Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Between holy text and moral void

Abstract of “Between holy text and moral void” by Bhikhu Parekh

Abstract by Jenny Lowry

I. Description of Article

Bhikhu Parekh describes Salman Rushdie’s The satanic verses as a battleground between cultures. He begins by stating that non Bombayite persons will have a difficult time understanding the text, as will many readers familiar with its cultural background. In order to understand the text is must be read through Muslim eyes (140). It is a controversial text that greatly offends most Muslims because of its highly graphic and vulgar descriptions of sacred persons and traditions. Parekh argues that two chapters in the text are “fantasized history [because the stories] are fantasies, but fantasies relating to, deeply embedded in and severely hedged in by, history” (140). In other words, Rushdie is taking truth and weaving into fiction.

II. Comments and Questions

Parekh ties the novel to immigrants (I am assuming in Britain), particularly Muslim immigrants, whose “central life” is highly embedded “with the sacred” (141). He argues that the immigrant is “mocked” by the country they are living in and their sacred lives are stripped of dignity. It seems that Rushdie’s novel is essentially doing the same thing by mocking Muslim religious beliefs.

In order to cope with their situation the immigrants use “different strategies of physical and moral survival” (141). One strategy is cynicism in which the immigrant views everything negatively. The second strategy is a “retreat to the familiar certainties of the past” (141), usually their sacred beliefs. Parekh believes that all immigrants hold some level of these beliefs and Rushdie is no exception. This tension explains the controversial nature of The satanic verses. Rushdie is torn between two extreme emotions, which is why he lashes out at the Muslim religion in his text. It seems at this point in the article, that Parekh is arguing for Rushdie’s interpretation of the Muslim religion. He seems to support him in his quest for a “literary truth” even though he clearly defines the The satanic verses as a “fantasized history.” I am not sure what literary truth Parekh has found in the text, particularly since the next section of his article he focuses on two chapters which even he argues are especially offensive.

The two chapters are obviously belittling the Muslim religion. Parekh gives examples from the text (like the twelve wives of Muhammad as prostitutes) that are insulting to Muslims (as well as most other people I would think) and states that they are clearly vulgar and offensive. Even though Parekh argues that the text is disgusting and often times comes too close to describing real people in harmful ways, he still contends that the text is a “legitimate literary inquiry” and that “the offence caused to Muslims could therefore be ignored in the larger interests of truth” (143). Parekh even questions whether the text has provoked racism against Muslim immigrants and states that “religion requires a greater degree of sensitivity” (145), yet he still contends that the text has a “literary purpose” that must be explored. He argues that it is a writer’s responsibility to explain himself and his words, but at the end of the article he states that Rushdie should be left alone.

Parekh seems to be contradictory in his feelings about The satanic verses. Perhaps he is torn between cynicism and his sacred beliefs as he argues Rushdie is. The contradictory nature of this article in which he begins to seemingly support the text, then proceeds to rip it apart, then goes on to defend the author is distressful and confusing. It appears that Rushdie is helping to oppress his own people by mocking their religious and sacred beliefs through his text. The fact that Parekh is arguing for the texts “literary truth” seems to me that he agrees with Rushdie and is in a way acting to support this oppression. Parekh states that even though the Muslims “had no friends [and] felt intensely lonely and helpless” (146) due to the oppression caused by The satanic verses, they should step down and “leave Rushdie alone to ponder over it in peace and security, and hope that he will one day provide an answer that reconciles a creative writer’s right to freedom of thought and expression with other people’s right to respect and dignity” (146). I’m sorry, but that is a complete contradiction to Parekh’s previous statement that “[Rushdie] owed [the Muslims, his own people] an obligation to understand their feelings, to explain his position, to argue with them, to do all in his power to mollify and hopefully win them over to his point of view” (145).

While I have not read The satanic verses I can definitely see how it caused controversy. From what I have read in Parekh’s article it seems that Rushdie is, at the least, guilty of providing ammunition to oppress his own people. And in my opinion, Parekh seems to support this in light of seeking a “literary truth.”

Is Rushdie participating in the oppression of his people?
Is “literary truth” always worth the consequences?


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