly trotted out without serious fatwa concern, violence, or even much media hype, I would argue that defending the naughty video on free speech grounds is silly. The same things and worse have been said, but not so offensively. You might want to watch the video if you haven’t already – I’m sure you’ll agree with me that, even beyond the ‘acting’ and weak production values, it’s a steaming pile of wank. I genuinely don’t understand why anyone bothered producing it, as anyone who sees that video and changes their opinions on Muslims is an astonishing blend of ‘gullible’, ‘bigot’ and ‘moron’.
So I can only interpret Rushdie’s call to bravery as being a call to be unnecessarily offensive just because you can. Now, I’m not ideologically opposed to needless offense. I’m offensive quite a lot. But the wonderful free speech we have in the West is a privilege, and as ?Spider Man? said, that entails responsibilities. Responsibility not to endanger people.
Remember I said I believed Rushdie didn’t know what trouble his book would cause? Well, I am absolutely fucking convinced that the creators of the Muhammad film knew.
And I’m surprised and confused that this is the sort of action Rushdie is calling for. Knowledge of potential harm elevates the filmmakers’ actions from petty bullshittery to something truly sick. Because, whilst not excusing any of the protesters and killers involved, the creators of that film deliberately catalysed a situation which has killed people. It’s killed the well-meaning US Ambassador to Libya, it’s killed other embassy staff, terrified many more, and killed several protesters and security forces across the Muslim world, from Algeria to Malaysia to the Philippines [which aren’t all acting the same]. I removed my Muhammad-depiction from my novel draft for quite separate reasons [mostly word count], but if it was still there, I’d be removing it now. It simply isn’t worth the risk.
Creating such a video isn’t brave, Salman*. Doing anything of the sort is worse than cowardly, worse than pathetic. The filmmakers remain anonymous, presumably leading pedestrian lives in America, whilst their actions have exposed hundreds and thousands of innocent diplomats to horrific violence. The violence-perpetrators are at massive fault, yes, but how is causing such controversy ‘brave’?
Indeed, how does it advance the cause of free speech? It looks to me like it totally polarises the two sides who we need to bring into dialogue. Much of the rationale behind the protests rests on misconception.
Because, in Egypt and Libya until last year, and in many Muslim countries still, all films required government knowledge and permission, and because many Muslims aren’t aware of the mechanisms of youtube and American law, they think this video is explicitly supported by the US government. An equivalent (roughly) would be for Francois Hollande to sit outside Marylebone Station selling portraits depicting HRH Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, with her norks out. I cannot predict what response that would cause, but I’d be willing to bet some of the more hot-blooded middle-Englanders would reach for their best shotgun/cricketbat/idiotstick.
What would Muhammad do?**
Oh, interesting. Another aspect of the controversy is Muslim hypocrisy. I’m no Islamic apologist, but I’ve read quite a lot of their old literature, and I’d say Mo was a pretty nice guy. He seems to have been adept at ‘turning the other cheek’. For years and years when he was preaching in Mecca, he and his followers were beaten, mocked, persecuted, impoverished, embargoed, and eventually driven out (to Medinah) by the Quraysh polytheist majority. When in Medinah, he drew up a wonderful Constitution of mutual respect and aid for the city’s polytheist, Jewish, Christian and Muslim inhabitants. This embodied the Muslim concept of ummah, or ‘community’, which was based on freedom and tolerance.***
He really was a forgiving, turn-the-other-cheek kinda bloke, as you’d expect from someone explicitly within the Abraham tradition. Thus, when his movement had gained a pan-Arab following, he peacefully met the Qurayshi leaders at al-Hudayybiya and negotiated a bloodless cessation of hostilities. The next year he preached in Mecca, and the Quraysh converted. He didn’t hurt them. Indeed, he promoted many of them within the Muslim hierarchy, and two (‘Uthman and Mu’awiyah) went on to become Caliphs, i.e. emperor-and-pope of the entire Muslim empire.
So from a very brief survey of Muhammad’s example, it doesn’t seem like he’d advocate global violence and hatred just because a film mocked him.
What should we do?
Communication is the key. On both sides. I certainly don’t understand why Western embassies didn’t issue ‘nothing to do with us’ type statements as soon as the crisis looked like it was brewing. I’m certainly very heartened by the Libyan outpourings of grief and sorrow at Chris Stevens’ death.
It’s important in the future for a much better cultural dialogue to exist, which need not be ‘apologist’ but at least conveys the respect and values of somewhat incompatible belief systems. Equally, we in the West need to communicate amongst ourselves regarding the freedom of speech, and the huge responsibility that it gives us. Rather than legally limit us, it asks us to self-moderate. It’s perfectly possible to criticise all the aspects of Islam (or anything else) without putting lives, property and international relations at risk. If you’re considering making a racist film, consider this first, because chances are, you are catastrophically ‘wrong’.
*Speaking of bravery, we probably shouldn’t dwell on the fact that Rushdie very publicly proclaimed himself a born-again Muslim and apologised for all offence caused by Verses. I can’t really condemn any attempt to save one’s life, I just think it’s quite bad faith to call for apparently-suicidal levels of ‘bravery’ in light of one’s own life history. [Edit 19-9-12 I now understand quite how desperate his situation was, and how quickly he regretted this temporary volte-face. It would certainly require personal bravery to knowingly expose yourself to the danger and threats that he experienced. Clearly I, then, am a coward both for myself and for others.]
** Based on the commonly-accepted sira and the general hadith, neither of which I actually credit much as evidence. Ho hum.
*** Yes, they did end up massacring the Jewish tribe, but it wasn’t because they were Jews. It was because, when Medinah was under siege from Arab polytheists, the Jews tried to betray the Muslims to save themselves.
**** I hope that, without a blog underlining it, readers can spot for themselves the gender disparity between reactions to Kate’s naked photos and Harry’s naked photos.
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