Last Saturday, author Salmon Rushdie was created a knight of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen's birthday honors list -- the last honors list of Tony Blair's premiership. Unsurprisingly, this move has sparked a furor in the Muslim world.
In Islamabad, Pakistan's parliament backed a government-sponsored initiative demanding an apology and the withdrawal of Rushdie's honor, and the director for Western Europe of the Pakistani foreign ministry denounced the honor as "an insulting, suspicious and improper act." In turn, Britain's representative expressed deep concern over a reported statement by Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, Pakistan's religious affairs minister, who was quoted as saying "if someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so, unless the British government apologises and withdraws the 'sir' title." The minister then claimed that he was merely stating that suicide bombers might take this as a provocation.
And, in Tehran, the first deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament called Rushdie a "hated corpse" and a fundamentalist newspaper referred to the Queen an "old crone." Also in Tehran, a group called The Organization to Commemorate the Martyrs of the Muslim Word declared that an 80,000 pound reward should be paid to the man who executes the apostate Rushdie.
There were also protests in Iran which disrupted the diplomatic party at the British embassy celebrating the Queen's birthday. Apparently, while the epithet of the "Great Satan" is reserved for the United States, many Iranians believe that Britain, the wily "little devil", is always behind the curtain pulling the strings and manipulating events in Iran.
In Britain, the first Muslim elevated to the House of Peers, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, criticised the government's decision to honor Rushdie as "provocative" given Rushdie's offensive language aimed not only against Islam but also against Christianity and Margaret Thatcher. Lord Ahmed claimed that Rushdie has blood on his hands given the violence his writings sparked and that honoring him will set back the government's attempts to reach out to Muslim Britons. In Rushdie's stead, Ahmed suggested the Queen might have honored Harry Potter author J.K. Rowlings -- I sort of can't tell whether this was a serious proposition or whether he meant it like even she would have been a better choice.
Apparently, back in the day, Rushdie had a lot of enemies among British conservatives who saw him as ungrateful and disrespectful towards their society's institutions. Yet his knighthood is now lauded by younger conservatives who supported the war in Iraq and who view troubles between the West and the Muslim world as a clash of civilizations. Meanwhile, Rushdie's friends in the literary world such as God is not Great author, Christopher Hitchens, welcomed his knighthood not only as a celebration of his accomplishments as an author but also as a vindication of free speech.
Sir Salmam's wife is ex-model/actress Padma Laksmi who is best known to peeps like me as the hostess of Bravo's competitive reality show Top Chef. Earlier this year, old rumors resurfaced that Salman and Padma's marriage was on the rocks. For some reason people just don't believe that these two crazy kids have anything in common! Four years ago they even issued a statement denying that Padma found the old man "boring" or that he didn't think she was intellectually stimulating enough.
Check out Padma's huge scar in the photo. I read this article Padma wrote for Vogue in April 2001 in which she explains that the scar was the result of a car accident she was in when she was fourteen. It's actually a really sweet article in which she explains how she became a famous model despite of her scar, and how it helped her come to terms with her imperfection.
Also, rumor has it that Padma smokes the ganja on the set of Top Chef before judging the cheftestants offerings. If you've ever watched the show, it totally seems like she is high all the time. She just seems out of it, and half the time she is dressed up in some ridiculous get up. I like to imagine her smoking a doobie on set and saying "You think anti-drug laws intimidate me? My husband has a price on his head!"
So, anyway, everybody knows that the Muslim world's beef with Rushdie stems from his 1988 novel the Satanic Verses: in 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Rushdie to be assassinated, and in 1991 the novel's Japanese translator was stabbed to death and the Italian translator was seriously wounded. But who really knows what this book is all about? Mr. Wikipedia does: the novel is about two expatriate Indian actors of Muslim descent who go back to visit the land of their birth. On their return flight to Britain, as they are crossing the English Channel, the plane explodes during a hijacking. The actors are the only survivors who somehow float down to shore unharmed. When they land one has been transformed into the Archangel Gibreel (i.e. Gabriel) while the other has morphed into the devil -- or something like that. Within the framing story the novel also contains dream visions, one of which portrays the life of Muhammad. This section is responsible for most of the alleged blasphemy.
Kind of weird... I think it sounds like it could be genuinely interesting. But then, much as I do with the works of Jim Crace whose Being Dead is about two decaying bodies and whose Quarantine is about Jesus starving to death during his 40 days in the desert, I wonder whether the Satanic Verses might not in actuality be a dull and drawn out cerebral work. But I guess I plan on checking it out someday.
More so than the novel, I'm fascinated with the story of the actual "satanic verses" which inspired the novel's title. These are verses which were interpolated in some early versions of the Quran but which were later excised by Muslim editors. At the beginning of his teachings, Muhammad's monotheistic message condemning the traditional gods caused his followers to be persecuted by the pagans of Mecca. Thus eighty-three of his disciples went into exile in Christian Ethiopia. In an attempt to convert the Meccans, Muhammad recited before a crowd of believers and nonbelievers the 53 chapter (or sura) of the Quran ("By the star when it setteth") which had been revealed to him by the Archangel Gabriel. Yet, according to the story found in a few early Muslim documents, Satan tempted Muhammad to insert a couple of verses in the middle of the sura.
19 Have ye seen Lat and 'Uzza
20 And another, the third (goddess), Manat?
These are the elevated cranes
truly their intercession is dearly hoped for
21 What for you the male sex, and for Him, the female (as offspring)?
22 Behold, such would be indeed a division most unfair!
Lat, 'Uzza and Manat were Meccan goddesses and with the insertion of Satan's verses the message becomes ambiguous and can be interpreted as praising the goddesses. Everyone who heard Muhammad's sermon prostrated themselves, and when word spread that Muhammad was reconciling Islam with their traditional faith the persecutions of Muslims ceased and the exiled believers returned to Mecca.
The Archangel Gabriel was none too pleased with this ad-libbing, yet he told Muhammad to take heart and revealed a verse stating that all God's prophets had at one point been subject to the temptations of Satan but that in the end God removes the words of Satan and confirms His message. Thus Muhammad went on to renounce his previous, ambiguous praise of the Meccan gods and the persecutions resumed.
Most Islamic scholars reject this story as a medieval legend and some of their arguments against the verses' authenticity are rather persuasive. If it were true that Satan once put words in Muhammad's mouth this might throw the infallibility of the prophet's revelations into question. Yet Western academians tend to believe there must be something behind this account. Many Western scholars regard this account as historically based because they believe it unlikely that Muslims would fabricate this story that casts the prophet in an unfavorable light. Uri Rubin suggests that the story heightens the drama in this portion of the Quran and that it helps create parallels between Muhammad and previous religious figures who were tempted by Satan (cf. the Last Temptation of Christ).
Apparently, the retelling of this incident in Rushdie's novel plays up the sexual element inherent in the fact that the deities Muhammad praised were female: thus it's a small wonder that Muslims took offense.
Photo of Salman and Padma taken from thisislondon.co.uk, image of the Satanic Verses is the cover of the 2006 Vintage paperback cover. Quote from the Quran taken from the Yusuf Ali translation.