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The Free-Speech Struggle That Became a Matter of Muslim Religious Choice : Literature: Through the "Satanic Verses" controversy, Salman Rushdie has, paradoxically, promoted a new understanding of Islam.

January 06, 1991|Jack Miles | Jack Miles, The Times' book editor, currently on leave, is author of "The Novelist as Blasphemer," an essay on "The Satanic Verses" controversy in the collection "The Perils of Pluralism" (Gould Center, Claremont McKenna College)

British novelist Salman Rushdie, a professed unbeliever, has become a Muslim in order to present himself to the world as a repentant Muslim. Such is the strange but unmistakable logic of his signed statement of Dec. 24, 1990, to a group of Islamic scholars.

The four-part statement begins with a clause that has nothing to do with "The Satanic Verses," the novel for which Rushdie was sentenced to death by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini:

"1. To witness that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his last prophet."

These are the words of the shahada , Islam's profession of faith. It is by reciting them that an infidel "submits" and becomes a Muslim.

Until recently, Rushdie had stoutly refused to submit, maintaining that he was not a Muslim and, therefore, the laws of Islam did not apply to him. Last February, in the London Independent, he wrote: "It feels bizarre, and wholly inappropriate, to be described as some sort of heretic, after having lived my life as a secular, pluralist, eclectic man . . . . I do not accept the charge of blasphemy because, as somebody says in 'The Satanic Verses,' 'where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy.' I do not accept the charge of apostasy, because I have never in my adult life affirmed any belief, and what one has not affirmed one cannot be said to have apostasized from."

Muslims who for their own reasons wanted to resolve the Rushdie affair were stymied. They could not rehabilitate a man who kept insisting that he was in no need of rehabilitation.

The most important among these compromise-seeking Muslims seems to have been President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. In February, 1989, Mubarak--risking his life in a country whose last president was slain by Muslim fanatics--denounced Khomeini's death decree, though he still had to allow the banning of "The Satanic Verses" in his country. Even so, it seems, Mubarak has persuaded Rushdie to say--in words that no Muslim will miss even if some Westerners might--"I am a Muslim." At a time when the Egyptian president has aligned himself against Saddam Hussein, an erstwhile secularist now portraying himself as a champion of Islam, the Rushdie affair is an irritant that Mubarak would happily eliminate.

Has any harm been done?

Henri IV of France, a Protestant who changed his religion to inherit the throne, said, "Paris vaut une Messe "; "Paris is worth a Mass"--even if you're not really a Catholic. As the "secular, pluralist, eclectic" and thoroughly Western man he is, Rushdie belongs to a culture where people are forever changing, joining, quitting, half-embracing, half-renouncing one religion or another. If there is any man in the West to whom the full, sloppy measure of this freedom ought to be allowed, it is he.

The second part of Rushdie's statement is more redeployment than retreat:

"2. To declare that I do not agree with any statement in my novel 'The Satanic Verses' uttered by any of the characters who insults the prophet Mohammed, or casts aspersions upon Islam, or upon the authenticity of the holy Koran, or who rejects the divinity of Allah."

Rushdie's tone may be conciliatory, but the sentence need mean nothing more than "The Satanic Verses" is a novel. If by this contritely worded act of non-contrition, Rushdie can deprive Hussein of a propaganda weapon and patch up his own relations with at least the Sunni majority of the world's Muslims, who will say him nay?

Yet, there is something more to be said.

In the February, 1990, newspaper article, Rushdie also wrote: "To those participants in the controversy who have felt able to justify the most extreme Muslim threats towards me and others by saying that I have broken an Islamic rule, I would ask the following question: Are all the rules laid down at a religion's origin immutable forever? . . . Let no one suppose that such disputes about rules do not take place daily throughout the Muslim world."

The orthodox view is that because Mohammed was the last prophet of Allah, Muslim rules are indeed immutable. As for Rushdie, what he has come to represent is one mutation in particular: the new possibility that a Muslim might, publicly and with impunity, become an ex-Muslim. As a uniquely public ex-Muslim, perhaps the first such public ex-Muslim in history, Rushdie both suggested and, in some sense, opened that possibility to the billion souls whom Islam counts as irrevocably its own.

We are talking about the right to convert and the right to drop out, both of which are as integral to the Western understanding of religious freedom as they are foreign to the Muslim understanding of religious tolerance. Muslim tolerance means, in general, that born Christians and born Jews are free not to convert to Islam. It does not mean that born Muslims are free to convert to either Christianity or Judaism, much less to any other religion.

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