Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Salman and Khomeini's Excellent Adventure

 Sultan Knish
When professional writers get together what they talk about are not the great ideas that some of their readers imagine, but mostly the mundane business of their work; the good and bad reviews, the writers, agents and editors they hate and those they like, and the relationships in their incestuous industry.

Joseph Acton, Salman Rushdie's memoir of his years in hiding, is such a collection of industry talk, full of the good and bad reviews he received, the famous people he attended parties with and his opinion of every writer, lover and editor he came in contact with. There are plenty of meditations on his years in hiding and his relationship with his service branch protectors, but Rushdie is a creature of the publishing industry and the literary circles that made him famous and kept him influential, and the book is more about that world than it is about the reasons he went into hiding and stayed in hiding.

All biography is at its heart fiction and Joseph Acton is a triumphant work of fiction as its author labors to make Rushdie's numerous marriages and infidelities seem like the natural outcome of a stressful situation and the neurosis of his many wives. Any writer who crosses Rushdie or whom he crosses receives that same treatment. How much of it is true, is impossible to know.

Joseph Acton is Rushdie's way of settling scores, some probably justified, some probably not, with countless reviewers, writers, politicians and wives. Throughout it all he manages to maintain the persona of an affable man wronged by unfair attacks and allegations, though toward the end when discussing his breakup with Padma Lakshmi, he begins ranting incoherently about Scrooge McDuck.

What Joseph Acton isn't about, is Islamism or even freedom of expression. Rushdie does his best to make his ability to write and live freely as the acid test of freedom of expression, and he has a case considering that silencing him was the first major move to enforce Islamic law in the West. But it's less a case of a courageous reformer speaking out, than a mildly famous left-wing writer discovering that circumstances had placed him on the firing line.

Rushdie occasionally delivers stirring defenses of freedom of expression and at one point even holds all of Islam, as it is practiced today, responsible, he appears to learn very little from the experience. At one point, he is introduced to an elderly Enoch Powell, who warned against immigration, and remembers wanting to punch him on an earlier occasion. It never occurs to him to overlay his experience on the Rivers of Blood that Powell warned about.

While no one would expect Rushdie to embrace Enoch Powell, he never makes the most elementary connections between the decline of the liberal society he grew up in and the rise of Islamic identity. When his parents announce that they are moving to Pakistan because they feel more comfortable there as Muslims, he flatly rejects their explanation and never even accepts it as a possibility. Rushdie sneers at his various Muslim persecutors in the UK and their Labour allies, but never delves into the difficult question of why UK Muslims came to be represented by people willing to have him killed.

At several junctures, he condemns the left for buying into the notion that "the people cannot be wrong". Forced to confront it, he recognizes it as an intellectual trap that invalidates the left's claim to reason and principle, but he never addresses who those people are and why they want him dead. If the majority of Muslims in the UK, as he documents in the book, reject the freedom to blaspheme, then what hope is there for the freedom of writers like him if Islamic immigration continues.

Freedom of expression, he insists is necessary for society, but rather few Muslim countries have it and rather many Western countries do. Toward the end of Joseph Acton, he mumbles something about the Arab Spring being a popular secular revolution, a conclusion that is completely wrong.

India, which only has a Muslim minority refuses him entry and bans his book, but Rushdie does not consider that the shameful reaction of European countries with far smaller Muslim minorities who only try to dissuade him from coming would have been far worse if their Muslim minority becomes as big and dangerous as India's. Against this he holds up fragments of support from isolated Muslim writers. But he has nothing to offer against a Muslim majority that hates him and wants him dead.

Rushdie rejects religion and insists on viewing Islam as a cultural heritage rather than a belief. And he fails to understand that Muslims hate him all the more for that trivialization of their belief system. Insisting that Satanic Verses is actually an endorsement of cultural Islam, he does not understand that it is exactly such secularization of religion that makes Islamists want to kill him all the more.

Despite everything that he goes through, Rushdie never budges from the verities of the left. He describes his friendship with Edward Said, and fails to see how Said's Orientalism corrupted the academic discourse of the left into cultural relativism, and even claims that Said intervened with Arafat on his behalf, while describing Arafat, the terrorist who turned the West Bank and Gaza educational systems into Islamist propaganda mills, as an Anti-Islamist.

