who is Joseph Anton?

Stevie ModernNot his real name, ‘Joseph Anton’ only half-belonged to a man half-belonging among free people.

Salman Rushdie [Photo: David Shankbone]

Nevertheless, ‘Joseph Anton’, Rushdie’s secret service alias during his over-a-decade in forced hiding, is the fully fleshed pivotal character in the West’s mortal struggle over freedom of speech, and so its identity.

Like all heroes, the Anton we read in Rushdie’s compelling Joseph Anton: A Memoir is flawed and afraid. His struggle is to stay alive, but beyond, to write. To attach names and words to concepts concretely, even as his very identity is hidden, suppressed, changed.

Defence-less. Against a fatwa, no defence is possible. Defences are made against judgements handed down by a recognized court having “jurisdiction over him”. Rushdie writes of 1989 with tender vulnerability. A man afraid in his bed, huddled close to his wife on the fateful day from when “All Muslims” – the fatwa directed – were to “execute them wherever they find them”.

Despite the known death squads dispatched from Iran and Lebanon to London in the years that followed, (an international as well as personal violation) the memoir tells of Rushdie’s plight held too long in abeyance by diplomatic circles hoping to negotiate with the hostage-taking Iran. A particular shock comes when despite years and promises of diplomatic progress, Rushdie is face to face with Thatcher, the British prime minister, who offers wistfully that, “little can be done without a change of regime”. “That’s it?” his fiancée demands, receiving no response.

The new regime in Iran wasn’t making promising noises. A birthday message came from the new “moderate” president Khatami: “Salman Rushdie will die soon.”

Protests against novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ Jan. 1989. [Photo: Robert Croma]

The events to follow the fatwa; the threats, fatal shootings and stabbings of those involved – and in many cases not involved – in the distribution of The Satanic Verses (who did not share Rushdie’s protection) are documented with fervour. As are the bombings, book banning and burnings. Rushdie’s concern here is for that ignored broader issue, the importance the (unfairly) named ‘Rushdie Affair’ represented to freedom.

When the first blackbird comes down to roost on the climbing frame it seems individual, particular, specific… it’s just about him; …. Nobody feels inclined to draw any conclusions from it. It will be a dozen years and more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon, like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings, like the plague of murderous birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great film.

Along with the blackbird, insults and blame fly in and roost. John Le Carre, Germaine Greer – pen in hands – write blood onto Rushdie’s. The Archbishop of Canterbury calls for ‘tolerance’ (not of Rushdie, of the mobs calling for his death), and Prince Charles, staggeringly, complains of the costs to the public purse for Rushdie’s protection.

Where only justified bitterness might be expected for censors, critics, apologists for the hate-mongers burning him in effigy, we find in Rushdie’s memoir a larger insight. There are surprising accounts of virtual imprisonment often patiently endured for the safety of family, publishers, airline passengers, audiences and foreign-held hostages. If the expected support of his government never materialises, (The Blair government sought to extend blasphemy laws) he shows gratitude for those literary and moral supporters that included Ian McEwan, Susan Sontag and Christopher Hitchens.

One hundred Arab and Muslim writers jointly published a book of essays, written in many languages and published in French, ‘Pour Rushdie’ [For Rushdie] , to defend freedom of speech…”We have the obligation to tell him that he personifies our solitude and that his story is our own.”

Where Rushdie brings literature, where he brings Rushdie in his memoir, are the complex layers of ‘Joseph Anton’ and his other self struggling beneath the bullet-proof surface. Hunched in getaway cars. Fitful sleeps turning him roughly in unfamiliar beds. Days away from the thing he loves most – writing stories – costing him at moments his sanity. Rushdie snatches from just above the surface of this suffocation and fear, rare and happy gulps of friendships and trust. These lighter moments cherished in peril never quite achieve normality, surrounded – even if gratefully – by armed guards.

joseph-anton-a-memoir-by-salman-rushdieIn fiction, Rushdie fused his earlier life experiences with the mixed-identity characters of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton: A Memoir is instead the story of Rushdie’s struggle for unmixed realization. Beneath the subterfuge he senses another kind of extinguishment. Have the armed protectors succeeded where the fatwa has not? As the anxious Rushdie mixes deeper with ‘Anton’, we are suspended at numerous critical moments: Which ‘character’ will overcome the other? What boundaries of control will be drawn between Rushdie and ‘Anton’ in their unhappy truce between the will to happiness and the need to survive?

