N.P.R.: Why did you contribute to the book called “For Rushdie”? You now have a fatwa against you. This would be seen as a provocation, as a spitting in the eye of the Iranian regime. Why are you taking the risk of doing this?
M.A.: Surely, the provocation has come from the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has started this terrifying manhunt, not from me. But if my defending Rushdie is considered a spit in the eye of that regime, so be it. I would love that. Having said that, I think it was my duty to defend Rushdie not only as an intellectual but first and foremost as an Iranian. Do not forget that the fatwa was issued in Iran. I don’t want the people of the world think that Iranians are all mullahs.
N.P.R.: Some people… don’t agree with Rushdie’s ideas. What are your feelings about this?
M.A.: I don’t belong to that group. Anyway, to agree or disagree with Rushdie’s ideas is neither here nor there. One doesn’t read fiction to agree or disagree — one may like or dislike a novel point. I enjoyed reading his “Midnight’s Children”, and I certainly back him up for writing the “Satanic Verses”. Certain parts are so funny. Under the circumstances, I would have backed him up irrespective of his being a good or a bad writer. One other point that might be of some interest to your audience: all the historical facts in that book are correct and can be found in reference books such as “Tabari’s Chronicle”2, which has never been contested by the Muslims. Rushdie has not invented anything. So those who say that he has insulted Islam etc. are just talking through their hats. Other parts, which are pure imaginations of the author, should be judged only by literally standards, not by religious decrees.
N.P.R.: You said that even if you didn’t agree with the book, you would have contributed to “For Rushdie”. Why?
M.A.: Because I personally believe that freedom of thinking, writing, creating, is the preliminary freedoms of every human being. I think these are among the greatest achievements of mankind. What is more they are man made and have nothing to do with divine laws. Men have to care for these values. So I care.
N.P.R.: You are saying as an Iranian you feel you have a duty really to stand up for Rushdie. Is this because you see this exercise, this book, as a sort of teaching to the West: “Hey you know we are not all fanatics out there!” Do you see it that way?
M.A.: If there is any teaching involved here, it is addressed to the Islamic Republic. However, I would like this book to make the West aware of the fact that Iranians are not all terrorists or fanatics. Many of them appreciate the achievements of the West and share the same universal values with Western people. These universal values are not absent from my country, which is a very ancient country with a very ancient culture. In the real Iranian culture, there is a great deal of room for freedom of speech — and for defending it.
N.P.R.: Do you think a lot of Iranians agree with you?
M.A.: I certainly do. Let me tell you an anecdote that may or may not be useful to you. Very few Iranians, those living in Iran that is, have read Rushdie’s book for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, people are aware of Rushdie affair as such. I was told by a friend that once a woman, not an intellectual one, fed up with the situation in Iran, shouted in the face of an official: “Long live Rushdie! He knows you in and out!” That goes to show what ordinary people think of this whole business. Therefore, without claiming to be the representative of all Iranians, I believe, I am talking for a great majority of them.
N.P.R.: What impact do you like this book to have?
M.A.: I personally believe the whole issue of fatwa is a political one. We have the Islamic Republic on one side and Rushdie on the other. We are witnessing a duel between these two and I believe that only one would come out of it alive. Obviously, I want that one to be Rushdie. And this book can help.
N.P.R.: But this is just a book. (Mind you Rushdie also wrote just one book as well). But the fact that hundred Arabic Muslims — but you are not an Arab and I think some of the other contributors, such as Edward Saïd, are Christians…
M.A.: All contributors belong to the so-called Muslim world.
N.P.R.: Yes. You’ve come together on this. What is the significance of that for you?
M.A.: The significance is great. To begin with, it is the first time ever that hundred intellectuals belonging to that part of the world have come out with one single voice and have talked about something which has been considered as a taboo so far. They have broken this taboo. But evidently, I am perfectly conscious that one book cannot do much and cannot have an everlasting impact. However, this is the beginning of a long road for all of us and I hope that we will follow it to the very end. To see the light at the end of the tunnel we still have a long walk. This is just the beginning but a good and a solid one.
N.P.R.: The light in the end of the tunnel for you, I assume, is a much bigger issue than Rushdie. What is it exactly for you?
M.A.: Well, look, the theocratic government of Iran has committed a lot of illegal and immoral acts ever since its existence, but the world has turned a blind eye at all these deeds. The issue is to make the public opinion aware of these atrocities and through public opinion give a warning to Western governments that enough is enough. They now must stand firm against the totalitarian regime of Iran, which not only has taken a whole nation hostage, but has also let loose the mad dog of fanaticism in a very sensitive part of the world — and now, by issuing that infamous fatwa, it’s playing cat and mouse with Europe. So far, no Western government has taken the stand it should have for Rushdie. I personally believe that, by bringing enough political and economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, the West can make the mullahs to swallow up the fatwa and double quick, thus making them behave in a civilised way.
