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 Muslim, 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. The struggle for a free Palestine is at critical juncture, with a power struggle between Hamas and Fateh. Why not talk about them as vital issues for Muslims?
Or perhaps we could discuss the problem of continuing US support for Israel.
Or the impact of US support for the Sunnis against the Shia.
But the media, instead of covering these stories in depth, focus on one celebrity writer and his ridiculous knighthood. . . .
Rushdie is no heroic postcolonial writer, come to save academic postcolonial theory from its own irrelevancy, but now simply one of many, both citizen and subject, who have ignominiously bowed before Her Highness. In other words, 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. Surely, the master of magic realism could have at least infused this event with a touch of self-conscious irony? But that is asking for too much. And his awestruck “postcolonial” critics predictably rush to his defense against the “Islamic bigots.”
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 undefeatable 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.
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. A day of protests was held in Pakistan, whose government protested that “Britain had acted against the spirit of UN resolution 1624.” And 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 political theater have carefully read Tariq Ali‘s The Clash of Fundamentalisms and decided to play it out as farce.
I think, though, 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 Ahmadinejad 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 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 splendid lot of leaders America has produced! The ruling party turns a deaf ear to the rumblings of last year’s elections, while the so-called opposition party ignores its own voters and agrees to continue to fund the war.
And the media, in the meantime, continue to serve up some excuse or other to conjure up — lest we forget — the threat of the “Oriental Other.” L’Affaire de Rushdie, Part Deux, is simply the latest.
Ganesh Lal’s blog can be read at leftyprof.blogspot.com.