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Sir Salman’s Suicide Bombers

Rushdie's cabbies

Toward the beginning of Salman Rushdie’s “Fury,” his next-to-latest novel—written, it should be noted, months before the 9/11 attacks—a New York City cabbie is taking the book’s narrator up Tenth Avenue . He explodes: “ ‘Islam will cleanse this street of godless motherfucker bad drivers,’ the taxi driver screamed at rival motorists. ‘Islam will purify this whole city of Jew pimp assholes like you and your whore roadhog of a Jew wife too.’ All the way up Tenth Avenue the curses continued. ‘Infidel fucker of your underage sister, the inferno of Allah awaits you and your unholy wreck of a motorcar as well.’ ‘Unclean offspring of a shit-eating pig, try that again and the victorious jihad will crush your balls in its unforgiving fist.’ ” And on the cabbie goes in his “village-accented Urdu,” not knowing that his passenger speaks the language. “Fury” wasn’t the best of Rushdie novels, but this scene is among the best of Rushdie scenes, and not just for its prescient nature. Rushdie has always been able to expose raw the duplicity of fanatical piety, its single-edged stupidity and easy madness.

The Pakistani Parliament was full of those legislators-turned cabbie on Monday. Rushdie would have had a ball letting their quotes rip. The legislators are upset that Britain has knighted Rushdie. So the parliament passed a resolution condemning the act and asking the crown to have the knighthood retracted. “This house strongly condemns the title of Sir awarded to Salman Rushdie,” the Hindu of India quotes the minister for Parliamentary affairs as saying. The minister’s name is entirely Rushdiesque for both evoking Gengis Khan and rhyming with “Nazi”: Sher Afgan Khan Niazi.

It wasn’t the worst of the Pakistani parliament’s imitation of the crabby cabbie. Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, a minister in the Pakistani government—and the son of Zia ul-Haq, one of Pakistan’s military dictators (that one died in a plane crash in 1988)—had this to say: “If somebody has to attack by strapping bombs to his body to protect the honor of the Prophet then it is justified.” To make sure the point got across, he said it again: “If someone blows himself up he will consider himself justified. How can we fight terrorism when those who commit blasphemy are rewarded by the West?” He must have his own Pakistan in mind: Pakistan has been committing foreign-policy blasphemy since 2001, accommodating al-Qaeda and the Taliban in its western provinces while pocketing $10 billion in American “aid,” most of it military: a reward for pimping terror, if not outsourcing it. Then again in “Fury,” when the narrator asks the cab driver to tone down his blue language (“Some customers might be offended. Even those who don’t understand.”) the cab driver looks at him blankly: “I, sir? Swearing, sir? When? […] It means nothing, sahib. Me, I don’t even go to the mosque. God bless America, okay? It’s just words.”

Isn’t that, incidentally, what we’ve been saying about “The Satanic Verses” all along? The difference being that the words uttered by the likes of that cabbie and his cohorts in the Pakistani parliament, and their cohorts in Pakistan’s western provinces and those beyond, are the sort of words that fuel planes smashing into buildings and pack explosives around idiots’ belts for the glorious defense of the prophet, blessed be his name.

None of this should be interpreted as a defense of Rushdie’s own late 1990s conversion (albeit a conversion not nearly as rabid as that of a few other liberals like, say, Christopher Hitchens). As Priyamvada Gopal argues in the Guardian, he was once the anti-establishment’s apostle-in-chief. “Sir Salman, on the other hand, is partly the creation of the fatwa that played its role in strengthening the self-fulfilling ‘clash of civilisations’ that both Bush and Osama bin Laden find so handy.” Gopal goes on:

Driven underground and into despair by zealotry, Rushdie finally emerged blinking into New York sunshine shortly before the towers came tumbling down. Those formidable literary powers would now be deployed not against, but in the service of, an American regime that had declared its own fundamentalist monopoly on the meanings of "freedom" and "liberation". The Sir Salman recognised for his services to literature is certainly no neocon but is iconic of a more pernicous trend: liberal literati who have assented to the notion that humane values, tolerance and freedom are fundamentally western ideas that have to be defended as such.

But let’s also be clear. In the case of his knighthood’s reverberations in Pakistan and, we must presume, the rest of the Islamic world, Rushdie’s politics are neither here—in the stupidity of neocon rhetoric—nor there—in the fanaticism of the Pakistani parliament. He should not have to defend them, justify them, retract them. Rushdie has been out of hiding for several years, dating back to the 1988 fatwa against him by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who didn’t quite appreciate “The Satanic Verses.” Khomeini is dead. Rusdhie is still under police protection. His cops must be thankful: they’re about to get double time, although what cop could ever stop a suicide bomber?

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