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  • Rushdie Revisited
  • Ronald Beiner (bio)

". . . but you must know that only so much of poetry as is hymns to gods or celebration of good men should be admitted into a city. And if you admit the sweetened muse in lyrics or epics, pleasure and pain will jointly be kings in your city instead of law and that argument which in each instance is best in the opinion of the community."

"Very true," he said.

"Well, I said, "since we brought up the subject of poetry again, let it be our apology that it was then fitting for us to send it away from the city on account of its character. . . . All the same, let it be said that, if poetry directed to pleasure and imitation have any argument to give showing that they should be in a city with good laws, we should be delighted to receive them back from exile. . . . But as long as it's not able to make its apology, when we listen to it, we'll chant this argument we are making to ourselves as a countercharm . . . the man who hears [poetry] must be careful, fearing for the regime in himself. . . ."

The Republic, 607a-608b

Without question, the conflict and controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, did much to highlight the challenges of life in a multicultural society, and in that sense contributed significantly to making multiculturalism the extremely important topic of debate among political theorists that it currently is. For that reason, Bhikhu Parekh was right, in his original article devoted to these issues, to characterize the controversy as setting a "research agenda for political philosophy"; and he is doubly right to turn back to the topic in what is in effect the culminating chapter of his book, Rethinking Multiculturalism.1

Parekh presents himself in the guise of a political mediator. The political crisis over Rushdie's book could have been avoided if both Rushdie and his supporters, on the one side, and those whose religious sensibilities were outraged by the book, on the other, had displayed greater knowledge and understanding of their adversaries, and made concessions to pacify the other side. Parekh insists that we need to distinguish between moderate Muslim demands, which the wider liberal culture ought to have accommodated, and extreme demands (such as Rushdie's head on a platter), which Muslims ought to have known better than to have advanced in the first place. What is required is a mediator to bridge the cultural gap between liberal and non-liberal cultures, to explain the point of view of each to the other, and to explain patiently to each side how a full historical understanding of the development of opposing perspectives warrants whatever mutual compromises will bring cultural peace. But mediators often suffer the fate of displeasing both sides in the conflict they are trying to mediate, and in this particular case, there may well be reasons for both sides in the dispute to think that Parekh has failed to do justice to what they see as being at stake from their own point of view: on Rushdie's side, because Parekh wants to see art knocked down to size to fit the requirements of political peace, and on the side of Rushdie's critics, because he wants to do the same thing to the claims of religious faith (see p. 334).2

There are several ways in which Parekh attempts to make his job as a political mediator more manageable. First of all, he presents the whole story as an intra-British affair. The challenge, as Parekh presents it, is to get Rushdie to appreciate why British Muslims are so steamed up about his book, and, on the other side, to give British Muslims a better understanding of the historical basis for the British tradition of free speech (pp. 310-312).3 But the Rushdie affair is far from being a solely British affair; it involved acts of individual and communal violence in Belgium, Norway, Turkey, Australia, Pakistan, India, Italy, Japan, and the United States, and of course, it posed a direct threat of lethal violence against Rushdie himself emanating from Iran.4 As Rushdie rightly pointed out...


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