Stephen McGinty: In the name of God, speak
AS a calculated insult to Islam inflames the Muslim world, there must be a way where religions can assess their differences without following fanatics into the mire, writes Stephen McGinty
The worst thing in the world resides in Room 101. For Winston Smith, the hero of George Orwell’s 1984, it was rats – his greatest fear came wrapped in fur, tail and teeth. For Salman Rushdie, it was a telephone whose shrill ring went unanswered. For the author of the Satanic Verses, Room 101 was not one room, but two. The first was a small upstairs room in an isolated farmhouse in the Welsh countryside, where Rushdie was in hiding in the first few weeks after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa calling for all Muslims to kill him. The second room was where the phone sat in the home where his ex-wife, Clarissa lived with his eight-year-old son Zafar in Clissold Park, London.
On St Valentine’s Day, 1989, when a small typed sheet of paper, prepared by Khomeini’s son and despatched to Iranian state radio changed the 42-year-old writer’s life and gave the world a glimpse of a dangerous new reality, Rushdie had instructed his son that he would call him every day at 7pm and that if he was not there to answer, his mother should leave a message detailing their location. For weeks, it had worked successfully. Then one night Rushdie rang and instead of the receiver being quickly snatched off the cradle by an excited Zafar the only sound was an incessant ringing tone.
Over the next hour, he tried repeatedly to get through and then he informed his Special Branch guards that this was a suspicious change in routine. A police officer was dispatched to the house and when he reported that the front door was wide open and the lights on, everyone feared the worst. The house had been subject to an armed attack and Clarissa and Zafar were hostages. Unwilling to send an unarmed policeman into a potentially hostile environment, an armed response unit was quickly organised. As Rushdie waited, on the brink of despair, he told Stan, one his handlers: “You understand that if they have him and they want a ransom, they want me to exchange myself for him, then I’m going to do that, and you guys can’t stop me doing it.”
Stan replied: “That thing about exchanging hostages, that only happens in the movies. In real life, I’m sorry to tell you, if this is a hostile intervention they are both probably dead already. The question you have to ask yourself is, do you want to die as well?”
A few minutes later, Rushdie tried the line again. Zafar picked up. They had been delayed at a school concert. The policeman had been looking at the wrong address.
The chilling reality of life under the fatwa is detailed in Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton, the title taken from the identity he used while in hiding, an amalgamation of his favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. An extract was published this week in the New Yorker, prior to its British publication on Tuesday. His timing is apt as, once again, people are dying for having insulted the Prophet Mohammad, or, to be more precise, for being the same nationality as those so accused.
Five days after the murder of the American ambassador to Libya, J Christopher Stevens, a fellow diplomat, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, a former Navy Seal and close protection officer, and a fourth victim, as yet unnamed, the exact perpetrators and cause is unconfirmed. What we do know is that Stevens and his convoy were attacked and killed on Tuesday, the anniversary of 9/11, by a group equipped with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades and the US government has not ruled out an al-Qaeda connection.
That they were so well equipped separates them from the usual rabble, but there is little doubting the controversy whipped up by a video called Innocence of Muslims, whose genesis is shadowy. It is believed to have been made in Southern California and promoted by a group of right-wing Christians with deep-rooted prejudice against Islam. A 14-minute trailer was posted on YouTube in June and ignored. However, it was then translated into Arabic and reposted twice on YouTube in the run up to 11 September. The accelerant appears to have been its promotion by Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian and ally of Terry Jones, the Floridian pastor whose threat to burn a copy of the Koran triggered lethal riots in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. According to the New York Times, the amateurish video represents the prophet as “a villainous homosexual and child-molesting buffoon”.
After the murders in Libya, the protests have spread to Yemen, where hundreds of protestors attacked the American embassy; to Egypt, where in Cairo crowds tried to overrun the embassy compound, and to Tehran, where, in the absence of an American embassy protestors attacked the Swiss embassy, on the grounds that it represents US interests in the absence of formal diplomatic relations.
It can never be said too often that the vast majority of adherents to Islam are peaceful, who would never resort to violence and will be as horrified by the violence that has been triggered as those of other faiths and none.
However, at times like this, some people ponder if Islam is different, or, to be more precise, why do a certain small percentage of followers of Islam react with such violence to insult, real in the case of the video Innocence of Muslims, or largely imagined as in the case of the Satanic Verses?
Or, by comparison, why did followers of Jesus Christ not seek the death of Nikos Kazantzakis after he published the Last Temptation, in which Jesus grappled with the reality of what it meant to be human, including lust? Or the death of Andres Serrano, the American artist who dipped a crucifix in a glass of his urine, photographed it and titled his artwork Piss Christ?
Both men triggered huge debate and controversy in their time but no threats on their lives followed.
I would argue the principle difference is time. Had Kazantzakis and Serrano attempted such work a few centuries ago both would have been executed, but, over time western culture has separated church from state and elevated the freedoms of speech and conscience. (Though I have to say I’m concerned about dawn raids by the police on the home of a former referee for writing insulting screeds about the Catholic Church.)
While Christ recognised a clear difference between the spiritual and the secular: “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”, for many nations in the Muslim world, Islam and the government are a seamless cloak. The other factor is power. An insult stings all the more when it is delivered, or perceived to be delivered, by the strong to the weak, while, inversely the intoxicating belief that you are defending your faith in a community of the faithful, must feel exceptionally empowering for some.
The final ingredient into this unpalatable stew is modern communications. The reason that there has not been greater violent demonstrations in Afghanistan is that the government has cut off internet access in a bid to stop the video’s viral spread. In 1989, if a Muslim wished to be truly “insulted” by Salman Rushdie he had to go to a book store, buy a copy and wade through the heavy, clotted colourful prose. Today, it can happen with the click of a button.
The question is: will there come a day when the Prophet Muhammad and the faith he inspired can be treated more robustly and not with the careful, clean white gloves of the cautious and frightened? I would hope so, for I believe it would benefit us all if insults could be dismissed and seen as the foul deeds they are but without want of bloodshed.
However, the fact remains that such a day is a long way off, perhaps not decades but centuries and until then caution and respect is surely the wisest and safest route.
Yet even the most cautious, respectful approach will find critics. Earlier this week, Channel 4 was forced to cancel a screening at its headquarters of the historian Tom Holland’s film Islam: the Untold Story after he had received a serious of threats.
The documentary, which was first broadcast on 28 August and triggered more than 1,000 complaints, highlighted the historical argument that the teachings of Muhammad did not emerge as a fully formed single text, but, instead evolved over a number of years as different Arabic empires expanded.
One Twitter message to Holland read: “You might be a target in the streets. You may recruit some bodyguards, for your own safety.” This was despite the fact that Holland repeatedly emphasised the moral and civilising power of Islam and had his purely historical thesis accepted as a valid endeavour by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the greatest modern scholars of Islam who appeared in the programme.
Holland said a line echoed out from the programme and is pertinent to the current situation. He spoke of: “a world where you don’t have to believe in God to feel the power of God.” Or those driven to violent acts in his name.
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