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Iraq: Islamic State and the killing of a culture

Monday 3 November 2014, by siawi3


October 21, 2014

Salman Rushdie

The great writer Harold Pinter became a clear-spoken, passionate opponent of bigotry, prejudice, censorship and the abuse of power by the powerful. But it was always language that Pinter scrutinised most closely.

He spoke, memorably, of discerning “a disease at the very centre of language, so that language becomes a permanent masquerade, a tapestry of lies. The ruthless and cynical mutilation and degradation of human beings, both in spirit and body ... these actions are justified by rhetorical gambits, sterile terminology and concepts of power which stink. Are we ever going to look at the language we use, I wonder? Is it within our capabilities to do so? ... Does reality essentially remain outside language, separate, obdurate, alien, not susceptible to description? Is an accurate and vital correspondence between what is and our perception of it impossible? Or is it that we are obliged to use language only in order to obscure and distort reality — to distort what is — to distort what happens — because we fear it? I believe it’s because of the way we use language that we have got ourselves into this terrible trap, where words like freedom, democracy, and Christian values are still used to justify barbaric and shameful policies and acts.”
I, too, am concerned about the mangling of language which makes possible the creation of tyranny. But perhaps predictably, I am looking nowadays in a different direction than Harold did in his eloquent polemic. For there is another language that has been horribly mangled in our time, and that is the language of religion.

New age of religious mayhem: Salman Rushdie. Photo: AFP

Harold’s jeremiad was primarily aimed at the distortions of language by secular powers, and the world’s most powerful super-power in particular, but everything he speaks of holds true of the uglinesses being perpetrated all over the world in the name of this or that faith.
It’s fair to say that more than one religion deserves scrutiny. Christian extremists in the United States today attack women’s liberties and gay rights in language they claim comes from God. Hindu extremists in India today are launching an assault on free expression and trying, literally, to rewrite history, proposing the alteration of school textbooks to serve their narrow saffron dogmatism.

But the overwhelming weight of the problem lies in the world of Islam, and much of it has its roots in the ideological language of blood and war emanating from the Salafist movement within Islam, globally backed by Saudi Arabia. This is Ed Husain writing recently in The New York Times: “Let’s be clear: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and others are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings. For five decades, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafism across the globe. Most Sunni Muslims around the world, approximately 90 per cent of the Muslim population, are not Salafis. Salafism is seen as too rigid, too literalist, too detached from mainstream Islam ... Salafi adherents and other fundamentalists represent 3 per cent of the world’s Muslims.”
To that Sunni 3 per cent, we can perhaps add a further percentage of extremist Shias sponsored by the Iranian revolution, whose ideologue Ali Shariati, adapting Marxist language, called the Khomeini revolution a “revolt against history”. In this sense Shia and Sunni extremists are the same. Modernity itself is the enemy, modernity with its language of liberty, for women as well as men, with its insistence on legitimacy in government rather than tyranny, and with its strong inclination towards secularism and away from religion.

This, the language of the modern world, has been targeted by the deformed medievalist language of fanaticism, backed up by modern weaponry. This language, which has been dubbed “jihadi-cool”, is being heard, more and more, in mosques and on social media, and for some young men its appeal is so great that it persuades hundreds, perhaps thousands of Muslims in the Western world to join the decapitating barbarians of ISIS (worryingly, for example, far more British Muslims join the jihadists than enlist in the British armed forces).

On some of these social networking sites a Saudi opinion poll is now circulating showing that 92 per cent of respondents agree that ISIS “conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law”. If accurate, this kind of information makes Ed Husain’s 3 per cent look a little over optimistic. Even if one discounts this as a rogue poll, it’s hard not to conclude that hate-filled religious rhetoric, pouring from the mouths of ruthless fanatics into the ears of angry young men, has become the most dangerous new weapon in the world today.
A word I dislike greatly, “Islamophobia”, has been coined to discredit those who point at these excesses, by labelling them as bigots. But in the first place, if I don’t like your ideas, it must be acceptable for me to say so, just as it is acceptable for you to say that you don’t like mine. Ideas cannot be ring-fenced just because they claim to have this or that fictional sky god on their side.

And in the second place, it’s important to remember that most of those who suffer under the yoke of the new Islamic fanaticism are other Muslims. The Taliban oppressed the people of Afghanistan and may yet return to do so again; the ayatollahs continue to oppress the people of Iran; the people dying in Iraq today are almost all Muslims, killed in the name of their own religion, redescribed in sectarian terms to permit their murder.
It is right to feel phobia towards such matters. As several commentators have said, what is being killed in Iraq is not just human beings, but a whole culture. To feel aversion towards such a force is not bigotry. It is the only possible response to the horror of events.

Like Harold Pinter, I greatly prefer the artist’s language of ambiguity and indirection, which allows a work to have many readings. But also, following Harold’s lead, I can’t, as a citizen, avoid speaking of the horror of the world in this new age of religious mayhem, and of the language that conjures it up and justifies it, so that young men, including young westerners, led towards acts of extreme bestiality, believe themselves to be fighting a just war.

This is an edited extract from writer Salman Rushdie’s PEN/Pinter Prize 2014 lecture, given at the British Library in London on October 9.

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