We all should read Salman Rushdie these days. I am sure, they do so a lot in Bosnia these days. He was one of the few who raised their voices for the people of besieged Sarajevo back then. And in his stories has always warned of the powers that almost destroyed it.
Few countries outside the English speaking world and Western Europe devote so much attention to the assassination attempt against Salman Rushdie earlier this week as Bosnian media.
There are two reasons for that.
One is that he spoke out on behalf of Bosnians and particularly of the people in Sarajevo when few did in the 90’s.
His essay „Bosnia on my mind“ is an indictment of Western hypocrisy and of convenient historical falsehoods, such as the perennial hatred between ethnic groups on the Balkans.
„Sarajevo’s truth (as opposed to the saloon-bar version) is that theSalman Rushdie: Bosnia on my Mind
different communities have not been hating each other since the dawn of
time, but have been good neighbours, schoolfriends, work-mates and
lovers; that in this city miscegenation and intermarriage have been not the
exception, but the norm. (And if they were bad neighbours, enemies at
school, and rivals at work, and if their marriages failed, it was for the
ordinary human reasons of personality and affinity, rather than the
‚cleansing‘ evils of nationalism).“
And, more crucially, he had this to say:
Sarajevo’s truth is that its citizens, who reject definition by religion orSalman Rushdie: Bosnia on my Mind
confession, who wish to be simply Bosnians, have for their pains been
labelled by the outside world as ‚Muslims‘. It is instructive to imagine
how things might have gone in former Yugoslavia if the Bosnians had
been Christians and the Serbs had been Muslims, even Muslims ‚in name
only‘. Would Europe have supported a ‚Serbian Muslim‘ carve-up of the
defunct state? It’s only a guess, but I guess that it would not. Which being
true, it must also be true that the ‚Muslim‘ tag is part of the reason for
Europe’s indifference to Sarajevo’s fate.
Rushdie Was and Is Right
This is true and fundamental in two ways.
We have seen then and we see now the same European and American indifference when it comes to the persecution of Muslims.
Think of the Rohingya of Myanmar and the Uygurs of China.
And think of how we barely ignore that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has essentially illegally invaded and annexed parts of Northern Syria. It’s no different from what Vladimir Putin does in the Ukraine. Just that the „ethnic cleansing“ is even more brutal.
But, it’s just Muslims killing other Muslims. Nothing to see here.
Likewise, we can be certain that the genocide of Rwanda had been stopped somehow had the victims not be Africans.
That Hutus slaughtered a million Tutsis in a matter of a few months was regrettable in the eyes of the US and European governments, shocking perhaps, even, but since it was happening in Africa and to Africans, who really gave a damn?
That sort of racism has not disappeared, in spite of the progress the US and European societies may have made internally in dealing with racism.
The other way in which Salman Rushdie’s statement about Europe’s indifference towards Muslims is true and fundamental has to do with himself.
Here is the perennial critic of religion in general and of Islam in particular who stands up for Muslims.
Unlike his critics allege, and unlike many fans believe, Rushdie is no „Muslim hater“. He never was.
L’Ami Du Peuple
He was and is a friend of the people, no matter which religion they were born into.
In all of his stories and public statements, Rushdie always clearly distinguished between religion and its members. To him, they are never one and the same and in a sense he has devoted his life to exploring how religions come to appropriate their members and how both are radicalized and why.
This is also clear in the novel that as far as we know nearly cost him his life.
„The Satanic Verses“ are a brilliant and sarcastic take on the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
They are also a sarcastic take on Islam, but not to the same extent, and in their whole approach they are comparable the Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose which at approximately the same time took apart Christianity in a similar fashion.
But it’s not that that Ayatollah Khomeni condemned Rushdie to death for. Not really, at any rate, even though his Fatwah uses it as pretext.
Rushdie exposed the old man as the fanatic and fraud that he was. The old fraud didn’t like that and put a bounty on Rushdie’s head.
One that maybe the almost assassin wanted to cash in on. Investigations are still going on.
We can say with a high degree of certainty that the Fatwah caused the murder attempt. It would be premature to rule out other explanations at this point and time, however. They are just less likely.
Why Rushdie’s Books Matter
The Satanic Verses are a book we should all read these days. Out of solidarity with the writer, and because they are a great novel.
We should also turn to some of his other works.
My two favorites are „Midnight’s Children“ and „Shame“. I think both are even better than the Satanic Verses.
Make sure to complement them with „Shalimar the Clown“.
Few authors have shown so much empathy and respect for the people of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as Rushdie has in these books.
