Books April 2003

Holy Writ

Recent writers on Islam need to be more stringent in their criticism. Stephen Schwartz is an exception

For a great many people, myself included, the engagement between open society and violent Islamic theo-cratism began not on September 11, 2001, but on February 14, 1989. On that day the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa—or, to phrase the matter in secular terms, offered a bounty in his own name as a reward for murder. The announced murder victim was to be Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses had attempted with high success to employ holy writ for literary purposes. The Ayatollah had not—indeed, could not have—read the book, but he believed the report that it contained a profane and obscene reference to the prophet Muhammad. (In one passage a man clearly depicted as a deluded loser fantasizes luridly about the prophet's many wives.) As a consequence of the fatwa, inflamed mobs burned the book and called for Rushdie's death, and teams of assassins (promised the reward of paradise if they pulled off the job or died in the attempt) managed to slay or injure Rushdie's translators and publishers in Italy, Japan, and Norway. An underplayed aspect of this gruesome development was the appearance for the first time of fanatical Muslim crowds on European streets.

This was a fairly blunt and frontal challenge to the ideas of liberty and pluralism on which the West likes to pride itself. But the responses to it only partially anticipated those to September 11. Invested as they were and are in the concepts of literary autonomy and abhorrence of censorship, most liberals reacted with particular shock to this literally fundamental assault. But there were those—most notably John Berger and John le Carré—who declared that Rushdie was the author of his own victimhood. He had offended the adherents of a great religion that was a voice of the poor and downtrodden. He had done so, numerous critics uttered darkly, "knowing what he was doing." His book was the root cause of the fatwa. The Cardinal of New York, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano united in defining the problem as one more of blasphemy than of terrorism. President George H.W. Bush, invited to comment when barely recovered from the Iran arms-for-hostages racket, said that his response would depend on any threat to "American interests." And the neoconservative school of columnists was almost unanimous in jeering at Rushdie for being hoist by his own petard. His sympathy for "Third World" causes, it was loftily said, should help him to appreciate the irony. And the irony was at his expense, so it served him right. Thus wrote Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, A. M. Rosenthal, and others.

All this seems like yesterday to me. On the whole, I thought it was the most worthwhile fight I had ever been involved in. It taught me a lot, and it gave me a warning. And one might pause to notice that for all the talk about wounded feelings and outraged religious sensibilities, the fatwa has since been disowned by the Iranian government. Moreover, the book is in print, the author is flourishing and traveling freely, and the imams and ayatollahs of Tehran and Qom and Mashad, increasingly repudiated by their benighted subjects, now have more-pressing things with which to concern themselves than literary criticism conducted with a gun. Even before this, writers in the Arab and Muslim world as diverse as Naguib Mahfouz and Mahmoud Darwish had looked on Rushdie as a symbol of their own unending combat for free expression. The chief thing that depressed me, however, even in those hazardous days when all the good news lay in the future, was the sectarian partisanship shown by many Muslim immigrants in the West. The idea of the multicultural society was probably the most successful extension of European and American liberalism in the postwar period. It was emblematic of many things beyond itself. Without it, indeed, Rushdie—and Hanif Kureishi and Arundhati Roy and numerous others—would not have become so much a part of our cultural life in the first place. Yet now the hunt for al Qaeda and its surrogates is conducted as much in the meaner streets of London, Hamburg, Paris, Rome, and Chicago as it is in the caves and defiles of the North-West Frontier.

This vertiginous thought, with its several analogues in the "clash of civilizations" argument, has not yet met with its defining author. Most writing thus far either has been a product of immediate events or has been subsumed into them by becoming a part of the battle itself. This is conspicuously the case with Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Platform was almost proscribed by law in France before being properly distributed. His previous works of fiction Whatever and Atomised showed Houellebecq to be a highly evolved product of post-1960s disillusionment in France—at once a throwback to the absurdist and existentialist mood of the 1950s and a mirror to the "Who cares?" attitudes of late postmodernism. The emphasis on a slightly toneless sexuality, with the moral thermometer descending as the pace of the jaded libido is ratcheted upward, made me recall Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn for the first time in decades, with perhaps a tincture of Last Tango in Paris, Céline, Baudelaire, and the opening chapters of Norman Mailer's An American Dream. In Platform, Houellebecq undertakes to explore the fatuities of the modern tourist industry, from its openly pedophile version to its ostentatious and hypocritical "eco"-prefixed one. Doing little more than registering what his bored senses convey, Houellebecq's narrator, Michel, discovers that his old father has probably been murdered by a Muslim, and notices that foul crimes are being committed all the time in Paris, usually against women and often by gangs of North Africans. In his more or less pointless travels to various Asian locales to study the profit margins of the holiday business, he flies over Afghanistan at night.

Through the window, you could see nothing but pitch black, of course. In any case the Taliban were probably all in bed stewing in their own filth. "Goodnight, Talibans, good night ... sweet dreams," I whispered before swallowing a second sleeping pill.

That was published in France just before September 11. Somewhat later in the book Michel finds himself willing to give grudging affection to a woman named Valérie who is soon afterward killed in a Muslim jihad raid on a beach resort. (The novel's first English translation was published in uncomfortably good time for the al Qaeda massacre of Australian holidaymakers in the pseudo-paradise of Bali.) Michel, who is badly hurt in the attack, thereupon permits himself the following reflection:

It is certainly possible to remain alive animated simply by a desire for vengeance; many people have lived that way. Islam had wrecked my life, and Islam was certainly something that I could hate. In the days that followed, I devoted myself to trying to feel hatred for Muslims. I was quite good at it, and I started to follow the international news again. Every time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver of enthusiasm at the thought of one less Muslim in the world. Yes, it was possible to live like this.

As in The Satanic Verses, the thoughts are those of a person who is recovering from grave physical and mental damage. They are immediately retracted on the following page, where, after spending time talking with a Jordanian, Michel is struck by a "simple thought" that is "sufficient to dispel my hatred."

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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