“So, you are the Egyptian Salman Rushdie everyone is talking about?” Salman Rushdie said with a smile during our first and only meeting in Berlin three years ago. It was a celebration of the thirty-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and coincided with the 30th anniversary of the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Rushdie. “Thirty years ago, there was a single Salman Rushdie in the world, today there is at least one Salman Rushdie in every Islamic country not to mention those in the western countries. That should please you,” I replied. He was composed, witty, but vehemently rejected the role of hero and role model. He did not want to be reduced to the fatwa, came to the event without a bodyguard, and simply wanted to be perceived as a novelist. I told him that thirty years ago I hated him without having read a single word of his. Today, however, I am one of his great admirers, not because of the death fatwa, but because of his great novels such as The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight Children.
In 1989, I was still a high school senior in an Egyptian village when Khomeini called for Rushdie’s death. Our Arabic teacher claimed that an Indian writer paid by the West and called Salman Rushdie has insulted prophet Mohammed and called Rushdie “a dog.” He quoted a poem by the famous Egyptian poet Farouk Gouida criticizing Rushdie and accusing him of blaspheming Islam and its prophet. The poet described Rushdie as a person whose heart was possessed by the devil and prophesied that one day a Muslim knight would cut off his satanic head. Yes, it was not an imam, but a poet who had stirred up my hatred against Rushdie. As a devout Muslim who revered the Prophet, I had no choice then but to hate Rushdie, just like everybody else around me.
At the end of the same year, I began studying English literature in Cairo, and later I came across a smuggled copy of The Satanic Verses. I found nothing in it that justifies the great hatred towards Rushdie. It was a novel of magical realism like the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, only with a touch of British humor and a breeze of Indian storytelling. This novel is not about Islam, but about a Muslim, who moves to the West to start a new life, but his religion and its past keep hunting him. In fact, it is a story about the young man who tried to kill Rushdie last week.
When I heard of the attack on Salman Rushdie on Friday night, I was shocked, angry and deeply affected. First, I thought of him, a 75-year-old who is hanging between life and death and who had committed no crime except for having exercised his right to artistic freedom. Then I thought of the Egyptian poet who did not support the freedom of speech of a novelist, but instead supported the angry mob and predicted the execution of Rushdie. This poet is still considered a decorated intellectual, not an Islamist, although many of his thoughts are deeply rooted in Islamism. Then I thought of myself, a writer who criticizes Islam much more vehemently than Rushdie and faces constant death threats as a result. I thought of that day, when an officer from the Berlin State Criminal Police Office came to me and gave me a bulletproof vest and said that from now on, I should wear it during my lectures, because the death threats against me became more concrete and there are plans to put them into practice. All because I dared to write a book entitled Islamic Fascism. I thought of the several occasions where the security guards — while searching the bags of the guests before my lectures — confiscated metal objects that could be used as weapons. And of the many times I have been attacked on the open street in Berlin despite police escort.
Will I be the next victim? A question that automatically popped up in my head after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and then again after the beheading of the French teacher Samuel Patty who dared to show Mohammed cartoons in his classroom, and now after the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie.
Does there have to be a next victim at all? Where does the flaw lie? Does it lie in an unleashed ideology and theology of violence that has flourished for centuries at the heart of Islam and cannot be stopped? Or is it because the Western policy hides fear of terrorism and concern for economic relations with Muslim countries behind respect, tolerance and diversity? Or is it because freedom is not very precious in the hearts of most people here? Why is it okay to criticize Jesus and Moses and Buddha, but not Mohammed? Why does a Salafist live and preach undisturbed in the West, while every critic of Islam has to fear for his life here? Why are critics of Islam considered troublemakers in the multicultural paradise, even though this multicultural doctrine now offers many retreats for Islamists?
After a sleepless night, I was fed up with German newspapers that kept on reporting that the motives behind the attack on Rushdie are still unknown. I wondered what the literati and intellectuals in the Arab world were saying about the assassination, so I visited their social media accounts and was surprised to find that some of them were backing Salman Rushdie and wishing him a speedy recovery. They emphasized that one must respond to thoughts only with thoughts. That made me a little hopeful. But when I continued reading, I got disappointed. Many condemned the attack, but still insisted that Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses was also a crime, because it hurt the feelings of Muslims. The absolute majority did not think of the old man who is hanging between life and death, but saw that their religion is the real victim of the attack. They were afraid that the incident would damage the image of Islam and pour water on the mills of “Islamophobia” in the West.
Their views have shown immaturity, selfishness, and lack of sense of responsibility, which I consider much more dangerous than Islamism itself. We are talking here about the intellectual elite, and not the average citizens, who often react irrationally to criticism. This elite continues to bury its head in the sand and care more about the image of Islam than the victims of Islamist violence. It is incapable of naming the real causes of the misery. Behind their hatred for Rushdie there is a deep hatred for the West and everything that comes from it. Many of them grew up imbued with Islamist discourse, which they sucked with the milk of their mothers, and even when they claim to be secular, the fundament of their mindset remains Islamist. This elite fails to see where the problem resides. The wrong diagnosis keeps on leading to the wrong medicine, as was the case in the last decades. They claim that the problem comes from the outside, and from the attitude of the West towards Islam, and not from the attitude of Islam towards the West and the whole world. A common tactic is to consider Salman Rushdie to be a part of a western agenda to undermine Islam. Some go even further to compare him to ISIS and Osama bin Laden so that one does not sympathize with him. They use this same old tactic to discredit all critics of Islam. Therefore, fundamentalism goes wild and hatred surpasses the boarders of the Islamic world to strike places including New York, London, Berlin and Paris. This hatred transcends also the generations of Muslims. The perpetrator of the Rushdie attack is 24 years old. That means that he was born years after Rushdie wrote his book and after Khomeini issued the fatwa. Yet he felt it is his duty to silence Rushdie forever.
It wasn’t a surprise for me to read comments full of hatred, schadenfreude and conspiracy theories from ordinary Muslims, but it was shocking to see intellectuals — who themselves are constantly striving for more freedom of expression in their countries — not only abandoning a fellow writer, but also setting up a tribunal for him while he lies injured in an intensive care unit. This somehow reminded me of the reactions of some German intellectuals who, at that time during the Rushdie affair, instead of showing solidarity with their colleague who was threatened by death were busy stressing that his novel was not good literature, as if freedom of expression were tied to the quality of the work.
We are dealing with a zeitgeist where rationality always plays a lesser role in the West and the East. In this void caused by the absence of rationality, identitarian radical ideologies are expanding and building centers of power that they will not give up. The state is helpless and has no concepts. That is why the editors of Charlie Hebdo, then Samuel Paty, and now Salman Rushdie were sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism. And that’s why there will be a next victim, unfortunately!
Hamed Abdel-Samad is a German-Egyptian political scientist and author. He lives since 2013 under permanent police protection after several fatwas issued against him after publishing his book Islamic Fascism.