In them he clearly describes how religion in general and Islam in particular came to be such an immensely destructive power that has conquered the hearts and minds of millions and drives the politics in the region to ever new escalation.
To Rushdie, this never was inevitable.
He understands these processes not as a result of some superpower innate to religion, its rise to dominance a force of nature set in motion by its ideological content, but as manmade.
There are specific societal conditions that gave and give religion such a dominant place and that allow for religious fanatics to appropriate millions of people born into the same religion and to run entire countries.
An Uncompromising Critic of Religion
Sure, Rushdie, like me, is an atheist and critic of religion as such.
He comes from a Muslim family in India. His family is named after the famous Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd, to whom we largely owe the rediscovery of Aristotle and who was called The Father of Rationalism in the West.
Islam is the religion Salman Rushdie knows best and accordingly the religion he can and does criticize the best.
Mind, he is also a brilliant critic of Hinduism, and one of the few there are, with other religions and their clergy he is a bit more generic. This is not to criticize him in the slightest.
As a Freethinker, Salman Rushdie was always much more of a go-to-guy than Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins.
I highly appreciate their work, and warmly recommend it, and I particularly find Hitchens‘ take on Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu an indispensible contribution to public discourse (read more about it HERE, HERE and HERE), but Rushdie has always pointed at the historical changeability of religion and never reduced its destructiveness and dangers to its respective ideological content.
Hitchens and Dawkins sometimes failed to combine intellectual rigor with empathy. Rushdie excells at this. This makes him not just such a great writer but I think also a great human being.
I wonder whether Salman Rushdie ever read Dževad Karahasan.
Karahasan is one of the most prominent contemporary authors from former Yugoslavia. In his historical novels he deals with many topoi Rushdie writes about in his works.
Both deal with the decline nof a society by religious fanaticism – in both cases it’s Islam – and both have assassins as central characters.
One is from the Indian perspective, the other from the Bosnian, and both tell a great story of loss and the human condition.
While for Karahasan the radicalisation of Islam is a chiffre for the rise of nationalism – and particularly Serb nationalism – that destroyed his homeland and for Rushdie the radicalisation of Islam is the greatest imminent threat on the Indian subcontinent (fanatical Hinduism gained power a bit later), in essence they have the same message.
Both give you the historical perspective that losing a society to fanaticism is never inevitable. It is always the result of mistakes and shortcomings within the society, such as corruption, exploitation and injustice, as well as, of course, ignorance.
It is not so much the specifics that matter. There is a general pattern. To a large extent, a story about the causes of violence and intolerance in India are also a story about violence and intolerance in Bosnia, and many other places.
While the specifics are important when dealing with this on the ground, we should never let them overwhelm us so we lose sight of the larger picture.
Or, as Salman Rushdie wrote in Shame: In order to see the whole picture you must step out of the frame.
So, if you are reading up on Rushdie, as well you should, you may devote some time to Karahasan’s books.
If you think about Salman Rushdie, you always somehow end up in Bosnia as well, it seems. That’s not a bad thing, even with all the things that must be fixed in Bosnia.
(And in Serbia. And in India. And, and, and, and…)
Now Is the Time for Sarajevo to Pay Back His Kindness
Let’s just hope that Rushdie recovers from this assassination attempt. It looks bad enough as it is.
He has lost an eye, his liver is damaged and I hope he gets to keep the function of the arm whose nerves have been severed.
I do not know if Rushdie has ever been to Sarajevo.
In 1994 he had not, when he was one of the few to speak out for its people.
Nevertheless, he declared himself an imaginary citizen of Sarajevo, and meant every word of it.
I have just seen a strange short film in which a man driving down theSalman Rushdie: Bosnia on my Mind
sniper-infested streets of Sarajevo repeats, over and over, like a mantra, my
name. Salman Rushdie, Salman Rushdie, Salman Rushdie; Salman Rushdie;
Salman Rushdie, Salman Rushdie; Salman Rushdie, Salman Rushdie, Salman
Rushdie. Is he chanting it to remind him of his danger, or as a kind of spell
to keep him safe? I hope it is the latter, and it is in that spirit of
sympathetic magic that I have begun to murmur, under my breath, the
name of this unknown city of which I declare myself to be an imaginary
Sarajevo, Sarajevo, Sarajevo,
Sarajevo, Sarajevo, Sarajevo,
I think it would be a nice gesture if the city government or an association of local writers invited him to visit Sarajevo.
I have little doubts that adequate security could be arranged, provided the genuine will of Bosnian authorities to do so.
So he could finally see the city whose citizen at heart he has been for so many years.