The Koran tells the truth – says the Koran. The Koran is just a story say "The Satanic Verses". They blurt out the truth. They place the myth within a picaresque novel where revelation is constantly rearranging itself to conform to the vagaries of everyday politics. The "Verses" write themselves into historical conditionality, they tell how the myth was fabricated. The novel was written at the apex of the postmodern corrosion of the concept of truth. And that is recognisable in its tangled wilderness of miracles, versions and visions. But its goal is quite clearly blasphemy – at least, according to the administrators of that particular truth. Ayatollah Khomeini never read the novel, but he was quite clear about the challenge it contained and he acted accordingly – like the thunder god he is caricatured as in the novel.
Postmodern culture had not reckoned with the fury of the Ayatollah's reaction. After all, was there ever a more peaceful time than the 1980s?
Yes, in 1968 left-wing intellectuals were still taking the run-up to a world-historical salto mortale, only to find themselves landing with bums in university chairs – pension entitlements included. But it was a cheerful awakening. The postmodern movement was an airy island of refuge for all those who no longer wished to believe in the "grand narratives." In 1966 it had still been somewhat painful when Michel Foucault wrote off the dispute between Hegelians and Marxists as a tempest in a teapot. But now intellectuals were comfortably settling into a hammock of relative truths, reflexive constructions, ironic allusions. The theorists of world revolution, who had recently been so agitated, now divided the variegated world neatly into the pigeon-holes of systems theory, post-structuralism and gender studies. The situation seemed stable. Nothing was serious. Life was post-historical long before Francis Fukuyama's "End of History." Simulation theorists were having the time of their lives.
But today they are still nursing their bloody noses. Three reality shocks – the AIDS epidemic, the fatwa, and finally the collapse of the Wall – hauled them abruptly back down to earth. Or might they still be dreaming?
There is, incidentally, a connection between the fatwa and the collapse of the Wall. With both Communism and Islam, it turned out that posmodernism was somewhat less amusing when it directed its subversive power against solidly entrenched claims to truth. Understandably enough, the dissidents of Eastern Europe were very interested in the idea that all they faced was a"grand narrative." And in their case it was true. They were sawing away at the legend of "real socialism" while the Westerners of 1968, who considered themselves the avant-garde, still believed that heaven on earth could be achieved through violence.
But change was fleeting. Just as one brand of totalitarianism was collapsing with a gentle belch, another was already raising its bearded head. Now, in 2009, to commemorate only the collapse of the Wall is to tell only half the story. By threatening to kill Salman Rushdie, Islamism – which many people had previously thought of some sinister folklore in a far off land– aimed its thunderbolt directly at the West, so as keep hold of the reigns of power.
The Western took genuine fright. Writers announced their solidarity with Rushdie. "Ms. Torture," as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was termed in the "Satanic Verses," gave the British author safe haven with the aid of her secret service. As if by some magic trick, Rushdie disappeared from the scene for years. Had organisations such as Article 19 and engaged individuals in many countries not exerted constant pressure both on Western governments and Iran, he would still be in hiding today. When forces of reform were in power Iran issued the necessary security guaranties. These days, however, it is best not to ask.
It was not long, though, before Western solidarity showed its limits. The media, for example, which should in principle have stood as guardians of these threatened values, reacted in panic. In Germany, Arno Widmann of the taz newspaper proposed that national papers join forces on the same day to print the first chapter of the "Verses" on their front pages, thus distributing the pressure across as wide a surface as possible. Frank Schirrmacher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was initially enthusiastic about the proposal, while other arts and culture editors hemmed and hawed, hiding behind the coattails of their bosses, who invoked concern for their personnel. Ultimately, the taz found itself alone, and even came under attack by Ulrich Greiner in Die Zeit for allegedly violating Rushdie's copyright. He also referred to the "hackneyed rhetoric of courage spreading through the land." But the Akademie der Künste was not even bold enough to organise a public reading of the novel.
It was like in the playground, when a big kid beats up a little one. Bystanders try to justify their own passivity by picking fault with the victim. The same happened to Rushdie, with some people saying that the demonstrations in India, Pakistan and Britain which had preceded the fatwa were a deliberate campaign to put the novel in the spotlight. Many people were envious of Rushdie: he was good, he was non-white, he had received an unprecedented advance for "The Satanic Verses." So the question arose as to whether he should pay for his own security.
The cultural pages of Europe's newspapers continue to avoid the subject even now. But the confrontation with Islam and Islamism – one of today's central political issues – is essentially a cultural matter. The fatwa functions as an act of censorship and has left a deep imprint on the West. Communism also used to manipulate public opinion this side of the Iron Curtain, with the aid of its secret services and corruption. But Islamism, although a far more informal system, exerts a much more effective influence over the minds of Western cultural and media leaders. The fear is rationalised with the word "respect." Playing with the symbols, discourse and constraints of Christianity has long been taken for granted in Western culture. But playing with the symbols of Islam has been out of bounds since the fatwa, ostensibly out of "respect."
A gigantic taboo zone has been created, repeatedly reiterated and expanded with the well-intentioned collaboration of Western intellectuals. Tariq Ramadan, for example, the moderate Islamist from Geneva, won his first spurs by preventing a production of Voltaire's "Mahomet." Sweetly smiling women in head scarves distributed leaflets in Geneva in protest against the play. The city withdrew its support from the production. "They call it censorship, but I see it as tact," said Ramadan in gratitude.
