PRINT May 1989

At the Limits

The Power of the Text

SALMAN RUSHDIE HAS PUBLISHED, and he has been damned. To be damned now is to be handed a death sentence by a head of state and to have a million-dollar tag on your life. To be damned is to see your own people, Indians and Pakistanis, die in the streets. It is also a kind of damnation to find that your words are remembered only for their doubt and disbelief, and not for their faith and commitment to the cause of racial justice; to the world of the migrant and the exile; to the erasure of simplistic cultural boundaries between Self and Other, East and West, myth and modernity.

The Satanic Verses is losing its complex vision in the blind polarities that now seek to speak for or against a book that turns and twists, sprawls and writhes and will not be stilled in its movement or distilled in its meaning. And in the eye of the storm, it is the voices in medias res, the voices of cultural migration and translation, the voices of textual liminality and marginality, that have been silenced.

They have been muted by abstract and universalist claims to authority on the part of both the fundamentalists and the liberals. But it is precisely the language of universalism that is totally inappropriate in the present situation. We can see this in the fact that the Ayatollah’s death edict, which was said to be in strict adherence with the Koran, has itself produced a range of interpretations from the great mosques of Cairo to the Regent’s Park Mosque in London. What was to have been the last word of Koranic Law—death itself—has been precisely the most problematic issue amongst imams and the heads of Islamic nations, who are questioning the effectivity of such a law in a secular context (how can Koranic law be enacted across national boundaries?).

Equally, on the other side, liberalism has had to accommodate strategically to the fundamentalist threat in order to preserve its “principles.” For example, Geoffrey Howe, the British foreign secretary, willfully misread the book as comparing Britain with Hitler’s Germany, a strategy designed to placate and assure the Iranians that “we” (who is Howe speaking for?) were no less offended than “they.” The fact that part of the offended “we” of which Howe speaks were British Muslims formed no part of the foreign secretary’s thinking. Conservative journalists speculated on the price the state should pay for the protection of these great Western freedoms when they applied to an extravagantly paid author who had been scathingly critical of the police’s poor record on racial discrimination. One celebrated columnist of the London Times pointed out that Mr. Rushdie had a sallow complexion and wispy beard. The author of the book is hidden and silent; the book is printed but often sold secretly under the counter; there is a move in Britain to extend the blasphemy laws as a left-wing antiracist initiative!

What is startling, then, is how close under the skin of all these reactions lies paranoia and racism. It is as if in arguing for the unquestionable authority of one’s culture or faith, one paradoxically loses a sense of oneself in an attempt to mark one’s limits in the creation of a threatening Other. The fundamentalist Iranians seem to be convinced that The Satanic Verses (written by a new-left socialist who has repeatedly supported the Palestinian cause) is an imperialist Zionist plot against Islam. The lower reaches of the British press—and some of its higher echelons, too—who claim to be disturbed by fanaticism and zealotry, and who piously preach the gospel of assimilation, are the same ones who have rarely spoken out against the exclusionary practices of the British state, which has denied many of the rights and needs of its own immigrant, laboring populations.

For those of us who, like Salman Rushdie himself, belong to black or Asian communities, and have worked in various ways for the rights of migrant refugees and ethnic groups, neither liberal universalism nor fundamentalist absolutism represents the values of the multiracial society that we identify with, either as a political ideal or as a social reality. Our experiences in the classroom, in community work, and with the media have made us aware of the problems of the liberal democratic state and its sense of cultural supremacy and historical sovereignty. Having experienced forms of racial and cultural discrimination, and having engaged with its social effects, we can only deplore the anti-Muslim statements and anti-third world sentiments that have emerged in the escalation of international tension. Such political positions are profoundly at odds with Salman Rushdie’s own beliefs and with the causes to which he has dedicated his entire writing life. There can be no accommodation between racist cultural stereotypes and the narrative of The Satanic Verses, which attempts to reveal the hidden injuries of social democratic complacency while unsettling the pieties of Eurocentrism and ethnocentrism. Equally, those of us who have experienced the authoritarian and patriarchal conditions of orthodox communities, of any color or creed, and have witnessed their attempts to stifle dissent and discussion, can never endorse demands for censorship and unquestioned conformity. Such quiescence serves and preserves the traditional hierarchies of power and knowledge. So where do we turn, we who see the limits of liberalism and fear the absolutist demands of fundamentalism?

This is precisely the dilemma of The Satanic Verses. It is Rushdie’s painful and problematic encounter with the most intractable and intimate area of his imaginative life. What the book uniquely reveals is a life lived precariously on the cultural and political margins of modern society. Where once we could believe in the comforts and continuities of tradition, today we must face the responsibilities of cultural translation. In the attempt to mediate between different cultures, languages, and societies, there is always the threat of mistranslation, confusion, and fear.

The Satanic Verses is a postcolonial work that attempts the onerous duty of unraveling this cultural translation. The book is written in a spirit of questioning, doubt, interrogation, and puzzlement that articulates the dilemma of the immigrant, the émigré, the minority. It is by turning back to the social and political experiences of those communities whose historical fate requires them to construct their cultural identities from contesting traditions and imperatives that we shall be able to reevaluate the message of The Satanic Verses. If there were no doubt, no confusion or conflict, would religion or literature have any place in our lives? Would The Satanic Verses have been written at all?

Homi K. Bhabha teaches English literature and literary theory at Sussex University, England. He is the editor of Nation and Narration, 1989, and writes frequently on postcolonial discourse.