Kenan Malik writes: Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, has hit the bookshelves just as the world has become embroiled in a new controversy over Islamic sensibilities. The extraordinary violence unleashed across the Muslim world by Innocence of Muslims, an obscure US-made video, has left many bewildered and perplexed.
Rushdie was, of course, at the centre of the most famous confrontation over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. The publication in 1988 of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, launched a worldwide campaign against the supposed blasphemies in the book, culminating in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on 14 February 1989 condemning Rushdie to death, and forcing him into hiding for a decade.
Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s account of the fatwa and the years that followed. So, what does the battle over The Satanic Verses tell us about the current controversy over The Innocence of Muslims?
The Rushdie affair is shrouded in a number of myths that have obscured its real meaning. The first myth is that the confrontation over The Satanic Verses was primarily a religious conflict. It wasn’t. It was first and foremost a political tussle. The novel became a weapon in the struggle by Islamists with each other, with secularists and with the West. The campaign began in India where hardline Islamist groups whipped up anger against Rushdie’s supposed blasphemies to win concessions from politicians nervous about an upcoming general election and fearful of alienating any section of the Muslim community. The book subsequently became an issue in Britain, a weapon in faction fights between various Islamic groups.
Most important was the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for supremacy in the Islamic world. From the 1970s onwards Saudi Arabia had used oil money to fund Salafi organisations and mosques worldwide to cement its position as spokesman for the umma. Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the Shah, established an Islamic republic, made Tehran the capital of Muslim radicalism, and Ayatollah Khomeini its spiritual leader, and posed a direct challenge to Riyadh. The battle over Rushdie’s novel became a key part of that conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia made the initial running, funding the campaign against the novel. The fatwa was an attempt by Iran to wrestle back the initiative. The campaign against The Satanic Verses was not a noble attempt to defend the dignity of Muslims, nor even a theological campaign to protect religious values. It was part of a sordid political battle to promote particular sectarian interests. [Continue reading…]