The Rushdie affair and responsibility

Kenan Malik has been on my mind lately. I recently read his book From Fatwa to Jihad and I have learnt that he will be speaking at Westminster Skeptics early next year.

Today I thought I’d search his name on YouTube and was thrown up a video of a Newsnight episode on which he appeared with Tariq Modood, Ekow Eshun and Germaine Greer.

The latter guest, Germaine Greer, is often thought to be one of those annoying feminist, liberal, middle class bastards!

She once stood accused of asking Salman Rushdie to apologise for writing his book The Satanic Verses and offending. Though on Newsnight, she denied having done this, before explaining what she meant when she used “apology”, “Rushdie” and “The Satanic Verses” in the same sentence.

Below is the video of that episode of Newsnight where Greer says:

I don’t care if people burn books, my books have been burnt, as long as they pay for them they can do whatever they like with them, but I do think that nobody should die for a book, and that if you think you can prevent anymore people dying for the book – we all know how the book was manipulated – and all you have to do is apologise, go on your knees to Mashhad or whoever, then do it to save your life, you shouldn’t die for your book either

(09.56 – 10.29)

If you have had your head buried under rocks you may also have upset Iran, the most important part of the Rushdie affair occurred on February 14, 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling on all Muslims to execute all those involved in the publication of the novel.

At the time, an Iranian religious foundation called the 15 Khordad Foundation offered a reward of $US1 million or 200 million rials for the murder of Rushdie.

Greer in the above video, recognises some necessity in Rushdie apologising to Mashhad, a very holy city in Iran, but adds an important clause: to save his life and the lives of other publishers and people involved in the publication of the book in other countries.

The question becomes harder I feel at this point: should Rushdie have apologised to people who feel it justified to kill people on the grounds that they have offended them, or, since he knows these people will stop at nothing, should he have apologised to save the lives others?

Even more tricky: because to apologise, or not to, is a choice that Rushdie had to make, at what point would he have been responsible in the event of a death (Greer notes later in the programme that “the thing was Salman was the safest person around. It was everybody else who was at risk, and nothing was done about them”).

For me the answer is simple: Rushdie should not have apologised because to do so would be to give credibility to the idea that when someone is offended by something, the obvious reaction should be to kill that person – that is all it comes down to.

But not everyone agreed at the time. Tory tabloids pictured Rushdie as someone who purposely put national security in jeopardy; mainstream politicians talked about at what stage something should no longer be protected under the banner free speech.

I think when people believe Rushdie should have apologised because other people were in danger, they themselves are in danger of not recognising that those who call for the murder, or those whose desire it is to carry out the murder, are not making a choice, and that they are acting on some uninterruptible compulsion over which we can have no intervention.

Also I often wonder what motivates this view. Many people once felt that there was a causal link between poverty and terrorism, but this does two things: first, it doesn’t take note of the facts; people who have had otherwise stable backgrounds, university educations and decent jobs have committed terror acts (such as the 7/7 bombers), while not every person who experiences poverty commits terror, so it doesn’t follow ipso facto that terrorism is a determinant of poverty. Second, it assumes people of a certain class, or I dare say race or nationality, are simply automaton not able to think for themselves and act upon the sort of compulsion that Greer assumed those who wanted to kill Rushdie did.

Drawing this back to Rushdie, by blaming him for not apologising gives credibility to the murderous bastards that wanted to kill him or anyone involved with the book he had written on the grounds that they did not like what he’d written (or they’d heard from someone else that they wouldn’t like what had been written – Malik in his aforementioned book made note that Khomeini had definitely not read the book before forming an opinion on it).

By pretending certain people cannot form opinions or carry out actions without their being some obvious symptom is to allow the opinion that people are stupid. Since Muslims were involved in the Rushdie affair, I’ve little doubt that to blame Rushdie for the desire of certain Muslims to kill Rushdie is to assume Muslims are stupid.

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