An Islam of the Internet

When I met Salman Rushdie in Paris shortly after the death sentence handed down against him by Iran’s dictator Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, his reaction surprised me. I’ll never forget it. Far from being frightened by this “fatwa,” which called on any good Muslim to assassinate him, with heaven as his reward, Rushdie told me that from now on he would have to double his champagne consumption, spend his evenings in nightclubs and chase blond tall. In short, the party seemed to him the most appropriate response to the obscene obscurantism of the ayatollahs. He has more or less kept his word, until the recent attack in Chautauqua, New York, by a young American of Lebanese origin and of Shiite religion. This is Rushdie for you: a gamer, in life as in literature. His books are funny and cheeky; in any case, neither Khomeini nor the would-be assassin ever read a word of Rushdie. The fatwa fell on Rushdie because of this same impertinence to all authority, spiritual or temporal.

What is the relationship between Rushdie, Khomeini’s fatwa and the recent attack? None, or very little. For Rushdie, the life of Muhammad and the Koran are sources of literary inspiration, together with the Gospels, Buddhism and the Don chisciotte– many characters with whom he plays his work, without the slightest concern for realism, or for judgment, or for preaching. Khomeini had no idea what literature was or what a novelist was. The Lebanese-American killer is no less ignorant, having no other source of knowledge than Facebook and other social networks.

Was Khomeini’s motivation religious? There is reason to doubt this, given his ignorance of the text which was the basis of the fatwa. His action was, in reality, political. He hoped at that time to establish himself as the undisputed leader of the reconstituted Persian Empire and, beyond that, of Islam as a whole. In view of this concern for power, Rushdie was the ideal target: he was of Muslim origin, but Sunni, not Shiite, and an atheist flattered in the West. The title of the incriminating work, The Satanic Verses, was scandalous enough to arouse popular hysteria. The fatwa must therefore be understood in the context of the double war for influence: the Muslim world against the West, and Shia Islam against Sunni Islam – a double religious war, more political than spiritual, with Rushdie among the pincers, a circumstantial target.

We in the West have fallen into Khomeini’s trap by paying little attention to the internal struggles of the Muslim world, giving the fatwa a value it did not deserve and promoting the ayatollah to a primacy he had not attained at the time. The publicity that the West has accorded to this fatwa has contributed enormously to the growing misunderstanding between the West and Islam: today, for most Westerners, Islam is a religion of hatred and intolerance. This prejudice was reinforced by subsequent attacks committed “in the name of Islam”.

What have we learned about Islam in the period between this fatwa and the Rushdie bombing? Anything. Who in the West knows the difference between Shiites (mostly Iranians) and Sunnis (Arabs and non-Arabs)? Few, not even the American soldiers, most of whom ignored this fundamental religious difference as they invaded Iraq. If one wanted to summarize what there is to know about Islam in a provocative but illuminating aphorism, one would turn to the great Algerian Islamic scholar, Mohammed Arkoun: “Islam does not exist. There are only Muslims”. Every Muslim can enter into relationship with God through the Koran. Apart from the Shia minority, there are no clergy in Islam. The Sunni religion, which accounts for 90 percent of practicing Muslims, could be compared to Protestantism in its infinite variety and in its lack of hierarchy and a necessary clergy. Only Shia Islam, which is a kind of Persian national church, is theocratic.

It follows that Islam takes on the character of those who practice it. If there are as many versions of Islam as there are differences among Muslims, it is because everyone interprets the Koran in light of their own culture. Between a Moroccan and a Javanese Muslim, the difference is even greater than between a Brazilian Pentecostal and a Swiss Lutheran. The misfortune that has befallen Muslims – and consequently Rushdie – is the emergence of an Internet Islam, a collection of hateful slogans, divorced from any study of the Koran and uprooted from any culture. The dangerous Muslims, for other Muslims (who make up the majority of their victims) as well as for Westerners, are above all the ignorant Muslims, the dregs of the Internet subculture. The proper response to the Rushdie attack would be to invite Muslims and non-Muslims alike to learn more about Islam: wishful thinking. Let us realize, at least, that Rushdie is less a victim of Islam itself than of ignorance of it.

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