Hunted by An Angry Faith

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

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Many Oriental scholars have raised questions about Islam or the actions of the Prophet, but they have generally been ignored, often because they were understood to have a political bias. Rushdie's actions seem somehow more galling to Muslims because, though essentially free of political motivation, he appears to be tampering -- and mischievously, at that -- with the faith. Karim al Rawi, a lecturer at Cairo's American University, maintained that on this occasion Rushdie's propensity for provocation just went too far. Said Al Rawi: "In his other novels," in which Rushdie wrote, often scathingly, of post-independence India and Pakistan, "the writer acted like a little kid poking at a sleeping lion. In The Satanic Verses, the beast has awakened, and this time did not feel like playing." Most Muslims were simply offended by the material. "He attacked the wives of the Prophet," declared Ahmed Baghat, a writer for Cairo's Al Ahram. "He brought disgrace upon them." Said another Egyptian author, Sheik Muhammad Al Ghazaly: "We do not view this as freedom of opinion, but freedom to be insolent."

Having made their case against the book, Islamic authorities divided sharply over how the author should be punished. Georges Sabagh, director of UCLA's Near East Studies Center, took an unyielding line, saying Khomeini was "completely within his rights" in sentencing Rushdie to death. Added Sabagh, taking full advantage of the free speech available to him in California: "If the man is struck by a thunderbolt, all the better." But should Muslims feel they have a right to kill Rushdie? "Why not?" he replied.

On the other hand, Sheik Muhammad Hossam el Din of Cairo's Al Azhar Mosque argued that to execute Rushdie, as ordered by Khomeini, would be "virtually impossible" under the tenets of Islam. His solution: ban and burn the book and give the author a chance to repent. Issuance of a death decree, he went on, "makes Islam seem brutal and bloodthirsty." Many Islamic clerics were offended by Khomeini's pronouncement, regarding it as vengeful and contrary to Islamic teachings of mercy.

Like most of their countrymen, U.S. experts on Islam were astonished by the intensity of the anti-Rushdie campaign. One academic specialist marveled that he could not "recall anything quite as widespread as this," then quickly asked that his name not be used. "I can't afford a bodyguard," he said. Since Islamic fundamentalism has been on the rise for at least 15 years, how can one account for so explosive a reaction at this time, and against a book that could just as easily have been ignored? The answer is as much political as theological. Now that Iran has settled, if not exactly lost, its brutal and murderous war against Iraq, the Rushdie book has become a tool with which Khomeini can once again mobilize his constituency, this time against a conveniently distant enemy whose offenses are vaguely related to the Ayatullah's "Great Satan," the U.S. Says Marvin Zonis, a political scientist at the University of Chicago: "It's a way to make domestic political capital out of a foreign adventure."

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