When I met Salman Rushdie, in Paris, not long after the death sentence pronounced against him by the dictator of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989, his reaction surprised me. I will never forget it. Far from being frightened by this “fatwa,” which called on any good Muslim to assassinate him, with paradise as a reward, Rushdie told me that he would henceforth have to redouble his consumption of champagne, spend his evenings in nightclubs, and chase after tall blonds. In sum, partying seemed to him the most appropriate response to the obscene obscurantism of the ayatollahs. He more or less kept his word, up until the recent assassination attempt in Chautauqua, New York, by a young American of Lebanese origin and Shiite religion. That’s Rushdie for you: a player, in life as in literature. His books are funny and impertinent; in any case, neither Khomeini nor the would-be assassin has ever read a word of Rushdie. The fatwa befell Rushdie because of this very impertinence toward all authority, spiritual or temporal.
What is the relationship between Rushdie, Khomeini’s fatwa, and the recent attack? None, or little. For Rushdie, the life of Muhammad and the Koran are sources of literary inspiration, along with the Gospels, Buddhism, and Don Quixote—so many characters with which his work plays, without the slightest concern for realism, or for judgment, or for preaching. Khomeini had no idea what literature is, or what a novelist is. The Lebanese-American assassin is no less ignorant, having no other source of knowledge than Facebook and other social networks.
Was Khomeini’s motivation religious? There is reason to doubt it, given his ignorance of the text that was the basis of the fatwa. His action was, in reality, political. He was hoping at that time to establish himself as the undisputed leader of the reconstituted Persian empire and, beyond that, of Islam as a whole. From the perspective of this concern for power, Rushdie was the ideal target: he was of Muslim origin, but Sunni, not Shiite, and an atheist adulated in the West. The title of the incriminating work, The Satanic Verses, was scandalous enough to stir popular hysteria. The fatwa must thus be understood within the context of the double war for influence: the Muslim world versus the West, and Shia versus Sunni Islam—a twofold religious war, more political than spiritual, with Rushdie caught between the pincers, a circumstantial target.
We in the West have fallen into Khomeini’s trap by paying insufficient attention to the battles internal to the Muslim world, granting the fatwa a value that it did not deserve and promoting the ayatollah to a preeminence that he had not at the time attained. The publicity that the West accorded this fatwa contributed enormously to the growing misunderstanding between the West and Islam: today, for most in the West, Islam is a religion of hatred and intolerance. This prejudice has been reinforced by subsequent attacks committed “in the name of Islam.”
What have we learned about Islam in the period between this fatwa and the assassination attempt on Rushdie? Nothing. Who in the West knows the difference between Shiites (mostly Iranians) and Sunnis (Arabs as well as non-Arabs)? Few, not even the American soldiers, most of whom, while invading Iraq, were ignorant of this basic religious difference. If one were to sum up, in a provocative but illuminating aphorism, what we need to know about Islam, one would turn to the great Algerian Islamic scholar, Mohammed Arkoun: “Islam does not exist. There are only Muslims.” Every Muslim can enter into a relationship with God by the intermediary of the Koran. Apart from the Shiite minority, no clergy exists in Islam. The Sunni religion, which represents 90 percent of practicing Muslims, might be compared with Protestantism in its infinite variety and its lack of hierarchy and of a necessary clergy. Only Shiite Islam, which is a kind of national Persian Church, is theocratic.
It follows that Islam takes on the character of those who practice it. If there are as many versions of Islam as there is diversity among Muslims, it is because all interpret the Koran in the light of their own culture. Between a Moroccan and a Javanese Muslim, the difference is even greater than between a Brazilian Pentecostal and a Swiss Lutheran. The misfortune that has befallen Muslims—and Rushdie, as a result—is the emergence of an Islam of the Internet, a collection of hateful slogans, severed from all study of the Koran and deracinated from all culture. The Muslims who are dangerous, for other Muslims (who make up the majority of their victims) as well as for Westerners, are above all the ignorant Muslims, the dregs of the Internet subculture. The right response to the attack on Rushdie would be to invite Muslims and non-Muslims to learn more about Islam—a pious wish. Let us realize, at least, that Rushdie is less a victim of Islam itself than of ignorance of it.
Photo by Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images