When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired in a sense, free will.

Like his novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s name “disappeared into the front pages”. It disappeared into the epithets and ‘Satan Rushdy’ avatars of clerics burning for his murder. A name no longer his, free will becomes no longer an option the Secret Service is able or at times willing to accommodate.

Literary criticism of Joseph Anton has centred on Rushdie’s use of third person, the ‘he’, ‘his’, ‘him’ of Anton rather than the ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘me’ of Rushdie. Even as the author gives deeply personal unvarnished accounts of Joseph Anton’s – that is his –  troubled love life, of raising a family in a climate of fear and death, the device remains strange and discomfiting.

Critics have brittly marked this disconnection in the memoir and yet ignored how this device offers firsthand Rushdie’s dissociation from the ‘fully free society’ where he only half-existed. Rushdie has spent the period of this story negotiating anguished boundaries of identity, and the brilliance of the device preserves for the reader his unwilling masks and fugitive feet.

Ambiguous, ‘Joseph Anton’ dramatises a man not enough free to use his name. It’s a disconcerting parable for a free-society not enough brave to articulate what that freedom means. By dissociating from its principles and one of its prized authors, that society endeavoured to remain ‘free’ to avert moral combat with the broader threat brought down by Khomeini’s fatwa.

The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list: freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex…

Where Rushdie could be forgiven for his focus on a situation never more vivid and personal than saving one’s own life, he demonstrates Olympian regard of the larger picture. His struggle is to stay alive, but beyond, to write. To attach names and words to concepts concretely, even as his identity is hidden, suppressed, changed.

The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing…We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love… Not by making war, but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them. How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorised. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

Rushdie, S. The Satanic Verses

Rushdie, S. The Satanic Verses

Forgotten in the events following its publication were The Satanic Verses’ satiric and literary qualities. Incidental as they may be to principles of free speech, they are not to its gains. Open its cover and a hijacked jet-liner makes a post-explosion dive above the city of London, and among the flying debris of plummeting seats and trolleys, transformative incarnation in cloud-filled descent takes hold of two of its passengers. It would be hard to nominate a more pyrotechnic beginning to a tale spanning centuries and continents. The language is modern, jarring, electric, magic-real. Deep in its pages, an angel Gibreel messages an ancient prophet Mahound in mad vision, “tilting” and “panning” its locus like a futuristic camera. Just as explosively, arguments over the story’s literary quality were superseded as London (and the world) plummeted into the ensuing controversy and real life terrorism that almost forced the novel from print.

Sandakat Kadri writes that Arabic lore, which The Satanic Verses made novel use of, details a period “several Qur’anic scholars of great standing have accepted as the truth.” Legend tells at Islam’s birth of Mohammed’s acceptance of other idols. Such a story would contradict notions of Mohammed’s ‘perfection’ and an unchangeable Qur’an. Kadri observes that,

Those offended were never very likely to read them. Rushdie’s book raised hackles for reasons other than its contents, however. Its title echoed a legend known in Arabic…when the Prophet briefly faltered in his mission… [His] supposed revelations were not divine. They were the whisperings of a demon (shaitan): satanic verses.

As with The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s camera widens beyond seventh century myth. In Joseph Anton, stories are to him as they were his father’s who freely mixed in bedtime stories to the young Salman. Stories belong to everyone, but were also “his, all his… to alter and renew and discard and pick up again… to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by”. 

Sacred or profane, they were ‘untrue’ but an access to other truths. These are the accounts of a Rushdie before the Anton ‘subterfuge’, before British clerics feigned promises of withdrawing the fatwa’s threat, before an anxious ‘Joseph Anton’ is pressured to sign a repudiation of his beliefs and art. It was a moment in Joseph Anton, alone, too keen to be understood, and “loved”, that Rushdie labels his “great Mistake”.

