The Salman Rushdie Controversy
Master List of Paper Topics
Due May 23
The following list is based on topics you suggested, but I have added some of my own and some from earlier lists. The topics have also been revised and edited--to clarify them, to narrow them, and to keep one topic from overlapping too much with others. (Nonetheless, some overlap remains.) In addition to serving as suggestions for your papers, the topics also summarize issues raised in the course. In writing your papers, you will want to rethink the topics and make them your own. Devote the first paragraphs of the paper to restating the topic as you are going to approach it. Your paper ought to concentrate primarily (but not exclusively) on the Rushdie controversy rather than an interpretation of The Satanic Verses. I have added brief discussions of possible sources, but these are suggestions. You need to take responsibility for finding sources. You can write a perfectly good paper using sources in The Rushdie File and the course packet, but there are several good Rushdie bibliographies on the internet, a bibliography in book form by Joel Kuorrti, and an annotated bibliography by M. D. Fletcher in the essay collection Reading Rushdie (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994), including materials specifically on the Satanic Verses controversy.
1. The Authority of the Author. What is the public authority of the imaginative author? Why do we pay attention to what a novelist has to say? Rushdie sharply criticizes contemporary Western society, and he attacks the religious authority of Islam. He may have the right to do so, but what makes his opinions of any more value than anyone else's? Does his authority derive from the imaginative power of the text he has written? Does it derive from the inherent plausibility of what he has to say? Does it derive from his own expertise on the subject? Does it derive from his past experience and stature as an author? Does it derive from the respect in which authors are held by Western culture? Does it derive from other sources? If a combination of factors gives writers such authority, what contribution does each factor make in the case of The Satanic Verses? [Rushdie has a great deal to say about what authors do and where their authority lies in Imaginary Homelands; Todorov and Kundera address the issue in the course packet, as, in a negative way, does Benslama.]
2. Insult and Intention. If Rushdie thought his book might insult Muslims, should he have written it? Was insulting Islam Rushdie's intention? (For that matter, how can we decide what Rushdie’s intentions actually were?) What purpose would such insult serve, and did The Satanic Verses achieve that purpose? Could Rushdie have achieved the same purpose without offending Muslims? If he might have predicted the violent uproar that his book would cause, should he, for that reason, have withheld it? Should Rushdie have been more sensitive towards Muslim faith, and if so, would his sensitivity have made a difference? More generally, should an author publish a book that he or she knows will cause moral, social, or political controversy? [After the fact, Rushdie discusses his intentions in “In Good Faith” (Imaginary Homelands); numerous Muslim writers in File describe the nature and depth of their insult in various ways (see particularly pp. 236-56). Peter Jones takes a philosophical view of the insult issue.]
3. Blasphemy and Belief. Is the charge of blasphemy against Rushdie reasonable? What is blasphemy anyway? (Is there a single definition, and if not, what is the significance of the different definitions?) Based on the definition(s) of blasphemy, can a fictitious book be regarded as blasphemous? Can a nonbeliever be held responsible for blasphemy? Or is the author’s belief irrelevant if a book is published that contains material that believers perceive as blasphemous? Who should decide what is blasphemous? Is Rushdie’s novel blasphemous? If so, does Rushdie’s blasphemy lie in his irreverent treatment of figures from early Islamic history (including Muhammad) or in the serious questions that he raises about the truth of religious revelation? Should blasphemy be protected by freedom of speech, or is respect for the sacredness of religion a higher value than free speech? [Materials relevant to the issue of blasphemy include the essay by Mazrui and other materials from File (for example pp. 185-94 212-36), as well as (from the course packet) Akhtar, Levy (especially), and Jones.
4. Blasphemy and the Law. England's law against blasphemy is limited to offenses against the Church of England. Offenses against other religious groups are not covered. The United States does not have a federal law against blasphemy, but it is illegal in some states. Various alternatives to England's blasphemy law have been considered. Should countries with established religions (England, as well as many Catholic and Islamic countries) have laws protecting their national religions? Should blasphemy protection be extended to all religions? Should blasphemy be eliminated as a state or national offence? Should a law protecting religions from insult (parallel to laws against incitement to racial hatred) substitute for the offense of blasphemy? What are the possible problems of these alternatives? [Materials from File include efforts by Muslims to argue for changes in the law and the interesting argument by Rabbi Jacobovits (pp. 197-99); the legal status of blasphemy is discussed by Levy,]
5. The Fatwa. What was the purpose of the fatwa against Rushdie? Was it totally based on religious considerations? Was it appropriate according to Islamic law? Is it legal according to international law? Is there any justification for extending the fatwa to publishers, translators, and book stores as well as to Rushdie? What considerations of religion, or the moral application of religion, would justify it in the mind of a believer? To what degree was it based on considerations of Iranian or international politics, and to what degree are these separable from religious considerations? How did the fatwa effect the image of Islam? In the long run, did the fatwa help the case against Rushdie’s novel or hurt it? [Most of the material on this topic is collected in File, especially pp. 68-76, 87-97, 202-36; but see also Akhtar, in the course packet.]
6. Banning Books. Under what circumstances should The Satanic Verses or any other literary work be banned? What are the criteria that should determine whether or not a work should be banned? What is the mechanism by which book banning should take place? (Who, in short, decides?) What are the roles of publishers (who do not print most of the manuscripts submitted to them) in the banning of books? Is there a real distinction between banning and the normal rejection of a book by a publisher? What are the relative rights of individual authors on one hand and, on the other, of communities and governments who have been offended by a book, and who should judge and protect those rights?
7. Free Speech and Muslim Culture. Does freedom of speech (a modern, Western concept) merely serve as a veil behind which Rushdie can criticize another faith? If Rushdie's intention is to challenge believers to make changes they do not wish to make, is that purpose served by masking criticism behind the claim that he is just practicing freedom of speech? Does free speech imply no moral or legal obligations? Is freedom of speech inapplicable to Islam because it is a Western concept quite different from Islamic belief in an indisputable text? Does freedom of speech give Rushdie the right to express his anti-religious views regardless of the values of those who might feel insulted by what he says? Is the government (clearly an interested party, in many cases) the appropriate agency to determine what speech is to be protected or to protect those whose speech offends others? [For this question and the previous one, Parekh provides a good summary; Waldron articulates the liberal argument thoughtfully; there is considerable material, on both sides, in File (especially 194-212). Rushdie often returns to issues of free speech in Imaginary Homelands. See also Benslama on free speech and textuality.]
8. Culture Wars. Khomeini claimed that Rushdie’s novel was produced as part of a broad cultural attack by the West on Islam. Is there any sense in which this charge is true (even if Rushdie was writing as an individual author rather than as a paid agent of a western conspiracy)? After all, even Edward Said, in many respects sympathetic to Rushdie, associates the book with orientalism (or anti-Arab prejudice in western literature and scholarship). Is the idea that The Satanic Verses is an element in the culture wars supported by the awards and acclaim with which the book was greeted and by the defense of the book by western writers? On the other side, did such political figures as Rajiv Gandhi and Khomeini use the publication of a controversial novel about Islam simply as an excuse to attack the West and to solidify their own power?
9. Islamic Hostility. What are the sources of Muslim hostility to The Satanic Verses? What is the force of such various factors as the alleged blasphemous or insulting character of his novel itself, the sense that Rushdie, as an Indian and former Muslim, has betrayed his people, the international tensions between East and West, the insecurities of a victimized minority community in Britain? Do any of the factors justify such steps as banning the book or killing the author? Is there, in fact, any legitimate and appropriate recourse available to offended Muslims, and does the apparent difficulty of finding such recourse contribute to the unrest caused by the book? Do the factors creating the hostility help westerners understand the problems of the national and international Islamic community?
10. Racial and Religious Stereotypes. The Satanic Verses is itself about stereotypes of racial and religious groups. Rushdie presents himself as a public opponent of racism and he presents his novel as anti-racist as well. Some critics disagree, claiming that the novel uses and spreads racist stereotypes about West Indians and Asians, especially Pakistanis. But attackers of Rushdie sometimes use racist stereotypes about him, and defenders of Rushdie often use ethnic expressions such as “Muslim barbarism.” The controversy generated by the novel seemed to engage such stereotypes–some paralleling those represented in the novel, others different from them. To what degree does the stereotyping of religious, ethnic, national and cultural groups in the discussion of the novel resemble the stereotyping that the novel itself discusses (and attacks). To what extent is the controversy over The Satanic Verses an exchange of insults and stereotypes rather than a substantial debate? Do the stereotypes on both sides, however regrettable, point to a kind of reality? [Rushdie makes his views of British racism perfectly clear in “The New Empire within Britain” (IH 129-38); writers such as Mazrui and Akhtar indicate Islamic reactions to the novel; Said and Bhabha indicate fears of racism on both sides; Jones considers the (limited) role of ethnic identity; Parekh, who is deputy chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, fairly summarizes various responses.]
11. Literature and Religion. Rushdie and other moderns have argued that literature and the imagination have largely replaced religion as the primary repository of social and individual values and of ways of understanding the world. (Religion may remain important not because its supernatural claims are true but because it collects and sustains social and individual values, just as literature does. Religion becomes a kind of literature.) This understanding of religion is clearly very different from that of religious faiths themselves, which continue to make exclusive claims to ultimate truth. To what degree does this difference explain Rushdie's novel and the controversy over it? Are values of religious tolerance and respect for the religions of others based on the modernist notion (all religions articulate socially useful values) rather than the religious notion (one religion represents the divinely-ordained truth)? If religion and literature represent very different ways of thinking about the world, is religion even an appropriate subject for literature? [Many people who write about the novel (e.g., Todorov) discuss this issue, which Rushdie himself addresses in the last four essays of Imaginary Homelands. The Rushdie File contains a brief sections on “Truth and Fiction” (179-84) and “Writers and Religion” (pp. 185-94); see also Benslama and Jones (packet).]
12. Good and Evil. In The Satanic Verses Rushdie proposes the idea that good and evil are inextricably mixed, that there is no good without evil or evil without good. This idea has been severely attacked by Shabbir Akhtar and others. Consider the idea that good and evil are mixed--as a social criticism, as an element of personality, as a philosophical idea, and as a threat to religion. If good and evil are mixed, what basis do Rushdie and his defenders have for criticizing Islamic fundamentalism, for attacking British society, or even for making personal moral choices? Is the mixture of good and evil related to other kinds of mixture that are of interest to Rushdie, his defenders, and his attackers (for example, multiculturalism). [In addition to looking at The Satanic Verses and various statements by Akhtar, essays on this topic might want to consider essays by Rushdie and Benslama, and various defenses f the novel, including Todorov and possibly Kundera.]
13. Contradictory Positions. The Satanic Verses satirizes not only religious belief but a variety of other offenses--sexual, sexist, racist, greedy, imperialist, liberal, and so forth--that defenders of Islam would argue are perhaps inevitable consequences of the relativist, skeptical, unbelieving, hedonistic culture that now defends Rushdie's book. Is Rushdie trying to have it both ways by attacking both religious values and valueless behavior? Are his defenders similarly contradictory in defending a book that seems to attack values that most of them may support? (The fact that Mrs. Thatcher's government had to protect Rushdie seems to exemplify such a contradiction.) Are Western Muslims having it both ways by benefiting from freedoms that they then attack? Almost every position on the Rushdie case seems to involve real or apparent contradiction. Discuss one or more of those contradictions.