There have been countless cases of submission in advance since the fatwa. Two happened in Berlin: Kirsten Harms, general manager of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, cancelled a production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" because stage director Hans Neuenfels had played a tad provocatively with the symbols of several religions – not just Islam! There had not been even a spark of protest, but Harms was "advised" to cancel the work. Second example: Without even giving reasons, Peter-Klaus Schuster, general director of the state museums in Berlin and head of the Nationalgalerie, prevented Gregor Schneider's Kaaba-like black cube from being erected in front of Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof museum – and this after the Venice Biennale had already bowed to pressure. The public was silent, by and large. Eventually Schneider was able to put his cube elsewhere in Hamburg – and the heavens did not fall!
Things can also turn out otherwise, precisely because of the fear that they might. This was illustrated by British-Indian author Kenan Malik in an essay linking the fatwa to Sherry Jones's novel "The Jewel of Medina". After an evaluation by Islam scholar Denise Spellberg, America's Random House publishers withdrew the work about Aisha, supposedly Mohammed's favourite wife. Martin Rynja, head of the small British publishing house Gibson Square, brought out the novel – and his offices were duly set alight. Before Random House buckled, however, there had been no fuss about the novel. As Malik writes, this kind of "respect" engenders the very monsters it hopes to appease.
Western media failed miserably in the dispute over the notorious Danish Mohammed cartoons. CNN and BBC pixelated the caricatures, as if they were child pornography or Islamist snuff. With the exception of Die Welt, German newspapers also avoided printing the cartoon clearly. In Der Spiegel the relevant page from Denmark's Jyllands-Posten was printed about the size of a passport photo. You had to search the Internet if to see the cartoons full-size. And yet that the drawings were not even insulting to Islam. Editors and publishers pursed their lips to defend the right of cartoonists to express their opinions – hastily adding that the drawings were poor anyway and not worth all the fuss.
But this isn't true. The cartoons are self-ironic reflections on the cartoonist's fear of precisely the reactions that followed. They are, in fact, marginally better than the average daily cartoon fare on the opinion pages. The media betrayed their own cartoonists. And, by the way, the drawings are far more harmless than Rushdie's "Satanic Verses", which never hesitates to blaspheme. All of which illustrates that the boundaries of the zone of taboo have expanded since the fatwa.
At the high point of the dispute over the cartoons, the Dutch politicican Ayaan Hirsi Ali came to Berlin, of all places, to give a speech defending the rights of the cartoonists. She herself pointed out the connection between the two totalitarianisms. As a dissident Muslim, she used the example of Eastern European dissidence which was rewarded with the collapse of the Wall. But her gesture was not understood. Essentially, what happened to her was worse than what had happened to Rushdie, who was at least defended and protected. In 2004 a young extremist named Bouyeri assassinated the filmmaker Theo van Gogh who, together with Hirsi Ali, had made the film "Submission". Bouyeri thrust a dagger into van Gogh's chest, to which was attached a note: "I know, oh Ayaan Hirsi Ali, that you shall go under / I know, oh fundamentalists of unbelief, that you shall go down." These words got around.
Writers like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash took them up and amplified them, half-consciously, half-unconsciously, equating the "fundamentalists of the Enlightenment" with Islamic fundamentalists. Garton Ash later recanted. What remained was the insistence by Hirsi Ali's opponents that her activities were useless, that her intransigence was itself driving Muslims into a corner, that her denial of the faith meant she represented nothing and thus was unable to contribute to the integration of Muslims into Western society. Tariq Ramadan was the man to listen to, they said. Hirsi Ali was threatened with losing her Dutch citizenship. She left for the United States whereupon the Dutch government stopped paying for her security. Cassandra doesn't live here anymore. God is great.
The European Left cried no tears for her. She had long been decried as a useful idiot of reactionary forces. In a striking parallel to the fate of many ex-Communist dissidents, Hirsi Ali found no home on the Left. Rushdie, too, had to admit that he had been mistaken. In his "Satanic Verses" he had declared that the war on racism in Britain, on Hindu nationalism in India, on Islamism, was part of the Left's greater purpose. But he was doubly mistaken: Islamism has a universalist thrust which makes it more dangerous than mere xenophobia. Yet the Left prefers battling Islamic dissidents to fighting Islamism.
Is this a reassessment of all our values, or a distortion beyond all recognition? In the confrontation with Islamism, the Left has abandoned its principles. In the past it stood for cutting the ties to convention and tradition, but in the case of Islam it reinstates them in the name of multiculturalism. It is proud to have fought for women's rights, but in Islam it tolerates head scarves, arranged marriages, and wife-beating. It once stood for equal rights, now it preaches a right to difference – and thus different rights. It proclaims freedom of speech, but when it comes to Islam it coughs in embarrassment. It once supported gay rights, but now keeps silent about Islam's taboo on homosexuality. The West's long-due process of self-relativisation at the end of the colonial era, which was promoted by postmodernist and structuralist ideas, has led to cultural relativism and the loss of criteria.
Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" show that enlightenment is not a path to bone-dry reason. The novel is packed with riddles and wonders, top-heavy with symbols and postmodern brouhaha, colourful as a Pakistani bus. It is a swift, inspired, extremely ambitious act of liberation. It is Gibreel's ham sandwich. Today one trembles at its impudence. The Prophet is called Mahound. Mohammed's twelve wives are reflected in the twelve prostitutes in a brothel. Not just enlightenment, it tells us, but blasphemy, too, leads humankind out of its self-imposed immaturity, an act of liberation which makes our hearts beat wildly, in euphoria and panic. The novel insists that we can ride our bicycles without stabilisers. It is beyond this act that the here and now awaits. This novel, written by an immigrant challenges Europe not to lose sight of its selfhood.
But Europe prefers not to listen.
This article was originally published in Tagesspiegel on February 9, 2009.
Thierry Chervel is the publisher of Perlentauchersignandsight.com. In 1992 as culture editor for the taz he organised a solitary campaign in which international writers wrote "Letters to Rushdie".
Translation: Myron Gubitz