DISSIDENTS SA

29 04 2010

THE FIGHT FOR THE SOUL OF ISLAM (1993)

Salman Rushdie

The following news is all taken from the first half of 1993.

In Pakistan, they said that an elderly poet, Akhtar Hameed Khan, 78, said that although he admires Muhammad, his true inspiration is Buddha. He denies having said it, but nevertheless is accused by the ulemas of blasphemy. In 1992 he was arrested for insulting the Prophet’s descendants, writing a poem about animals that the fundamentalists said had hidden meanings and allegorical. He continued to reject the accusation, but now, once again, his life is in danger.

In Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates, an Indian theater group, who in 1992 performed a play called “Corpse-eating Ants,” that was considered blasphemous, and which was sentenced to six years in prison for blasphemy, appealed against the sentence. Some group members were acquitted, but the sentence of one of them increased to 10 years, and the appellate court upheld the sentence of six years of another.

In Istanbul, one of the most respected secular journalists in the country, Ugur Mumçu, was shot dead in the street. Turkish Fundamentalists claimed the attack, and the Turkish government says it has evidence linking to the murderers to Iraq. The Interior Minister, Ismet Sezgin, said that at least three killings have been carried out by a group called the Islamic Movement, whose members have been trained in techniques of assassination “in an official Iranian center, located between Tehran and Qom.”

In Egypt, the assasins who in 1992 murdered the distinguished secular thinker Farag Fuda are currently on trial, but the bombs and killings of militants continue.

In Algeria, the writer Tahar Djaout is one of six secularists assassinated in a killing spree by those whom the security forces call “Muslim terrorists.”

In Saudi Arabia, a number of distinguished intellectuals form the first Human Rights group in the country. In a matter of days, many of them are expelled from their jobs, including university professorships; many are detained and imprisoned. Their trail is pending.

In Egypt, Professor Nasr Abu-Zeid, who teaches literature at the University of Cairo, is accused of apostasy for his criticism of the Islamists. Fundamentalists ask the court to dissolve the marriage of the teacher, because it is illegal for a Muslim to be married to an apostate. The alternative would be that his wife be stoned for adultery.

In Turkey, 36 writers, dancers, musicians,  and secular artists, gathered for a conference in the city of Sivas, died in their hotel, burned by a mob of Islamic fundamentalists who accuse them of being atheists and therefore from the point of view of the fanatics, deserving of being burned alive.

The United States has familiarized itself recently in a sad and painful way with the nature of the saints (or, rather, nothing saintly) of the terrorists of Islam. The crater that lies beneath the World Trade Center and the discovery of a plot to set off more giant bombs to kill prominent political figures, have shown Americans how brutal those terrorists can be.

This, and other international Islamic terrorism cases have shocked the world community, while domestic terrorism cases listed above have received much too little of the world’s attention. I suggest that this imbalance of attention represents a kind of victory of fanaticism.

If the worst vein, the most reactionary and the most medieval of the Muslim world is treated as an authentic culture, so that terrorists and the mullahs get all the headlines, while the progressive and modernizing voices are treated as minor, marginal and “occidentoxicadas “(news briefs), this allows it to be fundamentalism that defines the program.

The truth is that it is fighting a great battle for the soul of the Muslim world and, as fundamentalists gain power and ruthlessness, those courageous men and women who are willing to confront them in a battle of ideas and moral values, are fast becoming as important for us to know, understand and support, as the dissenting voices of the former Soviet Union used to be.

The Soviet state of terror also denigrated its opponents as totally Westernized and enemies of the people; also robbed women of their men in the night, as the poet Osip Mandelstam was taken from Nadezhda. We do not blame Mandelstam for his own destruction; we don’t blame him for attacking Stalin, but rightly blame the Stalinist state. In the same spirit, do not fall into the trap of blaming the theater people of Sharjah for their ants who seem somewhat macabre, or the Turkish secularists of “provoking” the crowd that killed them.

Instead, we should understand that secularism is now enemy number one of the fanatics, and their most important goal. Why? Because secularism demands a complete separation of church and state: the Egyptian philosophers Fuad Zakariya argues that Islamic societies can only be free if this principle is observed. And because secularism rejects the notion that any society of the late twentieth century can be considered “pure” and argues that the attempt to purify the modern Muslim world from its inevitable hybrids also lead to an inevitable tyranny. And because secularism is critical to our understanding of the true Muslim and considers Islam as an event inside history, not outside. And because secularism seeks to end the repression of women which is established each time the radical Islamists come to power. And more than anything because the secularists know that a modern nation-state can not be built on ideas that emerged in the Arabian desert over 300 years ago.

The weapons used against dissidents in the Muslim world are the same everywhere. The accusations are always of “blasphemy”, “apostasy”, “heresy”, “anti-Islamic activities.” These “crimes” are considered to be “insulting Islamic sanctities.” The “wrath of the people” thus created is “impossible to resist.” The defendants are people “whose blood is impure” and therefore deserves to be spilled.
The British writer Marina Warner once told me that the objects associated with witchcraft (a pointy hat, broom, cauldron, cat) would have been in possession of most women during the great witch hunts. If these were the proofs of witchcraft, all women were potentially guilty, it only needed that accusing finger pointed at one and the yelling of: “Witch!”.

Americans, recalling the example of the McCarthy witch-hunts, easily understand the power and destructiveness there may be even in this process. And what is happening today in the Muslim world should be regarded as a witch hunt of exceptional proportions, a witch-hunt developed in many countries that often results in murderers.

So the next time you encounter a story as I have repeated here, perhaps a story hidden at the bottom of an inside page of a newspaper, remember that the persecution it describes is not an isolated event but part of a deliberate and lethal program, which aims to criminalize, denigrate and even kill the best and most honorable voices in the Muslim world: its voices of dissent.

And remember that these dissidents need our support. More than anything, they need our attention.

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