Shielded by his celebrity circle, Rushdie staggers through the experience, going from British literary circles to Hollywood, while maintaining that his fight is a universal one, while knowing quite well that a writer or artist without his connection would have had a great deal of trouble surviving that same experience. Celebrity and celebrities are Rushdie's only asset and the freedom of speech they protect does not extend beyond his own pen. And despite his record of activism on the left and a circle of left wing icons like Harold Pinter and Susan Sontag on his side, he still loses the left.

All that Rushdie really proves is that a famous leftist with enough famous leftist friends can still go on being invited to dinner parties, with police escorts, even while terrorists are plotting to kill him, and can still get his books published, even when no publisher wants to touch them, but that he can only find a measure of freedom by going into exile to a country whose politicians pander less to the Muslim world.

Salman Rushdie cannot address these issues. Instead he flees to the United States at the earliest opportunity, which with its comparatively smaller number of Muslims, at least in the nineties, is a relative safe haven, only to eventually be confronted with the terrorist attacks of September 11. His flight from Islamic immigration in the UK takes him to the next battlefield of Islamic Imperialism.

Rushdie is thoughtlessly of the left. An immigrant to the UK, he absorbs the left-wing politics of an earlier age that leaves him unprepared for the post-colonialist left that has come to dominate the UK. There are moments in the book when he references this shift without spelling it out or admitting that the freedom of expression he values so much was the privilege of an old secular left that was being edged out by the very kind of multiculturalism that his political activities promoted.

In hiding, Rushdie is equally clueless about Iran, mobilizing international efforts to get Iran to lift the Fatwa, until finally coming to terms that it will never do so, and will at most fail to actively enforce it, before going on to live his life with the recognition that he can never truly be safe, but that he also cannot allow himself to be a prisoner of terror.

Rushdie accurately gets a grip on the futility of defending one's reputation against a series of Islamic attacks that isolate an individual and transform him into the problem, realizing instead that he must make common cause on a principle while continuing to live his life. It is a lesson that Israel has still  failed to absorb. Like Rushdie, Israel's attempts at peace negotiations only lead it to be branded as the problem when its attempts at diplomacy through Western nations are turned around to pressure it into making an infinite series of concessions without the violence ever coming to a stop.

As a dogmatic leftist, Rushdie would not appreciate a comparison with the Jewish State. Despite all the betrayals and apathy, the author of Joseph Acton is still a party man and his resentments are selectively expressed. Thatcher and the Tories are repeatedly attacked, even though he makes it clear that Labour, despite being friendlier, can't do much more than provide him with security and make diplomatic overtures to Iran. The Independent attacks him over and over, and to balance that out, Rushdie constantly brings up the Daily Mail, as if a tabloid and the voice of the intellectual left were equivalent representatives of the political landscape of the left and right.

Joseph Acton, the fictional alias of Rushdie in hiding, remains mired in pettiness. He writes angry letters that never sends. He writes other letters that he does send. He has affairs. He complains about money and the lack of privacy. But these are understandable. Less understandable is his insistence on inserting snide remarks and putdowns aimed at a bewilderingly large number of people, both before and after the Khomeini Fatwa, which are often absurdly petty in nature and have no other function except to stain someone he encountered along the way. It is this sort of pettiness that some of his critics denounce him for, and bizarrely that does not stop him from engaging in it.

Rushdie imagines the fatwa aimed at him as the first blackbird landing on the bars of a school playground, followed by a whole swarm of them on September 11. It is the most compelling of the images in Joseph Acton, but these blackbirds have no origin. They just appear. Throughout the book, Salman Rushdie treats modern Islamist movements and their view of Islam as historical aberrations. Mohammed and his legions do not appear among his blackbirds, which would be understandable given his experiences, but it does not seem as if Rushdie is aware that the current conflict is not some historical aberration, but an inevitable extension of the past.

The secular Muslim author cannot admit that Islam is violent now because its past was violent. He asks where newness comes from into the world while exploring the birth of Islam, yet he cannot ask that same question about the blackbirds and the Islamists, the Ayatollahs and the Fatwas whose hit squads come looking for him.

The answer is that Islam isn't new. It wrapped the codes and ethics of the desert in a religion pieced together out of the religions of the day. Islamic violence is similarly not new. Very few new things happen and even fewer of them happen in the Middle East. It isn't newness that Rushdie encounters, but the oldness of a world that he chose to leave behind when he decided to stay in the West.

No comments: