After the publication of Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel The Satanic Verses (1988), and during the years of the so-called “Rushdie affair” the South Asian minority community in Britain (mostly Muslim) demanded a ban on the novel on the ground of religious blasphemy. This was an ironic situation, as Rushdie himself noted, since they were the characters the novel purportedly represented, and it was their diasporic existence that the novel attempted to dramatise.

What was even more ironic perhaps, was the representation of this minority group in the public domain almost exclusively in terms of blasphemy/violence, attesting the anthropologist Talal Asad’s observation that blasphemy in modern times, especially when related to Islam in a non-Islamic country, becomes the charged site to represent “some moral and political problems in liberal Europe.”

Here, I am much more interested in exploring how this blasphemy-violence complex of the minority community came to represent the inevitable opposition not only to free speech but even to literature. Secularism, freedom of expression, and several other related ideas, in hindsight, were loaded pointers towards a new consensus on secular world literature and I suggest that we need to situate the contemporary dominance of Anglophone writing in the volatile space opened up by these debates in the wake of the Rushdie affair.

A contradiction

Rushdie’s account of the minority community rests on a contradiction – while he insists on the anthropological nature of the community and narrates their anchoring in communal collectivities like family or religion, he chooses to frame his endeavour with the secular form of the novel. During the controversy this contradiction surfaced prominently, and Rushdie struggled to emphasise the secular credentials of literature and the novel in representing the minor-subaltern.

He argued that the “novel has always been about the way in which different languages, values and narratives quarrel, and about the shifting relations between them,” without trying to establish, unlike religions, “a privileged language”. The novel is, rather, a secular arena, one that does not demand sacrality as part of its existence or unfolding, and one on which different claims and power relations are enacted.

When the community whose predicaments he claimed to represent within this arena became wary of this secular space, and subsequently demanded a ban on the novel itself, however, this strategy faced a crisis. Asad again is helpful in understanding the historical complexity involved in this. As part of his provocative thesis that the genealogies of the modern political doctrine of “secularism” comes after the emergence of “the secular” as a mode of being in the world, often through complex negotiations between the primarily Christian “inside” and the predominantly Islamic “outside” of Europe, he suggests a foundational disjuncture at the heart of secular modernity.

Within Europe, there has been a gap between “Europe’s historical narrative of itself” on the one hand and the “historical narratives produced by so-called ‘minorities’” on the other. Secularism as a political doctrine, and increasingly a state policy since the nineteenth century, demands the flattening of heterogeneous times and spaces and thus full transparency of subjecthood as a precondition for belonging within modern notions of numerical citizenry. What is often forgotten in this historical process, which demands that every other tradition must be fully and unequivocally translatable into a single narrative, is the violence that reduces “multiple ways of life” into mere “identities.”

Baidik Bhattacharya
Baidik Bhattacharya

Secular versus fundamentalist

What makes our story more complicated is the presence of a novel at the heart of the controversy and its status as a literary text. We need to ask the following questions: Is the novel as a work of literature necessarily secular and, if so, is this secularity universally understood? Is the secular of a literary tradition or history the same as “the secular” as a mode of being in the world or is it derived from “secularism” as a political doctrine of modernity?

On his part, Rushdie assumes that the novel (or even literature) is a secular view of the world, one that comes into being in the aftermath of the breakdown of religion as an all-encompassing narrative. It is certainly derived from the Enlightenment, and once it comes into being in its present version, it also becomes part of the political doctrine. As far as the secular vocation of the novel goes, he is well within a long tradition of theorising the novel, starting with Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) which famously describes the form as inhabiting “a world that has been abandoned by God.”

For obvious reasons, however, Rushdie cannot stop at this mere declaration of secularity and often strategically essentialises both sides of the debate to set up a contest between modern secularism as represented by The Satanic Verses and atavistic religious fundamentalism as propagated by the hardliners and mullahs. Take, for instance, his defence of the novel:

“Joyce’s wanderers, Gogol’s tricksters, Bulgakov’s devils, Bellow’s high-energy meditations on the stifling of the soul by the triumphs of materialism; these, and many more, are what we have instead of prophets and suffering saints. [...] If religion is an answer, if political ideology is an answer, then literature is an inquiry, great literature, by asking extraordinary questions, opens new doors in our mind.”

Against this enlightened and secular inquiry, and not always by implication, the religious groups based on sacred and authorless texts (here the Quran) demanding his novel be banned can only emerge as forces of “darkness”. And hence, the crucial question he has to face is the following: Can his novel adequately represent the Muslim minorities in postwar Britain as themselves? Does his novel participate in the overall secularisation that “downgrade” religious minorities or does it expose the mechanism through which such marginality is achieved under the aegis of secular nation-states?

The migration story

Rushdie offers two different answers to this point on representation and sets the stage for contemporary celebration of world literature as a borderless phenomenon in globalisation. The first response is developed in The Satanic Verses through a series of immigrant characters who go through transmutations of various kinds and expose the violent absorption of the minority in a “secular” Britain.

As one of the characters in the novel reveals: “They describe us [...] That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct.” In the novel, this metamorphosis is further mediated by the Argentine immigrant Rosa Diamond’s delirious fantasy of Norman Conquest which, along with its parodied reference to “Willie-the-Conk,” is also a strong inversion of Enoch Powell’s infamous defence of Englishness against the threat of migration in the ’60s.

But this strand of narration is not an independent one, as the text develops a second narrative through the depiction of the birth of a new religion and its prophet Mahound, which became the most controversial section of the novel, and suggests overlaps between this quasi-religious story (revealed in Gibreel Farishta’s dream) and the one on migration. Novelistic representation, the text seems to suggest through these two stories, attains its secular credentials because of its ability to accommodate very different provenances of religious faith and its loss, as evident in the case of Anglophile Chamcha, who cannot believe his misery in his adopted country, and also in the case of Gibreel, who experiences strange deracination when faced with the crucial question of religious belief.

Within the text, and through its fabulous satire in both cases, the point is made that both forms of derangement find their adequate representation because of the novel’s primary commitment to its own secularity. In their respective grand narratives – i.e., nationalism and religion – such stories of faithlessness would have been unthinkable. In short, it is the secularity of the novel that allows such acts of blasphemy.

Excerpted with permission from Postcolonial Writing In The Era Of World Literature: Texts, Territories, Globalization, Baidik Bhattacharya, Routledge.