Rushdie emerged from Anton a name to renew and pick up again. Joseph Anton‘s story, if not fiction, should be ours to live in, and with, and by. Shortly after the fatwa, New Yorkers began to wear ‘I am Salman Rushdie’ badges in public solidarity. “I wished I could’ve worn one of those,” Rushdie writes. Now, with Joseph Anton: A Memoir, he does ♦

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reforming islam? ida lichter

While ground battles rage in Syria, and with unrest in Libya and Egypt continuing to occupy Western focus, another war beneath the surface of media attention continues to rage within muslim countries closer to home. Outside Middle Eastern centres of conflict, too little attention has been paid to reforms daily fought by Muslim women across the globe for equality and freedom from violence. Into this setting, Ida Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers redraws our attention to the separate bravery of women- both secular and religious- to gain basic individual freedoms. “Many have not been given a significant voice,” writes Lichter,

 There is considerable ignorance of those determined individuals and organisations, particularly in muslim countries, who are dedicated to the reform of gender discrimination by challenging discriminatory laws and ideology, often at great personal risk.

It is their plight western feminists are in danger of betraying through a respect of ‘culture’ above individual rights, says Lichter.

Her prodigious research highlights individual women reformers through concise biographies in the specific settings where the rights to vote, drive, dress, and resist the abuse of religiously sanctioned violence form an often life and death struggle. This approach adds to the scope of literature examining Islam in general and corrects the singular image of a unified Islamic ‘world’. Within this frame, whole regions are shown in the flux of competing forces, women’s lives hinged precariously to the outcomes of political and religious conflict.

Women’s rights, says Lichter, should be made central to our future foreign policy. Current instability threatens even supposedly ‘moderate’ religious countries. Neighbouring Australia, where Lichter lives, Indonesia’s 86% Muslim population comprises the largest Islamic country in the world, with 12.7% of the world’s total identified Muslims.

Prior to 1945, the Dutch colonial government was largely in support of the Indonesian women’s movement, which had emerged in the twentieth century.

Despite being a signatory to UN conventions against gender discrimination at a national level, the process of achieving gender equality in Indonesia has become more difficult since its independence.  With Islamic separatists threatening to break from its power, the national government ceded much of its authority since 2001 through regional autonomy laws, divesting power to local and more traditionally inclined groups. These have tended to frame patriarchal practices through literal interpretations of Islamic scripture. Local sharia by-laws, enforced in 16 of 32 provinces, have restricted women’s economic opportunities, freedom of movement, dress, and roles in public. Qur’anic punishments have surfaced among these regions, most notably in Aceh, which in 2009 legalised stoning ‘adulterers’.

Through its Marriage Law (1975) the government allowed for fatwas (religious legal edicts) to be governed from a local level. The Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Womens Association for Justice records rising levels of polygamy and child marriage in some areas despite official restrictions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites religious encouragement of child marriage and female genital mutilation as main causes of Indonesia’s maternal death rate, among the highest in Southeast Asia.

Alongside reformers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Somalia) and Wafa Sultan (Syria),  Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers also chronicles feminists that have fought for equality on a religious footing, such as in Indonesia. Indonesian feminist groups like Rahmina and Musawah have tried to situate their political objectives on religious grounds, in part responding to Islamists’ use of religion to enforce oppression. Rahmina’s director Erdani ascribes the rising influence of Islamists in Indonesia to Saudi funded Wahhabists, who have used regional instability to further political ends.

Part of groups like Rahmina’s attempt to bring about equality through re-readings of Islamic scripture may also be tactical. Indonesia has not been accommodating of secular feminism where it contradicts state-based authority. As Lichter notes, Gerwani, one of Indonesia’s largest women’s groups, was banned for its association with the communist party (PKI). Thousands of its members were raped or killed as part of an anti-communist purge by Suharto’s forces. Rahmina’s own re-focus attempts to debate its contextual interpretations of Islam against equally ‘authentic’ gender-biased religious law.

Re-readings have forcefully critiqued popular Islamic texts, in arguing for women’s representation during the 2001 election of Sukarnoputri, a female head of state, and in advocating for religiously sanctioned domestic violence to be criminalised. Despite its more delicately waged successes in fighting for equality in Indonesia, Rahmina’s approach has also risked further reinforcing the role of religion and its interpretation as a basis for Indonesia’s civil legal structure.

Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers corrects the impression of silence on the part of reformers throughout the Islamic world, and demonstrates more than ever the need for modern reformers in the West, including governments, to chorus these voices against oppression, and make use through aid and diplomatic efforts the opportunities these reformers represent.

Freedom for women in Muslim countries would unlock the potential of half their populations and provide a resource for social and economic development.

