I recently read Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to find out why it is controversial. Rushdie’s notoriety as a writer is probably due in large part to the issue of a fatwah by the Ayatollah Khomenei of Iran in 1989 for writing the novel. The book is purported by some to defame the Prophet Mohammed and Islam. I don’t know much about why the fatwah was issued (although it is my understanding that it is very unlikely the order will actually be carried out), and I think a discussion on the controversy is still relevant.
Championing Rushdie’s right to write is akin to championing the right to free speech, and so not too far off from upholding democracy and human rights. Briefly, I want to write about the other equally important theme in Satanic Verses, the allegory of race relations in England.
I do not wish to diminish in any way the importance of the story of the founding of Islam in Satanic Verses. But, in the popularization of the book by the media (it’s so easy to blame everything popularized in Western culture on the media), it is possible to forget that Rushdie’s description of a race conflict in Satanic Verses is as meaningful as that other important issue.
In Satanic Verses, Rushdie creates an eclectic minority community in London filled with South Asians, blacks, Afro-Caribbeans and Chinese. The focus, however, is on South Asians: there is the Shaander Bed and Breakfast managed by the disappointed Madam Sufyan and the quixotic Mr. Sufyan et al.
And, there are the migrants in the Shaander B&B who are repeatedly told “not to have a voice” and remain mute throughout the conflict. Their stories, their present states and their lives after a race conflict between Rushdie’s imagined minority communities and white society is an allegory for the state of race relations in contemporary England.
Rushdie describes a race conflict by telling two stories. On the one hand, he describes the minority communities through the eyes of the white community. The media projects the image that minorities are “acting up” and have no cause for dissatisfaction and should be more appreciative of their lives in Great Britain.
And, on the other hand, Rushdie interprets the minority communities through individual characters who describe their feelings of injustice and alienation in English society. Perhaps the best scene symbolizing unity among the various groups is during a town hall meeting organized to protest the arrest of a leading black community leader.
The book’s description of events given by the police inspector to the media, in contrast to the reader’s conception of events, demonstrates the separation between Rushdie’s polarized communities.
That Rushdie develops such a theme so forcefully surprised me because, influenced by popular belief, I had expected something different from The Satanic Verses. Despite the book’s publication almost a decade ago, I think discussion of the state of race relations in contemporary England is still relevant. Perhaps Rushdie’s notoriety for the fatwah, in causing people to read Satanic Verses, can be of some value if it brings people to read his book and think about this issue.
-The writer is a senior majoring in mathematics.
This article appeared in the February 18, 1999 issue of the Hatchet.