The Power Of Description


These days, Muslims are always under pressure, whether explicit or implicit, to demonstrate that they are not fire-breathing religious fanatics. So, this might help to boost my credentials as a "trustworthy Muslim": I once came face to face with Salman Rushdie and utterly failed to strangle him to death with my bare hands.

Rushdie was still in hiding at the time, but you don’t exactly need to monitor MI5 communications to figure out that when a London bookstore advertises an event to celebrate the "Booker of Bookers" and the place is swarming with cops for 48 hours beforehand — that well, they probably aren’t there to protect Penelope Fitzgerald.

I was working as a live-in help on Kensington High Street at the time, so when I noticed the security lockdown around Waterstone’s, I disguised myself as an innocent young booklover, and bought a ticket.

I’m sure that both Rushdie and the Ayatollah Khomeini would be horrified to hear me say it, but reading Rushdie’s novels as a teenager is a large part of the reason why I now identify as Muslim. At 14, I adored his books with what you could call an almost religious fervour. I carried Midnight’s Children in my schoolbag at all times and wrote about it for every possible English assignment — including one on science fiction.

I was captivated, of course, by Rushdie’s dazzling prose, but beyond this, he gave words to the experience of plurality and multiplicity, and to the way people "leak into one another", like flavours in chutney. Rushdie explored the possibilities of hybridity, and growing up as a hybrid myself, in a Queensland country town where hybridity was seen as untrustworthy, his writing helped me to make sense of the world.

I still find myself remembering images from Rushdie’s writing as I try to come to terms with the times that we live in. In considering the representations of Muslims in public discourse, I think of the scene in The Satanic Verses where a group of black and Asian migrants find themselves mysteriously transmogrified into beasts: a goat, a half-man half-tiger manticore, a snake. The manticore explains these terms, "They describe us. That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct".

These days, Rushdie himself exercises a certain power of description over Muslims, and I don’t always agree with the pictures he constructs. Muslims in our post 9/11 world are being described by all sorts of people, and it is becoming more and more difficult to resist succumbing to the pictures constructed. One of the more benign examples of this is the way that people who were once labelled "Asians" or "Pakis" or "Lebs" are now described first and foremost as Muslims — and we are indeed being transformed by that act of description. As others identify us as Muslims, so we come to identify ourselves.

Looking back from a distance of 20 years, the furore over The Satanic Verses was a precursor to later events. Most obviously, it was the first in a series of controversies over "free speech" in which Islam has been seen to represent medieval intolerance, with the West representing the Enlightenment. From the Danish cartoons and the murder of Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands, to a high profile religious vilification case here in Australia in which the Islamic Council of Victoria sued a Christian organisation, Catch the Fire Ministries, under newly introduced legislation, the debates feel like Groundhog Day, even if the characters and locations vary.

As if to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rushdie fatwa, a series of such skirmishes have broken out over the past fortnight.

The far rightwing Dutch MP Geert Wilders, who has referred to Islam as "the ideology of a retarded culture", was refused entry to the United Kingdom on the grounds that his opinions "threaten community harmony and therefore public safety". His calls for "free speech" were somewhat undermined by his demands that the Koran be banned.

Still in the UK, Johann Hari wrote an opinion piece about Islam for The Independent under the headline "Why Should I Respect These Oppressive Religions?". When the article was republished by an Indian newspaper, violent demonstrations broke out in Kolkatta and the editor was arrested for "hurting the religious feelings of Muslims".

And a new play by Richard Bean at Britain’s National Theatre entitled England People Very Nice attracted criticism for being "racist and offensive" in its depiction of the spectrum of immigrants who have settled in the East End over the centuries.

The battlelines appear to have been drawn between "Western" free speech and Muslim religious repression — yet there is no consensus among either Muslims or Westerners as to where the boundaries of free speech should lie. Do they extend as far as libel? Hate speech? Incitement? Falsely shouting "Fire" in a crowded theatre?

For myself, I’m prepared to extend the boundaries at least as far as The Satanic Verses — hence my failure even to attempt a headline-grabbing assassination over wine and cheese in Waterstone’s. Instead, I asked for Rushdie’s autograph and told him how much I loved his books. The expression on his face was more or less the same as the one he later used during his cameo role in Bridget Jones’ Diary, when Bridget asked him the way to the toilet. He didn’t seem frightened at all. Maybe he had faith in his bodyguards — or maybe, unlikely as it seems, I bear a closer resemblance to Renee Zellweger than I do to a hit-woman from a Khomeini-inspired assassination squad.

These days, as I watch the way that the "power of description" is wielded over Muslims, I feel more and more like one of the monsters from The Satanic Verses.

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