Friday, August 25, 2006

Salman Rushdie and me

There is an interesting web exclusive essay on Britain’s apparently latest homegrown terror plot by Foreign Policy editor James G. Forsyth recalling January 14, 1989, when "following the public burning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in the northern city of Bradford, the country’s largest bookseller withdrew the book from public view in that city." To Forsyth, that signaled that "the British authorities...would abandon liberal values for the false promise of the quiet life. That decision has resulted in a situation where British citizens blow themselves up on buses and subways, plot to take down passenger jets, and young British Muslims believe in surprising numbers (31 percent, according to the most recent poll) that their country’s foreign policy justifies terror attacks."

Even as an author and a liberal intellectual (one who emphasizes freedom of thought, individual rights, rule of law, a market economy and free private enterprise and a transparent, accountable form of government), that seems like a bit of a stretch to me. But as someone who has also confronted the ugly face of intolerance and ignorance when communicating information and ideas that a noisy minority have a vested interest (often economic) in not hearing, I find myself in full agreement with Forsyth's contention that "the mob in Bradford...had every right to do what they wanted with their purchased copies, but no right to intimidate bookshops into pulling it from their shelves. Nor should the police have helped persuade bookstores to give in to this pressure."

If there is one thing that has been striking to those of us on the genuine liberal side of the debate on countries like Haiti, it is the illiberal, intransient and anti-free speech approach adopted by some of our opponents. It is a thread that runs through the attempt to squelch a full and honest discussion of the record of the 2001-2004 Aristide government in Haiti, through the silence of some quarters of the left of the suffering Iraqi people before Bush's ill-considered 2003 invasion, and through the perverse denial of the nature of Serbian atrocities during the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts and beyond. In fact, from this week's edition of the online publication The Morning News, which a friend of mine forwarded me, is an interview with the journalist and author Sebastian Junger that spoke eloquently, more eloquently than I would have guessed, to this irony.

"I was in college in the early '80s and I am a liberal politically and Central America was the big leftist cause—human rights, bring peace to El Salvador—that shaped me in some ways [and] was the point of my journalism," Junger tells TMN Contributing Writer Robert Birnbaum "I sort of continue with that idea. And very interestingly, when you get into the '90s, the intervention Clinton led into Bosnia to stop the genocide and into Kosovo to stop the horrors, those were in keeping with liberal ideas of human rights and justice and democracy, and they were denounced by the left, and what I realized was that there is some element of the left that hates the U.S. military more than they love human rights. And that to me—and I am speaking about my own party which I love, and want to change for the good—that to me is an inherent failing of the left. That they are still stuck in a Vietnam-era view of the military. ''

And, I would add, that for some, hatred of the Bush administration and what they perceive, sometimes rightly, as its imperial intentions, often steamrolls any accurate assessment of what is in fact happening on the ground in poor countries, refusing to take into account the motivations and documented histories of individual actors there in a one-size-fits-all charge often lead by desk-bound academics, professional activists of wealthy means or the black sheep of elite families trying to assuage their guilty consciences by adopting a radical chic pose. As in Haiti, in many countries, the most strident commentary comes from those who have spent very little time on the ground, and have not had a great deal of opportunity to interact with people on an everyday level. Poor people are pawns, objects and political talking points, not flesh-and-blood human beings. It reminds me of a passage by the Dutch writer Stephen Ellis in his excellent book about Liberia, "The Mask of Anarchy" where Ellis wrote thusly, describing the incredulity that some ascribed to accounts of Liberia's civil war:

"While descriptions (of the civil war) are routinely dismissed as sensational journalism by high-minded academics, it would be foolish simply to scoff at the opinions of correspondents who glean their impressions at first hand. Journalists acquire detailed knowledge, and an appreciation for the flavor of events, which can escape distant observers."

Salman Rushdie was the speaker at my graduation from Bard College in upstate New York in the spring of 1996. During what was an address far more memorable and powerful than most of the usual "road-less-traveled" bromides, Rushdie talked about his time in seclusion, with some humor, and at the demands for adherence to this or that hierarchy that had been made of him throughout his life.

"It is men and women who have made the world, and they have made it in spite of their gods," he said on what was a brilliant spring day, now over a decade ago. "The message of the myths is not the one the gods would have us learn - that we should behave ourselves and know our place - but its exact opposite. It is that we must be guided by our natures."

"Do not bow your heads," Rushdie said. "Do not know your place. Defy the gods. You will be astonished how many of them turn out to have feet of clay. Be guided, if possible, by your better natures."

As Rushdie finished speaking there was great applause and I looked to the side to see my friend, fellow graduate, committed Muslim and future Afghani Minister of Transportation Enayatullah Qasimi. "Yat," as I was knew him, was none too pleased with Rushdie's appearance and, as a result, opted to sit on his hands and not rise or clap at the end of the address, as was his right. Never for a minute, though, did he suggest that Rushdie should not be heard or that those who might hold a different opinion should be silenced by means violent or venal. His was a protest, like Rushdie's, out of conviction, not pose. It is up to those of us with a genuine liberal agenda for the world - of free speech, human rights, an equitable economic system and accountable and transparent government - to continue agitating and writing, both in our own countries and abroad, not only because it is our right but because it is our responsibility. We owe our friends in countries like Haiti no less.

Do not bow your heads.

3 comments:

Sutton said...

I thought you might like what Junger said there. I too was surprised to find him a little more insightful in that interview than I would have expected, much as I enjoyed Perfect Storm.

Antonia said...

amen, do not bow .. . but all little ones beware, when you do not, there are those who once loved you who will rise up against you.

i loved that speech, remember hearing it as if it where yesterdays promise. it was that day i learned to never be surprised by the most unexpected things. ... amen

Simon said...

I grew up in the next town to Bradford and was at high school during the events related to in your post. I remember the time dimly, but even so.... I think that in all likelihood Forsyth is reviewing events with the distinct benefit of hindsight. To wit, two things: first, that the extreme reaction among some Muslims in Bradford was not properly understood at the time. The primary concerns of the day were with the end of the Cold War and the legacy of a decade of Thatcherism. The North of England was hit very hard economically; Bradford's textile manufacturing especially so. I suspect that the protests were viewed through a prism which excluded any link with global Islamism. Second, the decision by the main bookseller to remove the Satanic Verses from view (but from sale as well?) seems to me a prudent step taken to protect employees from verbal or physical abuse. Certainly, as viewed from the context of the here and now, it can be viewed as a pusillanimous refusal to defend the precepts of free speech against the tyranny of a vocal minority, but in 1989 which manager of the local Waterstones could be blamed for seeing the situation differently?

Yet still, the context of today's radical Muslims can be seen, in part, in the circumstances of economic deprivation that places like Bradford, Leeds, and Dewsbury have suffered from the 1980s onwards. If the reaction to the Satanic Verses in Bradford tells us anything, it tells that the voices of extremism were present in the poor Muslim communities nearly a generation ago. It is no coincidence that the 7/7 bombers and now those detained for the recent failed airline bombings are aged between seventeen and thirty.

Nice content Michael. I'll add you to my roll.