Lichter’s inspiring catalogue of voices should encourage modern reformers aswell as alarm readers to the fragile opportunities for progress now at risk ♦

Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression is available from Prometheus Books. Ida Lichter MD is psychiatrist and frequent columnist for online news-site HuffingtonPost.

sharia’s challenge to Australian equality

STEVIE MODERN

A recent case before the ACT Supreme Court has again drawn attention to the treatment of women in Sharia law, renewing calls among rights activists against its acceptance within Australia’s legal system.

In March, the daughter of Ms Mariem Omari, a devout Muslim, contested an inheritance worth only half of the financial share given to each of her brothers.

Australian Federation of Islamic Councils president Hafez Kaseem, through his spokesman Mr Keysar Trad, said the division of assets in favour of males, like the Omari case, reflected Muslim men’s responsibility under Sharia to support their wives.

AFIC called for provisions of the Islamic code to be formally included into family law, part of its submission last year to a Federal Government inquiry into multiculturalism.

Mr Trad said secular law failed to reflect their faith and urged inclusion of Sharia law for Muslims where it applies to marriage, divorce, contracts and custody in Australia.

“We should be allowed to resolve our issues in-house,” Mr Trad said.

“We’re a well-established religion and all we’re asking for is to be a self-regulatory mechanism.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali addresses the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, April 2012. Photo courtesy of Bruce Woolley

Ex-Muslim, author and women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, visiting Australia in April, has warned against any government recognition of Sharia, and said women’s unequal legal protection also placed them in extreme danger.

A statement by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation said Sharia encouraged forced marriage because contracts were signed between a groom and a bride’s father and granted child custody to the father in all divorce cases.

Last year, The Australian reported four separate cases of forced marriage that reached the Family Court involving immigrant families. One case involved a girl bride just 13 years of age.

Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon responded in recent months by introducing criminal punishments for those forcing women into arranged marriages.

Sharia laws have widespread informal use within Muslim communities, but Mr Trad acknowledged tight-knit faith communities exerted pressure on disputing parties – especially married parties – to consent to Sharia mediation, rather than to settle disputes in Australian courts.

“You’d expect both to consent,” he said.

“If a contract is by both, an obligation is to both, and a marriage is a solemn contract to satisfy the will of God.

“Secular law encroaches on all of that.”

Mr Trad denied suggestions Sharia law, that stated evidence given to a court by a woman was worth half of a man’s, meant unequal legal protection.

“In any money dispute, it’s expected as written in the Koran, for evidence to be given by two women for every one man,” he said.

“This is physiological.

“Women have pains and mood swings as a result of their menstrual cycle and can’t be expected the burden of clear heads on financial matters.”

He said fathers should also receive custody of children in most divorce cases.

“Mothers should not be placed in the position of supporting children and having a career.”

Director for the Centre for Muslim States and Societies Samina Yasmeen said both Muslims and non-Muslims were confused by cultural practices claimed to be part of its laws.

Open-minded Muslims feared to speak against Sharia’s more ‘orthodox’ interpretations, Professor Yasmeen said.

“There’s too much focus on imams as a main source of identity for Muslims in Australia.”

Sharia could be interpreted with equal respect for human rights, she said, but framing its codes into Australian law would only enforce its literal, more rigid meanings.

Professor Yasmeen said AFIC’s proposals to the Federal government inquiry represented a narrow interpretation of Sharia, but that most Muslim Australians also held a literal view of its codes.

“Muslim organisations in Australia are not unanimous, but if brought into the Australian legal system it will go to the extreme, enforcing patriarchal practices with a religious colour.

“If people knowingly move to a secular country, they should live within it. If we make too many concessions, we are in danger of losing the secular freedom of the law.” ♦

and the [BANNED] played on: deeyah

She sheds her burka – one moment completely concealed in black robes – to standing at the edge of a swimming pool wearing heels and a bikini…

For young music artist Deeyah, born of Afghan and Pakistani parents, it may have seemed a provocative act to perform in a music video. For audiences made cynically accustomed to hearing about censorship in the Muslim world, such expression would seem an unsurprising and obvious target for censors. Yet Deeyah, born in supposedly liberal modern Norway, has faced censorship in her own country since she was 7 years old.

