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."

The "thought," as it happens, is that Western capitalism will erode the Muslim world by means of innovation, temptation, and corruption, and that the long-term victory of materialism over fanaticism is inevitable. A point of view like this is going to be difficult to censor. Houellebecq could have made his life easier had he not also given an interview to the magazine Lire in which he described Islam as "the dumbest religion," as compared with, say, the ones derived only from the Bible, which "at least is beautifully written because the Jews have a heck of a literary talent." This certainly shows a gift for inclusiveness, if only in giving offense. Demands for his prosecution immediately emerged, and the imputation of racism was raised—oddly, in view of Islam's much voiced claim to be universal. His expressed sentiments in the book and in the interview did indeed prompt a lawsuit against Houellebecq in the Parisian courts, brought by various Muslim and "anti-racist" organizations. The case failed, mainly because the words were deemed to be insufficiently abusive or inciting.

Houellebecq's work is cynical and anomic but also literary and complex, and its characters contain contradictions. The same cannot be said for the writing of Oriana Fallaci, the celebrated Italian journalist whose high-octane interviews with powerful men had such éclat in the seventies, and whose memoir of her dead lover, the Greek resistance fighter Alexander Panagoulis, might be described as a classic of hysterical materialism. If utterance is given to a foul thought in the pages of The Rage and the Pride, the author is only too eager to claim it for herself. Written in the hot flush that overtook her on September 11, and originally published as a screed in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, this is a sort of primer in how not to write about Islam. Fallaci claims in her introduction that in order to shorten the diatribe for newspaper purposes she "set aside the most violent passages." I wonder what those passages can have been like; the residue is replete with an obsessive interest in excrement, disease, sexual mania, and insectlike reproduction, insofar as these apply to Muslims in general and to Muslim immigrants in Europe in particular. A sampling, which preserves her style and punctuation and spelling:

The fad or rather the hypocrisy, the shit, that calls "local tradition" the infibulation. I mean the bestial practice by which, in order to prevent them from enjoying sex, Moslems cut young girls' clitoris and sew up the large lips of the vulvas. All that remains is a tiny opening through which the poor creatures urinate, and imagine the torment of a defloration ... thank God I never had any sentimental or sexual or friendly rapport with an Arab man. In my opinion there is something in his brothers of faith which repels the women of good taste.

In other words—and there are a great many of them—Fallaci ignores her own pro forma injunction to remember that Islam is a faith, not a race. Her horror is for the shabby, swarthy stranger who uses the street as a bathroom (she can't stay off this subject) and eyes passing girls in a lascivious manner. I've read it all before, in histories of migration. You can even find it in the fastidious revulsion with which assimilated European and American Jews greeted their lank-haired, scrofulous brethren when they came shuffling in from the Pale of Settlement.

It takes only a moment of reflection —the very moment that Fallaci did not permit herself, or of which she is incapable—to establish that genital mutilation is also practiced by animists and Christians and is forbidden or not practiced in many Muslim societies. Or that stoning to death—which is mandated in the Old Testament—is (like infibulation) unmentioned in the Koran. Or that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are the most industrious, enterprising, and law-abiding immigrants to Britain, and display the most reverence for education. I might add that they are much keener on daily ablutions than many of their happy-go-lucky Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic hosts. (The injunction to wash is actually in the stipulations of Islam ...) The Turks in Germany must be among the sturdiest of all Europeans. And this is in a generation or so. Among them, as among newer arrivals in the United States, Holland, France, and Italy, there is an argument about the place of faith and the role of the secular state. But it is an argument within the Islamic world, not an argument between it and some imagined "Christendom." Fallaci's book, too, has brought down calls for censorship that ought to be steadily resisted: Islamic groups claiming the protection of multiculturalism should (and, I predict, will) appreciate that they must honor the same precept themselves—and also see to it that Islamic societies make more room for dissent and pluralism.

An author whose scrutiny of the Muslim world has been more prolonged is V. S. Naipaul, now knighted by the Queen and garlanded by the Nobel committee. His two travelogues Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998) have taken and retaken Sir Vidia to Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. If one can make a very rough distinction between the two extended narratives, one might say that whereas in the first book—written in the aftershock of the Iranian revolution against the Shah—he identified Islam with insurgency, in the second one he approached it more as a colonial or imperial authority. It would appear that his personal views have meanwhile stiffened somewhat. In Beyond Belief he stated rather baldly,

There probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs. The Gauls, after five hundred years of Roman rule, could recover their old gods and reverences; those beliefs hadn't died; they lay just below the Roman surface. But Islam seeks as an article of the faith to erase the past; the believers in the end honor Arabia alone; they have nothing to return to.

