Salman Rushdie and the War of Civilizations

Salman Rushdie

I commenced the actual writing-work of the thesis, although planned much earlier, on 17th June 2008, full one year after Salman Rushdie was conferred knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II on 16th June 2007. To a large number of Muslims all around the globe, Rushdie’s knighthood was as much an outrage as The Satanic Verses. International relations between Britain and Muslim nations like Pakistan and Iran worsened as an aftermath of the knighthood. Al-Qaeda is quoted as saying Rushdie is “an insult to Islam.” It is as if there is a war of civilizations and Rushdie is a tool in the hands of the West.

The untoward and tragic events of 9/11 have among other problems given birth to new misinformation machinery that in the cloak of fiction, science and religion and research attack Islam ruthlessly. The knights of this new Crusade are Prof. Richard Dawkins, Sherry Jones, Irshad Manji and many others. Sherry Jones’ book The Jewel of Medina has become controversial around the globe. This conferring of knighthood, as well as the awarding of Booker of Booker’s to Midnight’s Children earlier in 1994, have brought Salman Rushdie’s novels onto the centre-stage of all postcolonial philosophical debates and made them the subject matter of a number of postdoctoral theses.

Read: Chapter 1

Migrancy, postcolonialism and religious/sectoral authoritarianism are some of the vital issues of our times. Not only is the western side of the globe grappling with the problems rather we in India are also facing the same situations in the name of Sons of the Soil theory. Every now and then, there is some violent news from the north-east. A girl campaigner might be stripped and thrashed. Innocent labours might get killed. Riots might be engineered. Our Mumbai is fast losing the cosmopolitan character we were once proud of. Daily wage-earners might be terrorised. The State won’t wither away; it just remains a soft mute bystander.

Salman Rushdie, himself an immigrant in Britain from India, is one major contemporary writer who employs his intellect in almost all his fiction/non-fiction works towards comprehending and combating these issues. Understandably, the inter-play of History and the Individual occupies a prominent space in his novels. Little traditions of the city and the Great traditions of the country of his birth are intermingled with his fiction. Similarly, Bollywood films are intertextual with his fiction. Salman Rushdie’s life and literature both present to us a remarkable study material towards understanding the impact of multi-cultural intimacy in the Western democratic order. We must note that the academic discourse has seen a shift from ‘immigrant’ to ‘ethnic minorities’ in the 1980’s–90’s to ‘minority faith communities’ today.

Read: Chapter 2

Salman Rushdie has selected the novel as the medium of expression as in the modern and the post-modern times novel is the most popular form of literature. The novel is a fashion­able genre; it is the most easily managed vehicle. It goes everywhere, reaches all classes of readers, and is, in fact, the ideal instrument of instruction and amusement made possible chiefly because of the publishing revolution, especially the now ubiquitous paperback volumes. To Carlos Fuentes, the novel occupies “a privileged arena” by being “the stage upon which the great debates of society can be conducted”. If religion is an answer, if political ideology is an answer, then literature is an inquiry; great literature, by asking extraordinary questions, opens new doors in our minds. Rushdie opines thus on the importance of the novel:

Whereas religion seeks to privilege one language above all others, the novel has always been about the way in which different languages, values and narratives quarrel, and about the shifting relations between them, which are relations of power. The novel does not seek to establish a privileged language, but it insists upon the freedom to portray and analyze the struggle between the different contestants for such privileges.[xiv]

Since the end of the 18th century, the West has largely abandoned the religious framework as an explanatory worldview. Among the novelists, examples of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain from the 19th century and James Joyce (1882–1941) and Margaret Atwood from 20th century easily come to our mind. Religion has become almost antithetical to scientific and technological advancement, the barometer of which is the number of patents and the rate of economic growth. Indeed fiction and art have come to occupy the space vacated by religious belief.

Go to Start of Chapter 3

However, as far as the Islamic-world is concerned, novel as a genre is not very popular here. Well, Islam has its share of short and long stories ingrained in the popular psyche. There are modern novel writers of repute as well. Still, in general, they do not approve of the novel, which is often identified with the West, with mere entertainment, with lax morals.

This, I think, is because they do not believe in ideational contests which are so dear to the novelists. Well, according to M.M.Bakhtin’s theory of the novel, advanced in The Dialogic Imagination, “It is precisely this that defines the utterly distinctive orientation of discourse in the novel–an orientation that is contested, contestable, and contesting–for this discourse cannot forget or ignore…the heteroglossia that surrounds it.”

Notes

[xiv] Is Nothing Sacred

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