Vilifying Islam: The Rushdie Media-Spectacle

Benjamin Graves '98, UTRA Fellow 1997

On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini--then the spiritual leader of Iranian Muslims--made the following announcement over Radio Tehran:

There is only one God, to whom we shall all return. I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Phrophet and the Qur'an, as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, have been sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic sanctions. Whoever is killed on this path will be regarded as a martyr, God willing. In addition, anyone who has access to the author of the book, but does not possess the power to execute him, should refer him to the people so that he may be punished for his actions. May God's blessing be on you all. Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini. (from Observer, London 19 Feb. 1989)

As Tim Brennan suggests in his Salman Rushdie and the Third World, the political fervor incited by Salman Rushdie's infamous re-reading of the Qur'an only assumes meaning in relation to both the "rage of Islam against the book, and [perhaps more importantly] the consequent rage against Islam fuelled by the scandal itself" (143). Brennan's concern for Islam, not for Rushdie himself, points towards the way in which Western pundits have used the Rushdie incident as a means for condemning Eastern belief structures under the guise of advocating free speech and first amendment rights. In other words, the media spectacle surrounding Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa bounty perhaps merely served as an excuse that enabled an expression of the Western imperative to vilify and naturalize Muslims as somehow barbaric, fundamentalist, and therefore essentially "Eastern" or "Oriental" in nature.

Do you find these arguments compelling or uncompelling in light of the western-centredness of most interventions on Rushdie's behalf? How might the quasi-cinematic, postmodern narrative structure of The Satanic Verses (not least the "public" portrayal of Mahound as a media figure in the chapters entitled "Mahound" and "Return to Jahilia") ironically forecast or anticipate some of the "media" issues surrounding Ayatollah Khomeini's portrayal as a villain, and Rushdie's as a dissident writer? How might poet figures such as Baal and Salman (a nod towards the author himself) portray the discursive capacity of writers to envision histories that often part ways with those depicted in religious scripture?

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