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Against The Orthodoxies

It is not only a “case,” but a man and a book. Salman Rushdie has suffered unconscionably as a human being. In hiding for four years, he has lost his personal life and all personal tranquility. Forced constantly to move, unable to be with family and friends, he has been a hunted man, ironically in full view of the world for whom the dreaded Iranian fatwa – as vengefully obdurate as it had been stupidly murderous in intent – has been an occasional item in the news.

But we must also remember the book itself, The Satanic Verses, an epic of migration, stability and volatility, it challenges all conceptions of fixed identity with a wit and originality that appreciate in time. Why do readers find it hard to accept its energy? Because it overturns not just religious orthodoxies, but national and cultural ones as well. The Satanic Verses is a great novel and a great challenge to settled habits, to lazy authority, to unthinking unconscious assent. Were it the loathsome curse against Islam that it is portrayed as being, readers could set it aside and ignore it. It is attractive, engaging, funny: it offers not a dour, unsmiling sermon, but a riotous carnival and is much more humane than a counter doctrine or new dogma. So, the author is the book.

Lastly, Salman Rushdie is a cause for writers as well as ordinary men and women who live in the formerly colonized world, in Islamic or Arab countries, and in many other parts of the Third World.

Rushdie is everyone who dares to speak out against power, to say that we are entitled to think and express forbidden thoughts, to argue for democracy and freedom of opinion. The time has come for those of us who come from his part of the world to say that we are against this fatwa and all fatwas that silence, beat, imprison or intimidate people and ban, burn or anathematize books. Rushdie, his books, and his life stand at the frontier where tyranny dares to pronounce and exact its appalling decrees. His case is not really offense to Islam, but a spur to go on struggling for democracy that has been denied us, and the courage not to stop. Rushdie is the intifada of the imagination.

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