Salman Rushdie has recently published an account of his history in hiding and while it’s the usual pretentious memoir article you expect, there are some interesting areas, particularly in how they relate to the current situation with “The Innocence of Muslims.”
Two thousand protesters was a small crowd in Pakistan. Even the most modestly potent politico could put many more thousands on the streets just by clapping his hands. That only two thousand “fundamentalists” could be found to storm the U.S. Information Center in the heart of Islamabad on February 12th was, in a way, a good sign. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was on a state visit to China at the time, and it was speculated that destabilizing her administration had been the demonstrators’ real aim. Religious extremists had long suspected her of secularism, and they wanted to put her on the spot. Not for the last time, “The Satanic Verses” was being used as a football in a political game that had little or nothing to do with it.
Bricks and stones were thrown at security forces, and there were screams of “American dogs!” and “Hang Salman Rushdie!”—the usual stuff. None of this fully explained the police’s response, which was to open fire, using rifles, semiautomatic weapons, and pump-action shotguns. The confrontation lasted for three hours, and, despite all that weaponry, demonstrators reached the roof of the building and the American flag was burned, as were effigies of “the United States”
It is passingly strange Rushdie’s story was timed so closely with fairly similar current events now taking place.
One of the unforeseen consequences of this decision was that as the “affair” blazed on, and he was obliged to be mostly invisible—because the police urged him not to further inflame the situation, advice he accepted for a time… He became, in the media, a man whom nobody loved but many people hated. “Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him,” Iqbal Sacranie, of the U.K. Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, said. “His mind must be tormented for the rest of his life unless he asks for forgiveness from Almighty Allah.” (In 2005, this same Sacranie was knighted at the recommendation of the Blair government for his services to community relations.)
Thatcher was on television, understanding the insult to Islam and sympathizing with the insulted. On his second day at the hotel, Stan and Benny came to see him with a piece of paper in their hands. Iran’s President, Ali Khamenei, had hinted that if he apologized “this wretched man might yet be spared.” “It’s felt,” Stan said, “that you should do something to lower the temperature.”
“Yeah,” Benny assented. “That’s the thinking. The right statement from you could be of assistance.”
Felt by whom, he wanted to know; whose thinking was this?
“It’s the general opinion,” Stan said opaquely. “Upstairs.”
Was it a police opinion or a government opinion?
“They’ve taken the liberty of preparing a text,” Stan said. “By all means, read it through.”
“By all means, make alterations if the style isn’t pleasing,” Benny said. “You’re the writer.”
“I should say, in fairness,” Stan said, “that the text has been approved.”
The text he was handed was craven, self-abasing. To sign it would have been to admit defeat. Could this really be the deal he was being offered—that he would receive government support and police protection only if, abandoning his principles and the defense of his book, he fell to his knees and grovelled?
Stan and Benny looked extremely uncomfortable. “As I say,” Benny said, “you’re free to make alterations.”
“Then we’ll see how they play,” Stan said.
And supposing he chose not to make a statement at all at this time?
“It’s thought to be a good idea,” Stan said. “There are high-level negotiations taking place on your behalf. And then there are the Lebanon hostages to consider, and Mr. Roger Cooper in jail in Tehran. Their situation is worse than yours. You’re asked to do your bit.”
His private, self-justifying voice argued that he was apologizing for the distress—and, after all, he had never wanted to cause distress—but not for the book itself. And, yes, we should be conscious of the sensibilities of others, but that did not mean we should surrender to them. That was his combative, unstated subtext. But he knew that, if the statement was to be effective, it had to be read as a straightforward apology. That thought made him feel physically ill.
It was a useless gesture, rejected, then half accepted, then rejected again, both by British Muslims and by the Iranian leadership. The strong position would have been to refuse to negotiate with intolerance. He had taken the weak position and was therefore treated as a weakling.
This is the same thing that is now happening with the men behind the Mohammed movie, who are no doubt taking similar meetings with law enforcement personnel passing along messages from the Obama Administration urging them to apologize and abase themselves… not that such apologies would do any good whatsoever.
All they will do is show American weakness and turn the Salafi attackers into heroes.
In his novel “Shame,” he had written about the workings of Muslim “honor culture,” at the poles of whose moral axis were honor and shame, very different from the Christian narrative of guilt and redemption. He came from that culture, even though he was not religious. To skulk and hide was to lead a dishonorable life. He felt, very often in those years, profoundly ashamed. Both shamed and ashamed.