Before 2006, when censorship forced her retreat from the concert stage, Deeyah was a chart success both in Norway and in Britain, a classically-trained musician in the traditions of Pakistan and North India, while threading her unique bell-like vocals into modern pop and contemporary song. This multicultural background has lead to rare musical distinctions, the only female ever to be trained by classical maestros like Ustad Sultan Khan while pop-sampled by music stars including Janet Jackson.

For Deeyah however, her talents and her troubles began from childhood, the moment she started to perform. While her father keenly encouraged her to play music, many Muslims who had left their home countries for Norway expressed displeasure that a girl should be making public performances. From albums like the critically acclaimed Deepika, she caused uproar by dancing with men in videos, finding herself the target of death threats, abuse, pepper spray at concerts and an attempted abduction. It was a violent non-government censorship that followed subsequent career moves to Britain, continuing to dog her concert career.

The ‘burka-to-bikini scene’ from song  “What Will it Be’ lead to censorship in Britain, banned by UK station network B4U because of threats of violence. Deeyah has not been silenced however. 

Though no longer able to perform, she has turned her talented ear to producing the culturally rich, Listen to the Banned, a collection of modern and traditional songs from artists censored by religion, cultural and political persecution. Artists are sourced from countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Artists like Farhad Darya, banned by Afghan Taliban against music of all kinds, or Ferhat Tunç, imprisoned in Turkey for singing songs about the plight of Kurdish people.

In addition, Deeyah has produced projects for the free expression of music, while founding MEMINI to highlight the many women to have dissappeared through violent honour killings. From personal struggles, Deeyah has banded together the banned- ready  to be heard. ♦

A beautiful intro to Listen to the Banned can be heard here or ordered through listentothebanned.com and Amnesty International Shop.

celebrating reason: ayaan hirsi ali

They were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel: My Life

 Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an ardent feminist, atheist and best-selling author. Her autobiography Infidel details her escape from a life of oppression under her Muslim clan in Somalia to live in the comparatively secular West, first in The Netherlands, where she became a member of Parliament, and later as a political activist and founder of the AHA Foundation in the United States.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, AHA Foundation, Author and Rights CampaignerHirsi Ali will be attending as one of the keynote speakers at next year’s Global Atheist Convention A Celebration of Reason to be held in Melbourne Australia. (April 12-15) The event is expected to attract 4000 convention goers, and include other freethinking speakers, including authors of The God Delusion, biologist Richard Dawkins, and God is Not Great, journalist Christopher Hitchens.

Hirsi Ali has endured death threats, not for escaping an arranged marriage in her ‘home country’, but from Islamic extremists in Europe for her screenplay of Dutch filmmaker Theo VanGogh’s documentary Submission, which details the subjugation of women in Islamic societies. Theo Van Gogh was murdered in an Amsterdam street.

On fleeing Somalia she writes,

I [had] escaped. I ended up in Holland. With the help of many Dutch people, I managed to gain confidence that I had a future outside my clan. I decided to study political science, to discover why Muslim societies- Allah’s societies- were poor and violent, while the countries of the despised infidels were wealthy and peaceful. I was still a Muslim in those days. I had no intention of criticizing Allah’s will, only to discover what had gone so very wrong.

Ali’s roles as parliamentarian and activist for the plight of women and political refugees, and brave storyteller, will offer listeners to the Global Atheist Convention much to ponder. They will owe the greater measure of gender equality in the West that allows Hirsi Ali’s intellect to be read, heard and appreciated, the benefit gained from her insights and experience of life under tyranny. The audience will no doubt acknowledge the generally secular nature of Western democratic society for Hirsi Ali’s ability to critique the dogmas and rules that oppress populations of, curtail opportunity for, millions throughout the un/developing world.

One question remains; what role can Australia play in gaining the wisdom, intelligence and fierce bravery of those seeking political asylum to our shores, as Hirsi Ali had in Europe? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy both for they and us, if like the regimes they attempt to escape, we not accept and reward the contributions they have to offer? To turn away and turn them away?

Next year, Australians will owe Ayaan Hirsi Ali for coming so far to celebrate reason. That would indeed be lucky for us, and a responsibility to share with others ♦

[Quotes also taken from Ali, A.H. (2007) ‘How [and Why] I Became an Infidel’ in Christopher Hitchens Ed. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-believer. Hirsi Ali is also author of The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason and Nomad: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations]