In a long article in The Independent entitled Salman Rushdie: His Life, His Works, and His Religion, we get a semi-biography of Rushdie and all he has been through since the fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini. Rushdie's views of Islamic terrorism are insightful. It's an issue he has been immersed in much longer than the rest of us have even known there was an issue.
The following is a long quote from the article. The article is well worth reading in its entirety.
[Rushdie] fears that many people are willfully misunderstanding the new Islamist virus that has spread through this new world. "People have been so knocked off balance by what's going on that their normally well-functioning moral sense seems to have lost its footing." After 18 years in the Islamist cross-hairs, Rushdie wants — needs — people to understand that this new Islamic fundamentalism is not simply the lump sum of all the bad things the West has done to Muslims, reflected back at us.
At the time of the fatwa, Rushdie was widely known as a fierce and fearsome critic of US foreign policy, a man who condemned Israel's "monstrous" occupation of Palestinian lands, a man who damned Margaret Thatcher as " Mrs. Torture" and warned that "British society has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism." He risked his life traipsing through the jungles of Nicaragua to expose Ronald Reagan's illegal funding of a horde of neo-fascist guerrillas trying to topple the country's elected government.
It made no difference. He had questioned the Official Story of Islam, trying to open it up to the mixed, metaphorical dream-worlds of the modern metropolis — and for that, he had to be butchered. "It's one thing to criticize the way in which the American government is behaving, or the British government, and I have a lot of criticisms of that — in fact, nothing but criticisms," he says now. "But it's another thing to fail to see that an enemy actually exists and is extremely serious about what he wishes to do.
"If tomorrow the Israel/Palestine issue was resolved to the total happiness of all parties, it would not diminish the amount of terrorism coming out of al-Qa'ida by one jot. It's not what they're after," he adds, his foot tapping against mine as he leans forward. "Yes, it's a recruiting tool, rhetorically. Many people see there's an injustice there, and it helps them to get people into the gang, but it's not what they want. What they want is to change the nature of human life on earth into the image of the Taliban. If you want the whole earth to look like Taliban Afghanistan, then you're on the same side as them. If you don't want that, you're not. They do not represent the quest for human justice. That, I think, is one of the great mistakes of the left."
Within this Talibanist morality, there is room for great slabs of delusion and hypocrisy. In Shalimar the Clown, Rushdie shows sparingly how the jihadi fighters of Afghanistan have sex with adolescent boys, and the next day chop to pieces men they have dubbed "homosexual." "One of the great untold stories of al-Qa'ida is that they are all these men who fuck little boys. They all have these disciples who they're ostensibly training in the way of the warrior, but they're also enjoying. For a while, then they go off — and they have their wives and families at home. It's like Classical Greece." Does he think Osama bin Laden has done it? "I wouldn't like to say," he says tactfully. "He's an Arab, he's not an Afghan. But Mullah Omar, he's another story..."
He senses soft racism in the refusal to see Islamic fundamentalists for what they are. When looking at the Christian fundamentalists of the United States, most people see an autonomous movement of superstitious madmen. But when they look at their Islamic equivalents, they assume they cannot mean what they say. "One of the things that's commonly said by Islamists is that it's acceptable to bomb a disco, because a disco is a place where people are behaving in a disgusting way. Go away and die — that's all bin Laden wants you to do. It's not just about Iraq, it's about ham sandwiches and kissing in public places and sex with girls you're not married to." He pauses. "It's about life."
It horrifies Rushdie that so many people in his natural political home — the left — don't get it. They seem to imagine that when people call for a novelist to be beheaded for blasphemy, they are really calling for a return to the 1967 borders, or an independent Kashmir, or an end to the occupation of Iraq. As he says this, I blurt out a repellent question: was there a small part of him on September 11 that felt almost relieved — that thought: " Now they'll understand"? He pauses, a long pause, the only one in this interview. Have I offended him? But he answers with the same contemplative calm as before. "It wasn't, actually. What an awful thing to think. But... but I remember after 9/11 that a lot of people did finally get it, and I remember thinking — it's a shame that 3,000 people had to die for something pretty obvious to get through people's heads."
III: The quiet American, and the art of slitting our own throats
Rushdie has looked down the barrel of Islamism, smelt its cordite, and survived. So he is perpetually being asked — how do we lift the collective fatwa on our transport systems, our nightclubs, our cities? How do we scrape meaning from his misery? "When people ask me how the West should adapt to Muslim sensitivities, I always say — the question is the wrong way round. The West should go on being itself. There is nothing wrong with the things that for hundreds of years have been acceptable — satire, irreverence, ridicule, even quite rude commentary — why the hell not?
"But you see it every day, this surrender," he says. He runs through a list of the theaters and galleries that have censored themselves in the face of religious fundamentalist protests. He mentions that the entire British media — from the BBC down — placed itself in purdah during the Muhammad cartoons episode. "What I fear most is that, when we look back in 25 years' time at this moment, what we will have seen is the surrender of the West, without a shot being fired. They'll say that in the name of tolerance and acceptance, we tied our own hands and slit our own throats. One of the things that have made me live my entire life in these countries is because I love the way people live here."
Rushdie sees surrender stamped on every one of the "faith schools" being constructed by Tony Blair. "To say the solution to the problems religion has caused is more religion... it's just crazy," he says. It will only reinforce the sealing off of Muslims from the world that is symbolized by the veil, which he sees as a hideous anti-feminist shroud, " a one-woman tent."