Pankaj Mishra Dissects Salman Rushdie's Critique Of Islam In New Book

In 'Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire', Mishra writes about Salman Rushdie, The Economist magazine and Brexit among others.
File image of Salman Rushdie.
File image of Salman Rushdie.

In this remembrance of parties and celebrities past, as in much of Rushdie’s later fiction, eclecticism amounts to a disconcerting absence of discrimination and tact. We learn uneasily of, among other infidelities, his wine-induced adultery with Jack Lang’s ‘beautiful and brilliant daughter’. His wives themselves are described much less flatteringly as gold-diggers or nags, squeezing Anton for more alimony or progeny. Cuttingly titled ‘His Millenarian Illusion’, the chapter about his marriage to Padma Lakshmi tries to show that his fourth wife’s ‘grand ambition and secret plans’ for wealth and fame had ‘nothing to do with the fulfilment of his deepest needs’.

A similar longing for self-affirmation fuels Rushdie’s geopolitical analysis, where an obsession with the ‘poison’ of ‘actually existing Islam’ suppresses all nuance suggested by political and historical facts. He accuses Khomeini of taking ‘his country into a useless war with its neighbours’ and sees more evidence of Muslim irrationalism in the frenzied mourning provoked in Iran by the old fanatic’s death. In fact, it was Saddam Hussein who invaded Iran, and then assaulted it with chemical weapons, with the consent, even support, of Western countries. This not only stoked a long-simmering anti-Westernism in Iran, which had been occupied by Russia and Britain during both world wars, and then suffered for decades the brutal dictatorship of the pro-American shah. The second-longest intra-nation war of the twentieth century, which killed nearly 1 million Iranians, also entrenched the Basij militia and Revolutionary Guards, made life harder for the moderates who cancelled Khomeini’s fatwa and eventually helped bring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.

One would respect Rushdie’s wish to decline close scrutiny of a radioactive history and politics that have caused him so much distress. But he is too invested in his self-image as an unpopular ‘Cassandra for his own time’. Back in 1989, he claims, ‘nobody wanted to know what he knew’ – that a ‘self-exculpatory, paranoiac Islam is an ideology with widespread appeal’ – and we didn’t get this even after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which, among other things, vindicated his critically ill-treated but evidently prophetic novel Fury.

‘Of course this is “about Islam”,’ Rushdie quickly retorted in a New York Times op-ed to those who argued that 9/11 ‘isn’t about Islam’, or like Susan Sontag, a loyal friend and supporter, described the attacks as ‘a consequence of specific American alliances and actions’, such as the support of Saudi Arabia and fundamentalists in Afghanistan. According to him, ‘the restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticisation, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern.’

This French-style secularisation was and remains a tall order even in the United States and much of Christian Europe. In the meantime, Rushdie seemed content to endorse the Anglo-American assault on Afghanistan, and, claiming that another ‘war of liberation might just be one worth fighting’, hailed the CIA-sponsored conman Ahmad Chalabi as ‘the most likely first leader of a democratised Iraq’.

Joseph Anton, obscuring these stumbles, presents Rushdie as confidently in step with the march of history. ‘The world of Islam’, he reminds us he had written in 2001, ‘must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based’; in 2011 ‘the young people of the Arab world’ ‘tried to transform their societies according to exactly these principles’.

Since Egyptians and Tunisians have subsequently elected Islamic parties to power, Rushdie has now changed his mind. Things have ‘gone very wrong’, he recently told Foreign Policy. ‘One has to say that the Arab Spring is over.’ Maybe, but long before Egypt and Tunisia, elected Islamic parties in the biggest Muslim country, Indonesia, supervised a transition from military despotism to electoral democracy.

In Iran itself a mass movement drawing on Islamic notions of justice and morality has ranged itself against Khomeini’s discredited heirs. Fanatics and fundamentalists, non-Muslim as well as Muslim, remain a blight on many South Asian and Middle Eastern societies; sometimes, they violently disrupt public life in the West. But, arguably, it is the institutionalised procedures of torture, rendition, indefinite detention, extrajudicial execution through drones, secret trials and surveillance that have emerged in the West as the more serious threat to civil and human rights. The icon of free speech today is the Wikileaks source Chelsea Manning, fully exposed in his degrading confinement to the malevolence of an omnipotent intelligence and military establishment.

Meanwhile, cut-price white supremacists gunning down Sikhs, bombing mosques and burning the Qur’an, and the Nordic nationalist massacring multiculturalists and left-wingers have taken Rushdie’s reform-minded diagnosis of a ‘fanatical cancer’ within Muslim communities to another level. ‘Islam is a cancer, period,’ according to the sinister California-based filmmaker whose calumnies about the Prophet provoke riots across the Muslim world. At the same time, Western states, after waging calamitously ill-conceived wars that killed and mutilated hundreds of thousands of Muslims, pursue a face-saving deal with people described by Rushdie as ‘fascist, terrorist gangsters’ – the Taliban.

Rushdie’s neat oppositions between the secular and the religious, the light and the dark, and rational literary elites and irrational masses do not clarify the great disorder of the contemporary world. They belong to an intellectually simpler time, when non-Western societies, politically insignificant and little-known, could be judged solely by their success or failure in following the great example of the secular-humanist West; and writing literary fiction could seem enough to make one feel, as Tim Parks wrote in a review of Rushdie’s novel The Ground beneath Her Feet, ‘engaged on the right side of some global moral and political battle’.

Excerpted with permission from Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire by Pankaj Mishra, published by Juggernaut.