14. Multi-ethnic Identity. Saladin Chamcha, or Salahuddin Chamchawala, seems to be a negative character insofar as he seeks to reject his Indian identity and to replace it by an English one. Ethnic identity seems to be important to Rushdie, but so does multi-ethnic identity: "Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained" (Imaginary Homelands 17). Consider Rushdie's position on ethnicity, migration, translation, and cultural mixture, in both The Satanic Verses and his essays. Does the Rushdie controversy suggest that his position is naive, that some matters cannot be "translated" or carried across cultural borders? [Most literary discussions of The Satanic Verses consider this issue, as Rushdie himself does in a number of essays. Opponents of The Satanic Verses such as Akhtar (see File 227-30) also argue on the grounds of multi-culturalism. Peter Jones concentrates on the issue of ethnic identity.]
15. The Role of the Press. Khomeini issued his fatwa not after reading The Satanic Verses but after watching a televised report of the deaths of rioters against the novel. His fatwa itself was issued as a radio bulletin. Consider the roles of the media (the press and television news) in the Rushdie controversy. To what degree was the controversy created, inflamed, and perpetuated by the media? Consider, for example, the difference in reaction to the Bolton burning of The Satanic Verses (to which the press was not invited) and the Bradford burning (to which it was). What tactics did both angry Muslims and Rushdie supporters (including Rushdie himself) use to manipulate the press, and how successful were they? To what degree can the press be seen as an independent factor in the crisis? Your discussion should include both commentaries on the role of the press and examples press reports and statements. [Parekh discusses the role of the press in detail; some commentaries he mentions, as well as others, can be found in The Rushdie File and the course packet.]
16. Reading the Novel. Many of Rushdie’s attackers and some of his defenders assert that they have not read his novel–that the offenses against Islam are so obvious that they do not need to read, or that the threat to free speech is so serious that the novel needs to be defended even if it is as insulting as Muslim readers claim. Others, such as Tzvetan Todorov, claim that reading the novel clearly reveals the injustice of the charges against it and the importance of having it published. How important is reading the novel? Is the claim that it should not be censored independent of the contents of the novel itself? If so, why isn’t the Islamic complaint against the novel equally valid even if the novel has not been read? What positions depend on reading the novel (and why do they do so)? What positions can be reasonably argued even if the novel has not been read? [Todorov and Kundera argue the importance of reading the novel. A number of Islamic critics–Shahabuddin is perhaps the most obvious–refuse to read the novel, even though they criticize it. A number of the Western liberal statements included in The Rushdie File do not suggest that their authors have read it.]
17. The Third Force.” In mapping the various positions in the controversy, we have seen the development of a “third force”--a position rejecting both eastern and western approaches. What is the nature and importance of that third force? What does it share with Islamic criticism of The Satanic Verses and with liberal insistence on the importance of free speech? If one eliminates the alternatives of an absolute insistence on free speech or and absolute insistence on the sacredness of Islam, does a credible position remain in the middle? Does this “third force” represent a strong positive approach to the novel and the controversy about it, or does it merely amount to a criticism of both sides? [In mapping the relation of the “third force” to other vices in the controversy, one might consider Akhtar on the Islamic extreme, Waldron on Western liberalism, and Bhabha, Said, and others on the middle position.]
18. The Controversy as Politics. To what extent is the uproar over The Satanic Verses the result of political rather than cultural or religious issues? How did international politics play into the equation? Did the situation of American prisoners in Lebanon affect the decisions of America? Did the similar situation of British prisoners affect England's decisions? Did Iran's loss of its war with Iraq and its subsequent loss of political respect influence Khomeini? Has Islam been manipulated to serve the interests of people in power? Do attacks on Rushdie and The Satanic Verses serve those interests (and why)? Do defenders of Rushdie similarly have political interests? If the controversy is seen as essentially political rather than religious or cultural in nature, how does its significance change? [In addition to the material on the fatwa in The Rushdie File, one might want to consider Rushdie’s comments on politics in “Outside the What” and “In God We Trust,” the statements of Shahabuddin and Rushdie on the India banning, the comments of Bhabha and Said, the argument of Mazrui, the response of Ahmed, and other material.]