N.P.R.: You said that it is very important that a hundred intellectuals have got together and spoken with one voice. Do you see changes happening in the Islamic world, if one could use that expression…? Do you see a sort of counter movement perhaps by democratically minded people who are just getting fed up?
M.A.: Yes, that’s exactly what is happening. You know that the question of secularity in Islamic countries has never been properly tackled so far. I believe that the democratic minded people in the “Muslim world”, as you put it, are getting fed up with that situation. They are getting more and more mobilised. Now it’s not pure coincidence that Muslim zealots kill intellectuals in Algeria, or that fundamentalists are after Aziz Nessin in Turkey and Negib Mahfouz in Egypt. The intellectuals are targeted everywhere by the fanatics because they are the ones who form public opinion and who dare to break the taboos once and for all.
N.P.R.: … You say you have to speak up and it is your duty… But you could be threatened for these couldn’t you?
M.A.: Obviously… That possibility always exists, but I refuse to be intimidated. If I do, I would be playing their game and that is exactly what they expect of me: to become meek and shut my mouth. This procedure has worked for centuries: absolute obedience or else hell fire in that world, flogging and stoning in this! The only way to stop this scandalous blackmail is by voicing one’s opinions — and high time too.
N.P.R.: There is a rise of racism and anti-Islamic feelings in France. Do you think this spoke is important from the domestic French political and sociological point of view?
M.A.: Xenophobia has always existed in France as an under-current. Perhaps one might feel now that there is a rise of anti-Islamic feelings here. But if that is the case, then I must say that fundamentalists have given the French ample excuses for legitimising an otherwise illegitimate feeling. Apart from the terrorist acts perpetuated by the Islamists in France, let us take the question of chador that those Muslim girls insist on wearing at school. Most Westerners don’t realise that this chador, this “uniform”, has come straight out of Islamic revolution of Iran and is a fabrication of the fundamentalists. This is not just an inoffensive religious symbol such as a cross worn by a Christian and so forth. This is the symbol of a combative and aggressive Islam, an Islam fantasised by fundamentalists… I’m not defending French policies mind you, but in this particular case, I believe, that the decisions taken by the government are justified. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t say that these measures were due to the rise of the anti-Islamic feelings.
N.P.R.: What is the message, what is so provocative about wearing this chador in your view?
M.A.: The comparison of the ideals emerged from the revolution in Iran with those resulted from communism is not an exaggerated one. Mullahs, just as the communist leaders, claim that their beliefs should be universally accepted; they don’t limit themselves to the “Islamic world” but want to export their revolution, their religion, their ideas and their ideologies. In that context, that form of chador is their way of saying: we are present everywhere and we can meddle with your lives as we wish. No democracy can afford to have the enemies of democracy in its bosom. This situation is explosive, particularly for a country such as France, with her common frontiers with Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco and the considerable number of French Muslims. Muslims have lived more or less a normal life here for years and years. This is a secular country after all, and those who come here should abide by the laws of this country. Any demonstration against secularism, particularly in the educational establishments, which are secular “par excellence”, should be dealt with legally and taken very seriously indeed. Religious or racial partiality makes me sick, but the reaction shown in this particular case is nothing of the sort. What these girls have been incited to do is to let out a war cry.
N.P.R.: OK. Let me ask you just a last question about this. But conversely, making such a big deal about it and having so much publicity, isn’t this almost counter-productive in the sense you say: well I don’t like Rushdie’s ideas but that fatwa has turned him in to a martyr? (Those young girls did look like martyrs on TV.) By suppressing these girls, won’t they in turn become martyrs? Don’t you think then there is a dangerous side to this?
M.A.: You may be right. The whole thing could actually boomerang. I won’t elaborate here on the fact that those who cry aloud – “Oh! Let those poor girls dress according to their convictions!” – are exactly those who have deprived Iranian women from the right of choosing their attire, and now are giving all sorts of financial, logistic and moral support to all fundamentalists all over the world: That won’t answer your pertinent question would it? All I can say is that it is up to the French government to go about this matter in such a way as not to martyrize these girls. Without denying the fact that this whole business may prove to be a double-edged sword, I strongly believe that it must be stopped; otherwise, one would hear no end of the interference of such people in the daily life of the French citizens.
1This interview (transcription from rush) was given to the National Public Radio on the publication of English version of “pour Rushdie”. This book, originally in French and containing a hundred texts written by a hundred intellectuals of the Muslim world in defence of Rushdie, has been translated into different languages.
2Most authoritative chronicle about the life of Mohammad by Mohammad Jarir Tabari (d. 923), Persian historiographer and interpreter of Koran.