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The controversy over Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’

April 08, 1989

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in America in the April 8, 1989 edition as “Offense and Counter-Offense.”

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie appears destined to be one of the most controversial and certainly the most publicized novels in history. The controversy surrounding the novel is a paradigm of the difficulties that have existed over the centuries between Islam and the West. What was once a conflict between “Christendom” and Islam has now shifted to a conflict between Islam and pluralistic democracies, which exist for the most part in the West. As someone engaged in the Christian-Muslim dialogue, I find the affair a classic example of two world views not understanding each other—and doing it with passion and conviction.

Early on, Muslims were deeply offended by The Satanic Verses, which they perceive as presenting Islam in a most uncomplimentary light. The calls for censorship, the burnings of the book and, most importantly, the action of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini have caused equal offense among non-Muslims living in pluralistic societies. The result is two groups, each of which is now offended by the other. Muslims perceive the West as placing a higher regard on freedom of expression than on religion. Westerners living in a pluralistic society see all their fears of and prejudices against Islam as now being justified.

In a sense the controversy over The Satanic Verses is representative of differences, misunderstandings and incorrect perceptions that have existed for centuries.

In a sense the controversy over The Satanic Verses is representative of differences, misunderstandings and incorrect perceptions that have existed for centuries. In the past several years, however, the differences between Islam and Christianity have sometimes been overlooked or unexplored in any overly irenic spirit of dialogue. Polite discussions and dialogues were encouraged by the Second Vatican Council and have gone on for several years between groups of Christians and Muslims. Many times controversial topics have been avoided and feelings of agreement that are misleading have arisen. It makes the shock and sense of betrayal on both sides all the sharper when, after years of dialogue and “agreement,” Christians discover that Muslims do not share many of the values of the pluralistic West and Muslims discover that Western religious sensitivities are quite different from those of Islam. If the situation remains one of mutual disappointment or, worse, if the controversy should sharpen through increased violence, great damage will have been done to the Christian-Muslim dialogue. In addition, further violence or calls for violence will greatly damage attempts on the part of both Muslims and Christians to make Islam more understandable to citizens of pluralistic societies. Fortunately a worsening of the situation is not the only possibility. The depth of feeling and the offense felt on both sides can provide excellent opportunities for an increased mutual understanding that goes beyond the merely polite.

One of the tragically amusing aspects of the entire controversy is that very few people seem to have read The Satanic Verses, though this does not appear to have moderated anyone’s opinion. People are either passionately against the book or passionately for it. There is little middle ground. Since I am not a literary critic, I offer no opinion regarding the literary worth of the book. That does not, however, prevent me from asking several questions about the novel. In the dream sequence that Muslims find so offensive, there can be no question that the author is referring to Islam. Terms and names such as Mahound, Jahiliyyah, Ayesha and Gibreel, to name just a few, are hardly veiled literary allusions. The author has asserted that many of his literary allusions “are and are not” Pakistan, Islam and himself. I see no alternative other than to take him at his word. It must also be recognized, however, that these allusions are so blatant that they were certain to offend Muslims.

While it is conceivable that a non-Muslim novelist could have been unaware of the impact the novel would have, it is hard to believe that Rushdie could have been so naive. Whether Rushdie is a practicing Muslim or not is immaterial. He was born a Muslim and grew up familiar with Islam. Islam’s intense sensitivity toward its central personages and symbols cannot have been something of which Rushdie was unaware. None of this justifies death threats, book burnings and calls for censorship. It does, however, caution against looking upon Rushdie as a totally innocent victim, ignorant of the storm that he was about to unleash.

It is a truism that Christians are poorly informed about Islam; it is less well known that Muslims are equally poorly informed about Christianity.

For Christians, The Satanic Verses can provide an important learning opportunity. It is a truism that Christians are poorly informed about Islam; it is less well known that Muslims are equally poorly informed about Christianity. While Muhammad and the Qur’an are terms with which most people are familiar, that tends to be the extent of the knowledge about Islam that most Christians possess. I have taken some expressions from The Satanic Verses and asked several well-educated Christians if they knew what the expressions meant or to whom the names referred. Not one person knew what Jahiliyyah was or who Mahound, Ayesha or Gibreel were. I suppose this is to be expected. Very few Muslims would know what Arianism was or who Thaddeus or Mary Magdalene were. Christian ignorance, however, should not obscure the fact that these terms and names, which appear in The Satanic Verses, are immediately familiar to Muslims. Indeed the names are not merely familiar, they are the names of events and people central to the history of Islam.