At about the time that he received the Nobel Prize, in 2001, he updated this to say that "[Islam] has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say 'my ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn't matter.'" Now, it is true that zealots under the influence of Wahhabism organized the destruction of the twin Buddha statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan (another action that should have served as a warning), and that there notoriously exists a violent fantasy of re-creating a Muslim empire. It's also true that all religions have employed the desecration and erasure of previous faiths in order to establish themselves—and that schismatic forces within the major faiths have despoiled one another's holy places. Either one opposes this or one does not, and Naipaul has been insufficiently criticized in the West for his role as an apologist for the Hindu nationalist movement in India. Aiming to re-establish the supposedly organic, cyclical, holistic India that existed before the Mogul conquest, mobs licensed or incited by the chauvinistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rahtriya Swayamsevah Sangh (RSS) demolished the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, and have since made a spirited attempt to profane the Taj Mahal—the special symbol of the Muslim epoch. Of the first vandalism Naipaul said that it was part of a "mighty creative process." He has since spoken warmly of the emergence of a thoroughgoing sectarian and ancestralist politics, which essentially regards the Muslim citizens of India as interlopers. This would mean, among other things, that Urdu, the native tongue of Salman Rushdie, was a language of barbaric aliens. So it goes; Rushdie was denounced as a tool of Islamic fundamentalism when he criticized earlier threats to the Babri mosque in 1988.

I frankly do not trust Naipaul, even as an eyewitness. (He candidly says, "I don't need to read the scholars," and bluffly claims to rely on direct experience rather than the study of history or religion.) In Beyond Belief there is a venomous caricature of the life and opinions of my friend Ahmed Rashid, from which one could never guess that he was among the first and best Pakistani writers to warn of the lethal danger posed by the Taliban. Reading Naipaul's contemptuous account of his more recent visit to Tehran, one would have no sense at all of the burgeoning movement for liberalization that was afoot even as he wrote. It seems quite extraordinary to tackle the subject of Islam and modernity without even stopping in Turkey or Bosnia or Egypt, where it can hardly be argued that all pre-Islamic culture has been abolished, let alone that Arab imperialism is the defining mode. And what of Algeria, where an Arab and Berber society has forcibly thrown back a fundamentalist counterrevolution? (It is the gaunt losers in that combat who have now emigrated to London and Paris: another element in the unending weave of paradoxes and unforeseen consequences to which globalization has abruptly introduced us.) But not only does Naipaul fail to give an account of the multifaceted nature of the Muslim world; his books contain no sense of the impending menace that was, all this time, readying and gathering itself for September 11. He didn't visit Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states either. And he skipped Jerusalem.

This and other lapses are to be regretted, because Islam needs criticism more stringent than what it has been receiving from these writers. It is a religion that makes very large claims for itself. It claims to offer a total program of personal and social conduct. In one way—which makes it especially objectionable to secularists—it confirms and reasserts the tenets of Moses and Jesus and the Virgin Mary, all of whom are taken more or less at face value in the Koran, or "recitation." In another way—which makes it especially indigestible for believers of other faiths—it asserts itself as a transcendence, and therefore as a partial negation, of these beliefs. Moreover, it is by far the youngest and most energetic of the monotheisms; its founder is more of a historical figure than a mythical one; its lack of a formal church order or Catholic-like hierarchy makes the emergence of a "Protestant" or "Reformation" Islam unlikely if not inconceivable. Finally, of the three monotheistic systems of spiritual obedience, Islam contains in its mandates and injunctions the most frequent references—indeed, exhortations—to proselytization.

Nothing can alter the fact, however, that religion is man-made. So Islam is schismatic to a considerable degree, and contains many more warring subdivisions than just the well-known and deeply felt division between Sunni and Shia. (One would rather be a Jew or a Christian in Pakistan than a member of the heretic Ahmadi sect, which is assiduously persecuted.) Islam is, despite its apparent inflexibility, quite adaptable to local conditions. Its best historic moments, in Andalusia and Bosnia and Alexandria, have involved synthesis with other faiths and cultures. We are all now heavily invested in the outcome of the civil war or civil wars that are taking place within the Muslim world. My favorite book on Islam is the rationalist critique Why I Am Not a Muslim, published under the pseudonym Ibn Warraq and written by a recovering Pakistani ex-zealot who was originally shaken loose from his faith by the Rushdie affair. I understand, however, that a mass conversion to philosophical skepticism is the least likely outcome of the present crisis.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Real Islam" (March 20, 2003)
In The Two Faces of Islam Stephen Schwartz argues that in order to appreciate the pluralist, tolerant side of Islam, we must confront its ugly, extremist side.

In default of this, I would heartily recommend The Two Faces of Islam, by Stephen Schwartz. A Jew who has been partially seduced by Sufism (and, I should add, a man with whom I have a friendship), Schwartz has set himself to understand the profound differences that express themselves in distinctions of Koranic interpretation. For a considerable time before the assault on American civil society he had been preparing readers for the affront—simultaneously "radical" and "reactionary"—of the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance. Everybody now knows of the nexus of "charities" and madrasahs through which indoctrination, sectarianism, and frenzied prophecy have been promulgated with the help of petro-dollars. A less familiar story is the resistance to the Wahhabi cult by pious and sincere Muslims in Central Asia, the Balkans, and elsewhere. His commitment on this side of the conflict sometimes leads Schwartz to write slightly euphe-mistically about Wahhabism's foes—most notably the Shia clerics in Iran. But he has done a masterly job of identifying and isolating the discrepant traditions within the faith.

Religion of every kind involves the promise that the misery and futility of existence can be overcome or even transfigured. One might suppose that the possession of such a magnificent formula, combined with the tremendous assurance of a benevolent God, would make a person happy. But such appears not to be the case: unease and insecurity and rage seem to keep up with blissful certainty, and even to outpace it. The secular writers I have mentioned may sometimes give way to vulgarity and worse, but at least they take their angst for granted.