Hunted by An Angry Faith

Salman Rushdie's novel cracks open a fault line between East and West

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In Britain, Rushdie had no shortage of defenders. A group of writers led by playwright Harold Pinter presented a petition in Rushdie's behalf at No. 10 Downing Street. Author Anthony Burgess, writing in the newspaper the Independent, stated the Western position precisely: "What a secular society thinks of the Prophet Muhammad is its own affair, and reason, apart from law, does not permit aggressive interference of the kind that has brought shame and death to Islamabad," where the rioting took several lives. "If Muslims want to attack the Christian or humanistic vision of Islam contained in our literature," Burgess observed, "they will find more vicious travesties than Mr. Rushdie's."

Others, looking for parallels to the Rushdie case both inside and outside Islam, referred to Muslim resentment of the medieval Christian mystery plays, with their satanic portrayals of the Prophet as "Mahound," the name Rushdie gives his crypto-Prophet. In 1977 a fanatical band of Hanafi Muslims shot their way into three buildings in Washington, took more than 100 hostages and, among other things, tried to halt the showing of a $17 million movie epic called Muhammad, Messenger of God at theaters in New York City and Los Angeles. Though the tone of the movie was reverential, the producers had met endless difficulties in making it, including expulsion of the film crew from Morocco. In 1980 Saudi Arabia vehemently protested a British-American TV "drama documentary" called Death of a Princess, which told the story of the 1977 executions of a young married Saudi princess and her lover. Some Muslims have even objected to Children of Gebelawi, a 30-year-old allegorical novel based on the development of the world's great religions, by Egypt's 1988 Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz.

Last year's furor over the Martin Scorsese motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ demonstrated that Christians, particularly those who believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture, are similarly sensitive about fictional portrayal of the sacred, though their protest generally takes less violent forms. Even secular gods are sometimes held by their followers to be above scrutiny; in earlier times the Kremlin was notoriously thin-skinned about revelations concerning the private lives of Lenin and other members of the Communist pantheon.

Practically nobody, however, has managed to touch the sensitive nerve of a vast section of mankind as effectively as Salman Rushdie. In Bombay seven prominent writers and intellectuals, all non-Muslims, declared in a joint statement, "The pain of scurrilous intrusion into the regions of the sacred is not felt by the so-called fundamentalists only, but is the common experience of the whole, besieged ((Muslim)) minority. While there can be rational opposition to their faith, there should be no outraging of it by obscenity and slander."

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