The Rushdie Affair, Episode Two

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How should progressives respond to the ongoing brouhaha about Salman Rushdie’s knighthood? We should begin by reminding ourselves, particularly if we live in the West, that the so-called “Muslim” response to the announcement of Rushdie’s knighthood does not speak for the majority of Muslims, or for what matters to most Muslims in the world. How many Muslims are actually concerned about this issue in the first place?

In Pakistan, for instance, most people, the majority of them Muslims, are right now embroiled in a struggle against a military dictator who has clamped down on their judiciary and their media. In Sri Lanka, Tamil-speaking Muslims are caught in the crossfire of a resurgent civil war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state. Why don’t the media cover these stories in depth, instead of focusing on one celebrity writer and his ridiculous knighthood?

This is a farcical story that isn’t even newsworthy. It is the story of a handful of Islamists taking a reactionary position on a reactionary title. This title is being bestowed upon a once-great novelist by the figurehead of a former imperial power. That imperial power, or rather, its inheritor, is now in a crisis of legitimacy, and it can only hold on by continuing to provoke, then demonize, its indefeatible enemy.

It is a barely-concealed propaganda war, on both sides. It reflects, on the one hand, the sorry state of the empire itself–unable to secure a victory on the ground, it tries to pathetically assert its symbolic power by bringing a Muslim writer to his knees, and bestowing upon him a knighthood which is of little greater substance than the novelist’s own unremarkable recent novels.

At the same time, it reflects the growing threat posed by the “Oriental Other” in the imagination of a defeated empire. As the structures and the ideologies of the empire crumble (whatever happened to that hallowed document, the NSS, otherwise known as the Bush Doctrine?), it bares its fangs. But these are hollow fangs.

No matter what you think of the knighthood or the response, this is hardly more important than the issues being raised by Muslims in Palestine, for instance. The struggle for a free Palestine seems to be at critical juncture, with a power struggle between Hamas and Fateh. Let’s talk about that instead.

Or perhaps we could discuss the impact of continuing US support for Israel as a newsworthy topic.

Or the impact of US support for the Sunnis against the Shia in Iraq.

Then, having discussed real issues facing real people, if we have the time left, we might come back to the question of this stupid knighthood. What, after all, has this incident taught us, that makes it so newsworthy?

That Rushdie is no heroic postcolonial writer, come to save academic postcolonial theory from its own irrelevancy, but now simply one of many writers, both citizen and subject, who have ignominiously bowed before Her Highness. In other words, that he is quite ordinary after all. He is no Arundhati Roy, proudly speaking truth to power and thumbing her impertinent writer’s nose at our rulers.

So yes, I am disappointed with Rushdie. Surely, the master of magic realism could have at least infused this incident with an irony that was a tiny bit more self-consciously produced? Is that asking for too much? But his awestruck “postcolonial” critics nevertheless rush to his defense against the “Islamic bigots.”

On the other hand, some reactionary Islamists have taken the bait offered by Her Majesty, hoping to get their own bases fired up, but behind reactionary slogans (the threats, fatwas, etc). Thus, according to news articles, the Taliban have jumped at the opportunity to issue a statement on behalf of all Muslims. The Iranian government was not far behind, as the Iranian Foreign Ministry official, Ebrahim Rahimpour, called the knighthood an insult “which has terribly hurt the feelings of 1.5 billion Muslims”.

What gives them the right to speak on behalf of all Muslims? The media rarely ask this question, as it will reveal the emptiness of their sensational “scoop.”

It almost seems as though all actors in this play have carefully read Tariq Ali’s The Clash of Fundamentalisms and decided to play it out as farce.

I think that many Americans aren’t buying it. Certainly, increasing numbers of Americans who are aware of the news (and these days I’m surprised to see just how many people seem to be quite up to date on the news) know that the Bush administration would like nothing better than to provoke Iran or Syria into a fight. They should know, too, that the Ahmedinijad regime, the Taliban, and other forces like them, will respond precisely in the way they are “supposed to”: angrily denouncing the “affront” on behalf of such numbers of Muslims (1.5 billion, no less!) that they could never, in their wildest dreams, hope to represent.

Americans have become more news-savvy and media-savvy in the years since 9/11 took them by surprise. They have been seeing through Bush’s lies for a while now, and are getting better at it. The public are not so easily fooled this time around, not so willing to be led around by the nose. They said as much last November, but their rulers don’t seem to care.

What a bunch of rulers America has produced! The governing party turns a deaf ear to the rumblings of last year’s elections, while the so-called opposition party thumbs its nose at its own voters and agrees to fund the war.

And the media continue to serve up some excuse or other to refer, periodically, lest we have forgotten about them, to the “terrorists” out there. L’Affaire de Rushdie, Part Deux, is simply the newest one.