The Corner

Rushdie Affair Laid Bare

I’ve just finished an extraordinary article, penned in the wake of the original Rushdie Affair by Ali Mazrui, a former President of the African Studies Association (the Africanist equivalent of MESA) who’s television series “The Africans” aired years ago on PBS and the BBC. Mazrui’s piece is called, “The Satanic Verses or a Satanic Novel? Moral Dilemmas of the Rushdie Affair”

If you want to know what upsets Muslims about The Satanic Verses, this article is a good place to begin. True, Mazrui is not the sort of Muslim who takes to the streets burning effigies of Rushdie and the Queen. He is a Muslim, however, while also being a (left-leaning) professor, fully conversant with Western culture. And Mazrui visited Pakistan at the height of the original Rushdie Affair. As such, he’s in a good position to convey to a Western audience the way in which traditional Muslims think about Rushdie.

Mazrui’s no fan of Rushdie. On the contrary, Mazrui really does see The Satanic Verses as a “Satanic Novel.” When Britain’s first Muslim peer, Lord Ahmed, recently accused Rushdie of having “blood on his hands, sort of” it seemed a clumsy and ill-thought-out indictment. That it was. But if you want to see the Cadillac version of Ahmed’s accusation, consult the section of Mazrui’s article titled “On Literature and Chaos.” There are huge problems with the argument of that section: false moral equivalences, and the notion that books kill people. But here you’ll find the “blood on his hands argument” in full. For all the problems, Mazrui does at least raise interesting questions about Rushdie’s precise intentions–questions emerging again today.

In my reading, Mazrui is particularly insightful at the beginning of this article, and nearly mad by the end. If you read this piece all the way through, prepare for an apoplexy-inducing and deeply strained exercise in false moral equivalence. The Mein Kampf comparison at the end is off the Richter Scale–and that’s only the worst of several mind-blowing comparisons.

Still, I found the beginning sections of Mazrui’s article illuminating. The opening sexual analogy is arresting, and useful (it comes, not from Mazrui, but from directly from Pakistanis offended by Rushdie). I do think Rushdie’s book feeds directly into the honor complex. In a sense, the Rushdie fatwa is the license for an “honor killing” (a point I made in a different way when I discussed the Rushdie Affair at the end of “Marriage and the Terror War, Part II“). I also found Mazrui’s opening comparisons between Western notions of treason and Rushdi’s “cultural treason” very much on target.

Unfortunately, Mazrui fails to draw the conclusions of his own point. If Mazrui is right, then it really does make particular sense to use the phrase “Muslim terrorists.” Mazrui’s opening argument also shows (inadvertently) that in the absence of deep cultural transformation, traditionalist Muslim immigrants really do pose a problem for the West. And Mazrui’s attack on the McCarthy era contradicts his defense of Muslim sensitivity to “cultural treason.” Still, Mazrui’s way of explaining the “treason” dynamic at work in the Rushdie affair is useful.

Returning to the motivation issue, I think Mazrui is wrong to point to Rushdie’s supposed hunger for book royalties. Mazrui thinks of Rushdie as “an Indian Muslim” who’s sold out his people for money. I suspect Rushdie thinks of himself as an immigrant Briton struggling with the dilemmas of a bi-cultural or “transnational” existence.

Let me be clear: Mazrui does not approve of the anti-Rushdie fatwa. On the contrary, Mazrui wants to see the fatwa withdrawn. Yet in every other respect, Mazrui is on the “anti-Rushdie” side. So for a sometimes insightful and sometimes wild-eyed perspective on the Rushdie Affair, dip into this extraordinary article. It may be half-crazy, but if you want to read an extended defense of Rushdie’s Muslim critics, this will certainly interest you.

One more thing. Mazrui notes that during the first Rushdie affair, “the twelve members of the European Community temporarily withdrew their ambassadors from Tehran in the wake of the Ayatollah’s threat against Rushdie.” What are the old EC 12 doing today?


The Latest