Liberal martyr or Islamophobe, Salman Rushdie wrong on Palestine

Rushdie’s comments are part and parcel of a wider campaign to demonise, ostracise and ultimately criminalise Muslimness in the Western world, writes Nadeine Asbali [photo credit: Lucie Wimetz/TNA/Getty Images]

It’s hard to think of a writer more contentious than Salman Rushdie.

From death threats to fatwas, insult to injury, the Indian-born British-American author has carved out a career from controversy, becoming a martyr in the process. The darkened lens over his right eye is now a symbol of sacrifice, lost in a life-changing and condemnable attack two years ago.

To some, he’s a liberal hero — the ultimate champion of secularism and free speech who becomes more revered the more he’s attacked. But to Muslims like me, Salman Rushdie is the embodiment of modern-day Islamophobia, a literary figure who masquerades as a ‘progressive free thinker’ and a by-product of a liberal atheist elite obsessed with Islam. 

What’s more, Salman Rushdie’s recent comments on Palestine confirm what many of us had been saying about his brand of liberal atheism: that it is predicated upon, and comes full circle back to, thinly-veiled Islamophobia.

Salman Rushdie says the quiet part out loud

Speaking to a German podcast last week about the US campus protests, Salman Rushdie said that whilst he’d “argued for a Palestinian state for most of (his life) — right now, if there was a Palestinian state, it would be run by Hamas, and that would make it a Taliban-like state, and it would be a client state of Iran,” adding, “It’s very strange for young, progressive student politics to kind of support a fascist terrorist group.”

In this statement, the West’s poster child of free speech makes an ironically reductive statement about the intentions of pro-Palestine protesters by conflating the support for Palestine with support for Hamas. In doing so, Salman Rushdie peddles right-wing conspiracy theories linking Palestinian activism to terrorism and extremism. 

We’ve seen this false equivalence of pro-Palestinian activism and extremism become commonplace in mainstream political discourse in recent months. It’s almost always weaponised against politically active Muslims advocating for causes against their government’s bloody, imperial aims.

Consider Rishi Sunak’s ominous and loaded reference in March 2024 to pro-Palestine protests as extremist “forces at home trying to tear us apart” or the media describing the UK university protests as “antisemitism on campus”. Just a few days ago, a teacher was charged with a hate crime for waving a placard showing Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman as coconuts

The conflation of support for Palestine with extremism is dangerous enough. But, in a way, Rushdie’s comments are even more menacing because his skin tone and Muslim-sounding name afford him a status that carries more weight. 

Salman Rushdie’s entire career has been built on the facade that he is progressive, forward-thinking, and liberal so hearing him describe a future Palestinian state as a “Taliban-like” satellite state of Iran is even harder to dismiss as puerile politics.

Rushdie’s position has changed from purported criticism of a sacred text — although many of us believe that it was always rooted in Islamophobia — to the sort of outright Islamophobia that we usually see on the front of a tabloid paper. This trajectory is part and parcel of a wider campaign to demonise, ostracise and ultimately criminalise Muslimness in the Western world and often this is done under the guise of liberal, secular values. 

Anything but Islam

The most outspoken atheists of today, like Richard Dawkins, have also revealed themselves to be nothing but elite white men with an unhealthy obsession with Islam and Muslims. Dawkins’ recent revelation that he is actually “culturally Christian” — despite making a name for himself on the premise that he is an atheist — because Christianity is fundamentally “decent” whereas Islam is “not”, and his specific reference to Islam’s “hostility to women” are all in the same vein as Rushdie’s comments.

The message is that Islam is inherently backwards, inferior, and violent and the opposite is always better because it has more proximity to superior Western values, whether that is Christianity, secularism or outright atheism. 

I’ve always been somewhat bemused by the West’s veneration of Rushdie, and his status as part literary deity, part emblem of the West itself. But in his most recent comments, the facade of Rushdie has never been more transparent. 

His appeal amongst the liberal elite is precisely because he is a walking-talking, career-long reminder of violence and intolerance that is supposedly exceptional to Islam and Muslims. His life in hiding, the fatwas issued against him, and now the physical injury of his blinded eye all send a constant, reverberating message that Muslims are illiberal and parochial and “we”, the west, are the very antithesis to this. And the West thrives on this opportunity to cast itself as superior, tolerant and progressive. 

This was limiting enough for Muslims before. But now Rushdie’s comments have tipped into constituting a direct threat against the liberties of Muslims in Britain and beyond.

In a climate in which our political activism is already criminalised, in which our children are already hyper-policed in school, and our religious freedoms are being curbed by the day, the face of Western liberalism rendering opposition to genocide equal to terrorism should be something that worries us all.

Nadeine Asbali is a freelance writer and secondary school teacher based in London. She is the author of Veiled Threat: On Being Visibly Muslim in Britain

Follow her on X: @nadeinewrites

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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