April 10, 2021

Interdisciplinary Discourse

Forum for KU Academics

Hypocrisy for Survival: Redefining Terrorism in SHALIMAR THE CLOWN

– Khagendra Acharya

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Published in 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie is made up of two narratives: one a love story in a beautiful setting, the other an assassination of the American ambassador in brutal manner. The first story depicts Kashmir as a paradise with, multi-cultural, multi-faith tolerance and harmony. Boonyi Kaul, who is the beloved in the story, is a dancer and the daughter of a Hindu pandit. Shalimar the clown, who is the lover in the story, is a performer and tightrope walker whose father is the Muslim headman. The space they live is Kashmir and there is no antagonism. Enjoying the condition of co-existence, the lovers get married and also receive the approval of society.
Boonyi-Shalimar love story is a node through which another story opens onto a wider domain of importance –an act of ‘terrorism’. The second story, which culminates into an assassination of the ambassador, starts with the coming of Maximilian Ophuls, an American Ambassador to Kashmir. Getting access to Max as his driver, he finds a comfortable space to accomplish his intention i.e. to slaughter the ambassador very brutally. In this sense, the murder story entails alternative definition of terrorism, which in turn provides significant domain for analysis due to two important reasons. Firstly, it supplies the content that is against the spirit of his earlier novel Satanic Verses (1988) and in tune with pro-Islam statements that he made later; and secondly, his statements post to the publication of Shalimar the Clown again reiterate the statements in the Satanic Verses. Taking into the entire history of Salman Rushdie’s definition and redefinition of the term terrorism, I would argue that Rushdie’s redefinition of terrorism in Shalimar the Clown is hypocrisy for survival.
No doubt, whether the novel is studied by foregrounding its setting or the storyline, we find the prime concern of critics to be territoriality. Taking into account a major aspect in Rushdie’s life i.e. the (hi)story behind Fatwa imposition by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 over him. In Satanic Verses, Rushdie has presented what Khomeini called “a calculated move aimed at rooting out religion and religiousness, and above all, Islam and its clergy”. As the novel was labeled an ‘apostasy’, he was condemned to death by Khomeini. Consequently, a $2.5 million bounty was put on his head, forcing Rushdie to go into hiding. In his attempt to escape from the decree, Rushdie announced and published apologies as a strategy for survival. In one of his announcement to apologize, Rushdie expressed regret as the publication hurt sincere followers of Islam.
Any of his apologies, however, were of no use; he had no any option to go hiding. One planned attack on Rushdie failed when the would-be bomber, Mustafa Mahmoud, blew himself up along with two floors of a central London hotel. Similarly, Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the book, was stabbed to death in July 1991, and many others were made targets of attack. Italian language translator, Ettore Capriolo and William Nygaard, the publisher in Norway, were among others who survived an attempted assassination. It was good that Rushdie could survive unharmed to hear Iranian government’s statement about the lifting of fatwa in September 1998. But, some fundamentalist Muslim groups declared that a fatwa cannot be lifted.
The corollary of Fatwa and Rushdie’s apology to lift it in 1989/90 reappears in 2005 and reveals an interesting fact behind the publication of Shalimar the Clown. Khomeini’s  fatwa against Rushdie was reaffirmed by Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in early 2005 in his message that read the day will come when they will punish the apostate Rushdie for his scandalous acts and insults against the Koran and the Prophet. With it followed the publication of Shalimar the Clown. The novel, like his essay “In Good Faith” does not attack Islam in the spirit of Satanic Verses: there is neither the criticism of recent Muslim political figures such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor the questioning to the authority of the very root of Islam: Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad. The only compelling instance in the novel that describes ‘fundamentally Islam’ a characteristic is ‘jihadi training camps’. But here too, he is not straightforward as before.
Another instance in which Shalimar assassinates Max (viewed by many of the westerners as terrorist attack) is shown to be the case of personal revenge. The intention here is clear: by explicitly castigating western historical specificity about terrorism, he implicitly makes plea again to lift Fatwa. But the novel fails to function as such. In 2007, Fatwa was again reaffirmed. Leading Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami declared that the revolutionary fatwa issued by Imam Khomeini remains valid and cannot be modified. What followed Khatamis statement was Rushdies reaction in an interview with Pamela Connolly. Rresponding to her question, why he adhered to Islam and spoke in favor of the religion, he answered that it was deranged thinking.
Rushdie’s answer is clearly non-pro-Islam. His response shows that he lives in between the guilt for the past (criticizing Islam) and faith in the statements manifested in Satanic Verses. Shalimar the clown dramatizes the guilt in the form of resistance to western discourse of terrorism as a consequence of Islamic fundamentalism. His faith, which is blasphemous for Islam, remains palimpsest here. By foregrounding his guilt, he attempts to appear true to Islam among the Muslim and thus make an apology to lift Fatwa. But once he knows that there is no such possibility, his anti-Islam mind resurfaces and does not hesitate to claim that he adhered Islam as strategy to escape ‘the pressure’. Hence, his redefinition of terrorism in the novel at the backdrop of the whole story from Khomeini’s Fatwa to his response to why he adhered to Islam cannot be dissociated. The close nexus compels any reader to conclude that Rushdie’s anti-western definition of terrorism in Shalimar the Clown is another hypocritical effort to survive from the Fatwa reaffirmed over him.     

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