|Kicking the prison door
The Islamic world today is being held prisoner, not by Western but by Islamic
By Salman Rushdie
November 29, 2002
New York Times
It's been quite a week in the wonderful world of Islam.
Nigerian Islam's encounter with that powerhouse of subversion, the Miss World contest,
has been unedifying, to put it mildly. First some of the contestants had the nerve
to object to a Shariah court's sentence that a Nigerian woman convicted of adultery
be stoned to death and threatened to boycott the contest -- which forced the Nigerian
authorities to promise that the woman in question would not be subjected to the lethal
hail of rocks. And then Isioma Daniel, a Christian Nigerian journalist, had the effrontery
to suggest that if the prophet Muhammad were around today, he might have wanted to
marry one of these swimsuit hussies himself.
Well, obviously, that was going too far. True-believing Nigerian Muslims then set
about the holy task of killing, looting and burning while calling for Ms. Daniel
to be beheaded, and who could blame them? Not the president of Nigeria, who put the
blame squarely on the shoulders of the hapless journalist. (Germaine Greer and other
British-based feminists, unhappy about Miss World's decision to move the event to
London, preferred to grouse about the beauty contest. The notion that the killers,
looters and burners should be held accountable seems to have escaped notice.)
Meanwhile, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hashem Aghajari, a person with impeccable
Islamist credentials -- a leg lost in battle and a resume that includes being part
of the occupying force that seized the Great Satan's Tehran embassy back in the revolution's
salad days -- languishes under a sentence of death imposed because he criticized
the mullahs who run the country.
In Iran, you don't even have to have cheeky thoughts about the prophet to be worthy
of being killed. The hearts of true believers are maddened a lot more easily than
that. Thousands of young people across the country were immature enough to protest
against Mr. Aghajari's sentence, for which the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
duly rebuked them. (More than 10,000 true believers marched through Tehran in support
of hard-line Islam.)
Meanwhile, in Egypt, a hit television series, "Horseman Without a Horse,"
has been offering up antiSemitic programming to a huge, eager audience. That old
forgery, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" -- a document purporting
to prove that there really is a secret Jewish plot to take over the world, and which
was proved long ago to have been faked by Czar Nicholas II's secret police -- is
treated in this drama series as historical fact.
Yes, this is the same Egypt in which the media are rigorously censored to prevent
anything that offends the authorities from seeing the light of day. But hold on just
a moment. Here's the series' star and co-writer, Mohammed Sobhi, telling us that
what is at stake is nothing less than free speech itself, and if his lying show "terrified
Zionists," well, tough. He'll make more programs in the same vein. Now there's
a gutsy guy.
Finally, let's not forget the horrifying story of the Dutch Muslim woman, Ayaan Hirsi
Ali, who has had to flee the Netherlands because she said that Muslim men oppressed
Muslim women, a vile idea that so outraged Muslim men that they issued death threats
Is it unfair to bunch all these different uglinesses together? Perhaps. But they
do have something in common. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was accused of being "the Dutch
Salman Rushdie," Mr. Aghajari of being the Iranian version, Isioma Daniel of
being the Nigerian incarnation of the same demon.
A couple of months ago I said that I detested the sloganization of my name by Islamists
around the world. I'm beginning to rethink that position. Maybe it's not so bad to
be a Rushdie among other "Rushdies." For the most part I'm comfortable
with, and often even proud of, the company I'm in.
Where, after all, is the Muslim outrage at these events? As their ancient, deeply
civilized culture of love, art and philosophical reflection is hijacked by paranoiacs,
racists, liars, male supremacists, tyrants, fanatics and violence junkies, why are
they not screaming?
At least in Iran the students are demonstrating. But where else in the Muslim world
can one hear the voices of the fair-minded, tolerant Muslim majority deploring what
Nigerian, Egyptian, Arab and Dutch Muslims are doing? Muslims in the West, too, seem
unnaturally silent on these topics. If you're yelling, we can't hear you.
If the moderate voices of Islam cannot or will not insist on the modernization of
their culture -- and of their faith as well -- then it may be these so-called "Rushdies"
who have to do it for them. For every such individual who is vilified and oppressed,
two more, ten more, a thousand more will spring up. They will spring up because you
can't keep people's minds, feelings and needs in jail forever, no matter how brutal
The Islamic world today is being held prisoner, not by Western but by Islamic captors,
who are fighting to keep closed a world that a badly outnumbered few are trying to
open. As long as the majority remains silent, this will be a tough war to win. But
in the end, or so we must hope, someone will kick down that prison door.
Salman Rushdie is author of "Satanic Verses" and most recently,
of "Step Across This Line." This article was originally published
in the November 27, 2002 issue of The New York Times: No
More Fanaticism as Usual
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