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“The Satanic Verses” at 20
Salman Rushdie, Prophet MoeHammered

More believable than mullahs and ayatollahs

Three years ago anyone who loves the American language celebrated the 50 th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” still the greatest American novel of the last half century. Last year it was the 50 th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” published when Kerouac was living in a tin-roofed bungalow in Orlando. Next year it’ll be the 70 th for Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which fell on critical hard times since the country started worshipping its Warren Buffets more than respecting its Tom Joads.

This year, I wonder whether there’ll be much courage for celebrating a novel that should rank among the most hilarious and important of the last generation: Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” published in England 20 years ago next Friday. In retrospect, the reaction to the book was a precursor of 9/11. The Muslim rage it triggered against the West was like a prophesy fulfilled, with Rushdie as the prophet who’d portrayed fanaticism run amuck in that very book. Rushdie wasn’t just imagining the rage, of course. Nor was he imagining what he termed “the inescapablity of the unforeseeable.” He sensed these things coming.

 

Among the many things that “The Satanic Verses” was and was not about (exile, racism, the thin-skinned line between reason and madness, fathers and sons, imams and victims), there was this: “The question that’s asked here remains as large as ever it was: which is, the nature of evil, how it’s born, why it grows, how it takes unilateral possession of a many-sided human soul.” And the damage evil wreaks from on high: The book opens as its two heroes, one of whom will deliriously dream of himself as the Prophet Muhammad, tumble from a jet that’s just been blasted from the sky by terrorists.

Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini was reportedly conducting his most important ritual of the day — watching the evening news — when he saw footage of Pakistanis burning “The Satanic Verses,” rioting and killing each other. He’d never heard of the book, never heard of Rushdie, but immediately sentenced Rushdie to death for allegedly insulting Islam.

The book does no such thing. The verses in question are a minor footnote in the Prophet’s history. A couple of ancient Islamic historians believed that one of Muhammad’s Quranic “revelations” had endorsed belief in three goddesses. The revelation was to be a bone to the powerful pagan tribe that had excommunicated Muhammad from Mecca: The tribe thought his belief in just one god unacceptable. He thought the tribe’s pagan beliefs blasphemous. Making an exception for the three goddesses might have been a compromise. On second thoughts Muhammad reversed himself and declared the verses inspired by Satan. Hence, the satanic verses, since then expurgated from the Quran. How this unoriginal sub-plot should have upset the fanatics is a mystery. How the fabulously original re-imagining of Muhammad in the flesh of an occasionally delirious Indian exile in modern London (“Here he is neither Mahomet nor MoeHammered”) should have upset them is even more mysterious. But fanaticism is by definition, like the death cult this particular kind of Islamist fanaticism revels in, beyond irrational. Instead of lightening up since, Islamists have lit up the world in their satanic vileness.

By Islamist I don’t mean 1.5 billion Muslims, but that small, violent, militantly rear-ending portion of the Muslim world that’s doing its best to keep Islam’s more admirable legacy from moving past its arrested development. That, too, is what “The Satanic Verses” reads like 20 years later, even if it’s not how Rushdie intended it. Still, it may not be the sort of thing some Muslims want celebrated during Ramadan (Eid, the celebration marking the end of the holy month, falls this year three days after the “Verses”’ birthday). As I see it, that’s precisely when Muslims should celebrate it if art as unbounded inquiry and subversion of moehammered dogmas is to find expression again in the Islamic world (as it mostly cannot today).

Then again, it may not be the sort of thing the enlightened West wants to be reminded of, either. The moment Khomeini sentenced Rushdie “and all those involved in [the book’s] publication who were aware of its content,” in 1989, most Western writers fell silent, bookstores removed the book from their shelves and publishing houses in France, Greece, Turkey and what was then West Germany quit printing it. Governments, including the first George Bush and the Democratic Congress and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, took their time speaking up for Rushdie (or providing protection).

To this day, there are those who, still blaming Rushdie first, confuse respect for other cultures with submission to those cultures’ deadliest impulses. And just this month Random House recalled from distribution Sherry Jones’ “The Jewel of Medina,” a novel based on the life of Ayesha, the Prophet’s child-bride. The publishing house got word that the book could anger Muslims. So “The Satanic Verses”’ 20 th anniversary is marked by censoring on the same theme. It’s not just Islamists who aren’t lightening up.

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