I know that not everybody enjoys or appreciates Salman Rushdie, but he is without question one of the more important and influential novelists of the last thirty years. His prose resounds with the rhythms and mutlilingual allusions of the smarty-pants English that Indians speak; his themes are large and intellectually important. Some don't like his attitude, but few who know what he is talking about fail to appreciate the challenge.
Zoë Heller, a talented but slight novelist (Notes on a Scandal), has gained vicarious celebrity with her typically British put-down of Rushdie's exile memoir in the New York Review of Books, now touted for "hatchet-job of the year". (I am sorry I got around to reading my copy of NYRB so late.)
As a former colonial, I confess I often find the defensive patriotism of some Brits quite provoking. As when Heller is sarcastic about Rushdie's "outrage at being given orders by jumped-up Scotland Yard officers." Since when did the English middle class doff their caps when policemen walk by? Is it that she doesn't appreciate the cheek of a foreign-born celebrity disparaging the home-grown non-elite? (Actually, if you read Rushdie, he is ruefully respectful of these men.) Or when she appreciates Margaret Thatcher's government, because "they recognized their duty to protect the free speech of a British citizen—even one they did not like [!]—against the death threats of a foreign cleric." (Better than François I's defence of Rabelais, she sniffs: Thatcher's Britain "presents a more reassuring situation than one in which a citizen's safety depends upon a monarch's arbitration of his literary talent." Take that, you frogs.)
Heller does raise one interesting issue when she notes that while Rushdie used to be careful not to confuse "Islamism" and "Islam", he now thinks that such distinctions are "embarrassing corrollaries of the old attempts by Western Marxists to separate the "true" Marxist way from the horrors of Soviet communism." It's an interesting issue because one certainly should not view the whole of Islam as a "sickening, murderous monolith." (These are Heller's words, not Rushdie's.) On the other hand, those of us who remember the aftermath of the Satanic Verses also remember that it wasn't only the radical clergy that condemned the book. There were large demonstrations in many Muslim countries; Muslim intellectuals spoke out against the book; India appeased its Muslim minority by banning the book. Nobody should claim that Islam is a monolith, but nobody should whitewash history by alleging that only fundamentalists attacked the book and its author.
Way back then, even John le Carré expressed the view that "there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity." Even today, when he is inclined to take a softer view, le Carré says:
Should we be free to burn Korans, mock the passionately held religions of others? Maybe we should – but should we also be surprised when the believers we have offended respond in fury? I couldn't answer that question at the time and, with all good will, I still can't. But I am a little proud, in retrospect, that I spoke against the easy trend, reckoning with the wrath of outraged western intellectuals, and suffering it in all its righteous glory.
A furious response and a sentence of death. Le Carré was unable to calibrate, and he spoke for a large portion of the Muslim world.