Salman Rushdie's Insensitivity. The writer abused his freedom by ridiculing Muslim beliefs in a way sure to offend

SALMAN RUSHDIE, the Indian-born British subject whose book ``The Satanic Verses'' is causing such furor, is a man who straddles two worlds, one predominantly traditional and religious, the other largely modern and secular. He exists in a marginal realm, one that is neither fully part of the world he has left, nor completely of that he has adopted. The brilliance of Salman Rushdie as a writer is that he can eloquently capture and articulate the personal frustrations generated by a contemporary world that is still defined, in large part, by the long and painful struggle between traditional and modern modes of social existence.

The marginal space in the human experience from which Mr. Rushdie writes is a precarious place. It has served him well as a source of inspiration, but it now threatens his life. The pronouncement of a death sentence on him by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the insistence in the West of Rushdie's ``right'' to write whatever he wants, underscore how far apart two worlds can be.

People in the West believe deeply in the right to think freely and to express those thoughts freely. We understand this right to be ``endowed inalienably'' by our ``Creator.'' We should recognize, however, that we believe in this right with no more conviction and sincerity than those of people who support the position taken by the mullahs of Iran.

Their understanding of rights is fundamentally different from our own. Their reality is founded on absolute submission to the will of God, as it was received through divine revelation and elucidated through centuries of Islamic jurisprudence. Islamic law makes no provision for freedom of expression, but it does for apostasy and blasphemy. To believe in that law implies acceptance of the penalties prescribed for its violation.

There is no objective method of demonstrating conclusively that the Islamic perception of reality is more or less valid than our own. The inherent right we invoke must be recognized for what it is - an ideal that we collectively cherish and believe in without universal acceptance from others or absolute, incontestable proof that we are correct.

AS a professional writer, Salman Rushdie knows the importance and power of words. He knows both the good and the evil that words can arouse in the hearts and souls of men. His special circumstance, which makes him a part of two very different worlds, entails a special obligation to know and weigh the impact of his words in both of those worlds. The great potential of Rushdie is that, because he stands at the intersection of two worlds, one modern and secular and the other traditional and religious, he has much to offer both worlds in terms of a mutual understanding, or at least an acceptance of each other.

The tragedy of this book is that Rushdie has driven his two worlds apart, not brought them closer together.

The trouble with his latest work arises from two chapters involving a series of dream sequences that have deeply offended the Muslim world. That the chapters in question refer to the prophet Muhammad cannot seriously be disputed by anyone familiar with the Islamic religious tradition. Rushdie's recent protests to the contrary are as disingenuous as they are self-serving.

The problem is less that Rushdie has expressed his own doubt about faith than it is the technique he has employed to articulate that doubt. This essentially involves an insulting depiction of the Muhammad, which can hardly be anything but deeply offensive to a true believer, even the most tolerant, educated, or Westernized among them. Rushdie cannot claim ignorance of the world he has so deeply offended. The fact that Rushdie has chosen to use the technique that he did raises serious issues of his responsibility and sensitivity as a writer. To communicate one's own doubt is one thing, but to do so by deliberately debasing and demeaning what others still cherish as sacred is to cross an altogether different line.

What has enraged Muslims is the way Rushdie has chosen to articulate his doubt by insensitively degrading and devaluing what millions of believing Muslims continue to perceive as sacrosanct. Most of Rushdie's Western readers will not understand what he has done, or appreciate why it is so offensive to Muslims. But the life of the prophet is so familiar and sacred to devout Muslims that Rushdie's treatment of it cannot help offending.

In light of this situation, is it not fair to ask how responsibly Rushdie has exercised the treasured right of free expression guaranteed him in the world he has adopted as his own? In questioning his own faith, was it truly necessary for him to depict the prophet of Islam as a lying, licentious misogynist and fraud? In searching for our own truths, how much must we destructively trample on and degrade the faith of others? Why, at a time when the mutual understanding between the Islamic tradition that he was born into, and the Western secular tradition that he has adopted, is so clearly lacking, was it necessary to excite this type of anger?

What exactly is to be gained from the further ignorant ridicule of the Muslim world, on the part of the Western audience that does not understand Islam, or the profound humiliation and resentment of the audience that believes very sincerely and deeply in Islam? When the discourse between our two traditions is already so strained and garbled, do we really need this provocative and inflammatory approach? Is the light it sheds worth the pain, and now blood, that it has cost? Rushdie is certainly not the first writer to explore the difficult issues of personal crisis of faith generated by the inner clash of tradition and modernity, but he may well be one of the most insensitive to probe that complex dimension of the human psyche.

It is unclear why someone whose reputation rests to such an extent on a personal awareness and understanding of the frustration often endured by people caught in the clash between a traditional and a modern world would deliberately engage in a project that could not have been more carefully designed to enrage and offend one of those two worlds, while not leaving either world ultimately more informed about the other. Either Rushdie did not appreciate what he was doing, or he did and he simply didn't care. If the answer is the former, he has now lost touch with the culture into which he was born. If it is the latter, he may just have lost touch with his own soul and humanity.

IT is not necessarily incumbent upon the writers of great literature to make us feel good. The very best literature is often that which deeply challenges and disturbs us. But there is a difference between the kind of writing that provokes a healthy anger in people, such that it ultimately opens their eyes to new thoughts, and hurtful prose that serves only to offend and blind them. Rushdie's book falls into the second category. The ignorance, ridicule, humiliation, and resentment that parts of this book have nourished will neither illumine the human condition nor open the minds and hearts of people on different sides of the great divide between tradition and modernity.

The anger in the Islamic world provoked by Rushdie's book arises from a profound sense of pain caused by calculated and senseless ridicule. The hurt caused by this work may be a powerful force in making it a best seller, but they are not particularly useful in helping us to better understand either ourselves or the common humanity we need to recognize in each other, especially in the frightening complexity of the contemporary age. In our world, Salman Rushdie has a right to do what he has done. That is an important right, one that we should defend against the ayatollah or anyone else.

But we, as part of a larger collective humanity, also have rights. We have a right to expect more sensitivity from our writers. We have a right to expect our writers to know the power of the written word, and to exercise their right to use the written word in a responsible manner. We have a right to expect more from our writers. We have a right to expect them to use their talent to help us understand ourselves and each other. Finally, we have a right to feel disappointed when they let us down.

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