Parvez Manzoor

If Salman Rushdie's taunt has caused much distress in the Muslim heart, the Muslim reaction has given the Western Leviathan good reasons for celebrating its own cult of tolerance. For the West can now self-righteously declare itself as the community of saints which gives life to the free word and castigate Muslims as a confederacy of sinners who are bent upon killing it. It can triumphantly proclaim that while book-composing is sacred, book-burning is sacrilegious; that whereas defending Rushdie's right to freedom of expression is godlike, condemning him to silence is diabolic. Further, though the West has not bothered to supply any clue as to the intellectual and moral foundations of this judgement, save a ferocious display of its civilizational might, its insistence on the righteousness of its claim has become more adamant, the more the conflict has escalated.

What has been lost in the furor over the Fatwa, however, is the immorality of Rushdie's gospel of doubt. What his supporters have glaringly overlooked is the fact that the basic premise of the novel, if taken seriously, undermines the possibility of any moral arbitration between two contenders, if it does not deny moral and cognitive judgement altogether. For without squabbling over the literary worth of Rushdie's work, both his supporters and critics should be able to agree that the cardinal moral claim of the novel is that what distinguishes the Divine from the Satanic is, at best, arbitrary. Cognitively, all cats are grey and, morally, all cows are unholy in Rushdie's world.

Rushdie’s existential plight in the wake of the Fatwa, however, has forced him to 'plead for his life' on the grounds that the Ayatollah's text is a diabolic piece of writing which constitutes an unpardonable offence against morality and civilisation and hence deserves to be banned. Thus, while he contends that the publication of his novel is a matter of the sacred right of free expression, which every righteous person in general but the liberal Western world in particular, is under moral obligation to preserve, he is also adamant that the Jurist's legal opinion, which incarnates a Satanic commandment, enjoys no such privileges. Indeed, he insists that it must be silenced, if required by the force of economic sanctions and other measures that fully demonstrate the might of tolerance. If so, our quandary is: by the exercise which higher norm may we allow one text the right to free expression and publication but deny it to the other? How must we, in short, arbitrate between these two contending texts?

The irony is that Rushdie's own fundamentalism of doubt does not allow us to make any kind of judgement. For, if Rushdie really believes, as he brazenly propagates in his novel, that Divine and Satanic are arbitrary labels, attached by simple believers to texts which may be easily switched and interpolated, then the same holds true for the two contemporary texts, his own and that of Khomeiny. We cannot distinguish between the 'murderous' writ of the Ayatollah and the merely vituperative one of the novelist. Without any moral ground for judgement, we can neither condemn the Jurist nor defend the Novelist. For a world of arbitrary, contingent or undeterminable standards is a world without action and choice, a world bereft of the moral imperative.

If this conclusion appears drastic and unkind and if we are obliged, on moral grounds, to unequivocally affirm Rushdie's 'right to life', then it also becomes irrefutable that his art incarnates a colossal lie. For the scandalous novel propagates a doctrine of doubt which canonizes inaction and indecision, whereas the safeguard of the novelist's existence demands faith and commitment. No fundamentalism of doubt can bridge the divide between Rushdie's art and his life, between a fictitious lie and an existential truth. Only a categorical imperative, which cannot be derived from any ethic of contingency and relativism, can summon the moral will to action. Whether the obligation of defending the novelist's right to life, which devolves on outsiders, also makes it incumbent upon the writer himself to recant his irredeemable 'fundamentalism of doubt' may be left unsaid. What cannot be given over to reticence, is the fact that Rushdie can lay no moral claim on those who accept his postmodernist gospel. Only those who discard the intellectually facile and morally paralysing relativism which is the gist of Rushdie's moral worldview, at least as it is preached in the scandalous novel, can be summoned to his defence!

There could be yet another, more candid and revealing reading of Rushdie's polemical text. It is permissible to see him as not proclaiming the impossibility of moral judgement altogether, but recounting a story about a historical event. He could be construed as merely insisting that the Prophet of Islam could not/did not distinguish between the Divine Text and the Satanic Verses. More plainly, he could be understood as claiming that though the possibility of distinguishing right from wrong, genuine from counterfeit, Divine from Satanic, exists, it was not available to the Prophet, or that he could not exercise it on one  particular occasion. In other words, Rushdie' controversial novel is a reflection not on the problem of the possibility of choice but on the actuality of a particular choice. (Curiously, though Rushdie would deny the Prophet the possibility - or actuality - of right choice, he entertains no doubt regarding the ability of his contemporaries to adjudicate between his text and the Fatwa and come to his rescue!)

If so, then the novel is not about metaphysics or philosophy but about history, and, contrary to Rushdie's lame protestations after the Fatwa, it does make a moral judgement on the Prophet. But then how could a moral judgement be based on a fictional, nay fictitious, account? Either Rushdie wishes to pass a moral judgement on the Prophet, in which case a strictly historical discourse would have been de rigueur, or he intends no moral appraisal of the Prophet, which makes his entire fictional enterprise, complete with its confounding juxtaposition of meticulously reproduced Sirah texts (traditional biographical accounts of the Prophet) with gross, obscene, images of his own conjuring, totally incomprehensible. Little wonder that Muslims find him diabolically disingenuous!

And this brings us to the heart of the Muslim argument against the novelist, namely that moral judgement is possible only on a historical ground, and that where the ground is sacred such as the Sirah of the Prophet, not only profane imagination but also pious devotion must remain within the bound of historical reality. Of course, the traditional saying that 'the devil cannot impersonate the Prophet, not even in a dream' expresses this insight graphically and sets limits to any public discourse on the Prophet. Whatever that one says of the Prophet must be attributable to the historical personage and not to any shadowy figure of individual imagination. In sum, the root cause of this conflict is the Islamic commitment to history and morality (a trait that it shares with other Abrahamic faiths) that is inimical to the mythic, polymorphic and essentially amoral imagination of the postmodernist novelist.

The availability of choice, or the possibility of error in human judgement, is a banal fact that cannot be sanctified into a paralyzing theory of moral relativism. Only those who espouse an oppressive doctrine of the polymorphous, nay polytheistic, nature of the ultimate truth are prone to doing so. For others, our capacity to act morally serves as a strong shield against any such perverse fundamentalism of doubt. It is thus not accidental that the Muslim tradition which confronted the spurious tale of 'Satanic Verses' in all its bloody seriousness was never scandalized by it. For it clearly recognized that the routinely observed fact that choices can be wrong does not prove that they cannot be right! The existence of error and falsity in the world is no proof of the non-existence of accuracy and truth. Thus, the traditional reading of the 'satanic verses' episode is the exact opposite of that of the modern missionary and his deracinated protegés like Rushdie. For what the story reveals is that distinctions can be made and right choices can be exercised. Instead of abdicating the claim of human reason and brooding over the 'eclipse of God', Islamic tradition vigorously affirms the possibility of right knowledge and right action and proclaims the ultimate triumph of Divine Text over Satanic interpolations.

Of course, no one is suggesting that rabid postmodernists, or confounded novelists, have inaugurated a reign of relativism and abolished moral and judicial judgement altogether. No, their debilitating and paralyzing ethic has had little impact on the contemporary theory and practice of politics. What they have accomplished instead is to lend respectability to the inegalitarian and elitist doctrines that accept the current hierarchy of powers and privileges as the natural state of affairs. Fundamentalism of doubt has not paved the way to any genuine pluralism, all it has done is to facilitate the perception of the political world as an arena of 'clashing civilizations' and double standards.

The world of double-standards represents, of course, a world where Nazism would be completely at home and where no one would be inconvenienced by the problem of distinguishing the Divine text from its Satanic forgeries. To speak of Nazis in this connection is, to express it candidly, neither fortuitous, nor disrespectful of the suffering of their victims. For one of the moral issues at stake, here as well as there, is the affiliation of truth to history. In the face of the emerging neo-Nazi revisionist school of historiography, it has been earnestly proposed in various parliaments of Europe that the denial of the historical reality of the Holocaust be declared a criminal offence. Such a stance towards a great human tragedy and a moral failure of our times, it has been argued, does not constitute an issue of individual freedom, whether of conscience or of expression. This attitude appears to me to be fully justified. A moral lie, after all, presupposes a historical lie. Let those who want to accept the lie of Nazism have 'free consciences'; let them possess any judgement on Nazi teachings that they will. But they must not be allowed to base this judgement on fraudulent history, or to vindicate their choice on the ground that genocide never took place, or that gas chambers are 'a Jewish fantasy'! Unfortunately, this is exactly what Rushdie does in his novel: From a narrative that is as close to the truth of the Sirah as is neo-Nazi revisionism to that of the Holocaust, he solicits a judgement on the Prophet of Islam!