Joseph Anton, Islamophobia and the rise of manufactured outrage

I have recently finished reading Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton. If you do not know the name, which he used during the years he was in hiding, came from the first names of two of his favourite writers, Conrad and Chekhov respectively. I have a confession to make – I have never read any of read any of his fiction. I was until three years ago more of a non-fiction reader. What’s more I am not sure his style would appeal to me. However after reading this engrossing memoir, I think I will have to try some of his novels.

The book is written in the third person. It begins when Rushdie learns about the fatwa against him. One thing that surprised me was that the government didn’t provide safe houses for the author. He had to pay for them himself. If the security services felt that a house was no longer safe, he would have to leave, therefore losing his deposits. His nadir 7 came in December 1990 when he met up with his accusers to try to find a solution. He even signed a statement affirming his faith in Islam. Despite this, his accusers weren’t placated. Rushdie felt sick with self-contempt, but this low point proved to be a turning-point. He decided that there was no point in trying to appease his opponents. He would never be able to get his detractors to love him. And so he decided to fight back. He travelled around the world giving speeches. He also went back to writing both novels and opinion pieces. He wouldn’t just go away, which is what many people would have liked him to do.

Rushdie has many friends among the literati; Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Said, Harold Pinter and Paul Auster all stood by him. However, there is no doubt that he manages to rub a lot of people up the wrong way. I am a connoisseur of literary feuds and this book is a delight in this respect. Rushdie may have been facing the Ayatollah’s death squads, but he certainly wasn’t going to forget those he felt had done him down.

Rushdie was a man of the left who detested Thatcherism. Indeed, the Iron Lady makes an appearance in The Satanic Verses, subtly disguised as Mrs Torture. This did not go down too well with the Daily Mail, which Rushdie dubs The Daily Insult. The Mail had a long-running campaign about the cost of the author’s protection. Just the other day I came across this headline in the newspaper:

Not an ounce of gratitude: Salman Rushdie is set to make millions from book on his life as a fugitive from the fatwa. Any chance he’ll repay £11m taxpayers spent protecting him? I would have thought that one of the most basic functions of a state is to protect its citizens.

But more dispiriting for Rushdie must have been the attacks from the left, the most notorious coming from John le Carré, Germaine Greer and John Berger. There was an obscene attempt to blame the victim. Rushdie was criticised for not withdrawing the book. This was said to be arrogant. That these critics would so willingly jettison free speech I find quite shocking. There is no doubt that the West has had some pretty catastrophic interventions in the Middle East since the end of WWI, but the rise of Islamism is a catastrophe, especially for those who live under it. We do live in strange times. The right has suddenly developed an interest in gender equality and social progress, while the left ally often themselves with some very reactionary ideologies.

I have already blogged about my take on free speech. The basis of free speech is that you have to defend people you can’t stand. Because free speech is not just free speech for people you respect and agree with. As Rushdie says, you have to defend the Ku Klux Klan as well as Martin Luther King. This is the necessary price we have to pay. If you allow people freedom, there will be times when they abuse it. If you’re going to defend the principle, then you have to defend people who use the principle badly. It’s when people really upset you that you discover if you believe in free speech or not.

We are also witnessing a rise of what Rushdie calls manufactured outrage. There seems to be a right not to be offended. Alongside this we have the exponential growth of phobias. This is, I guess, a product of the psychologisation of society. In today’s Observer we discover that Nick Griffin, leader of the fascist British national end a tweet with Say No to heterophobia! Applying the suffix phobia is a way of closing down debate. Disagreement and dissent become a form of disease. We should counter odious arguments, not try to pathologise them

Islamophobia, which gained currency in the 1990s, is a term which I find problematic; Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity but a set of beliefs and customs. In a free society, you should be able to criticize all kinds of ideas without being classified as suffering from a mental disorder. It is a way of framing the debate in which criticisms of any aspect of Islam are looked upon as racism. It is possible to question the values associated with the religion without attacking the racial status of Muslim people. This blanket term undermines the distinction between criticism of Islam and discrimination against Muslim people. I agree with Sam Harris, one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism“, who has stated that there is “no such thing as Islamophobia…. It is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.”

This is a never-ending story. The latest episode has been with Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islamic video written and produced by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, using the pseudonym of Sam Bacile. The protests have led to hundreds of injuries and about 75 deaths. Fatwas have been issued against the video’s participants and a Pakistani minister has offered a bounty for the death of Nakoula. The video sounds rather tawdry, but I think that Obama was wrong to put pressure on YouTube to take it down. Curiously on September 17th of this year, in the wake of this scandal, an Iranian religious foundation headed by Ayatollah Hassan Saneii reaffirmed the fatwa yet again, raising the bounty from $2.8 million to $3.3 million. Their chilling argument was that Nakoula’s film wouldn’t have been if only Rushdie had been killed after The Satanic Verses. Rushdie believes that the threat has gone from real to rhetorical. Let’s hope he’s right. But I suppose you can never have 100% security and he’s had his fill of living in fear.

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