Many Muslims have looked for analogies in Christian history and piety to explain their feelings of pain and insult. This is probably not helpful since the intensity of feeling that Muslims experience for people like Muhammad and his wives is not exactly paralleled in most forms of Christianity, As a result these analogies tend to compound the lack of understanding. When Christians are asked how they would react if Jesus or Mary were insulted, their reaction is generally that they would ignore the insult. Most Western Christians would not advocate assassinating or executing a person for blasphemy; in fact, most would find the notion offensive. The often shameful history of Christianity has shown such behavior contrary to the message of the Gospel and, at the very least, counterproductive.

Islam has not experienced religious wars and internal religious persecution as has Christianity. Nor until recently have Muslims had the experience of being a religious minority with all the threats which that entails and the protection it needs. Consequently Muslims do not share Christians’ fear of threats to pluralism and have great difficulties understanding a Western Christian response, which they find morally weak and a sign of lack of faith commitment.

The fact that Christians are almost totally unfamiliar with so many of the central symbols and most important personalities of Islam is a sign that there is need for education.

The Satanic Verses provides a challenge to Christians who wish to understand Islam and Muslims. The fact that Christians are almost totally unfamiliar with so many of the central symbols and most important personalities of Islam is a sign that there is need for education. The difficulties are by no means insurmountable. Terms such as “Torah,” “Sukkoth” and “kosher” have become part of the vocabulary of the educated Christian. No Christian who is sensitive to people of other faiths would be unaware of Jewish dietary laws. The same can apply to Islam. While it cannot be expected that Christians be familiar with the entire span of Islam, it can be expected that they be aware of the central figures and beliefs of Islam and be sensitive to them. The Christian response to The Satanic Verses should be one of regret. We should regret that the vast majority of Christians can read the novel and be totally unaware of how offensive it is to hundreds of millions of people of faith.

Nonetheless, Christians are not the only people who have something to learn from The Satanic Verses. Muslims too have some important things to learn. Here I refer to Muslims living in Western, pluralistic democracies. Muslims have been quick to point out the shameful and often brutal history of Christianity. What they may overlook, however, is the invaluable lesson that Western pluralistic democracies have learned from centuries of religious conflict and wars.

Freedom of religion and the separation of church/synagogue/mosque and state are not the result of abstract philosophical musings, much less of religious indifference. They are the result of a long and often painful history of conflicting religious convictions. When Muslims wonder out loud if Christians hold freedom of expression in higher regard than religion, they show themselves as unfamiliar with the history of Western civilization as Christians are of Islamic civilization. Westerners, who are as profoundly committed to their faith as are Muslims, experience their faith as most secure and most free to practice its beliefs in a society where pluralism is strictly safeguarded.

In terms of pluralism, the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses has underlined another area of misunderstanding. Anyone familiar with the history of Islam knows that non-Muslims in most Islamic states enjoyed far better conditions than non-Christians in the Christian states of Medieval Europe. As dhimmis or protected minorities, Jews and Christians in Islamic states enjoyed a freedom unparalleled for minorities in pre-Enlightenment Europe. Muslims have every reason to be proud of this aspect of their history. It is misleading, however, to equate the dhimmi system of Islamic states with modern pluralistic societies. They are not the same. This may prove disconcerting for Muslims who live in the United States and Canada but who grew up and were educated in cultures that are not pluralistic in the Western meaning of the word. A Muslim who equates Western pluralism with the dhimmi system does not merely misunderstand Western pluralism; it appears to him or her to be intolerably permissive.

The discussions about freedom of expression that have revolved around The Satanic Verses have been clouded by diverse notions of freedom and responsibility that arise from very different cultural and historical experiences. Very often freedom of expression and responsibility have been used by both sides with meanings that are not only different, but mutually exclusive. Muslims now have the opportunity to understand freedom of expression and responsibility as it is understood in their newly adopted countries.

Paradoxically the worst aspect of The Satanic Verses may also turn out to be its best aspect. From the offense that Muslims have taken at the book Christians can find motivation to learn more about the central beliefs and figures of Islam. From the offense that Christians and people in Western pluralistic democracies have taken at calls for assassination and censorship Muslims can find motivation to learn more about the values and experiences that people of faith have found in Western pluralistic societies. The only alternative to such a learning situation is further polarization and the potential for further conflict. Such an alternative is unacceptable.

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