Rushdie and Averroes against fanaticism

Salman Rushdie, the famous writer of Indian origin author of the satanic verses, was stabbed on August 12 in New York by Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old American of Lebanese origin. Thus was written the last chapter of a history of violence that began in 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued his sadly famous fatwa. In it, he called the work blasphemous and sentenced both Rushdie and his collaborators to death, unleashing a wave of attacks across the planet.

This August, more than three decades after this global persecution began, a boy born in the middle of California decided to take revenge for words that were written thousands of kilometers away and a decade before he was born. The violence seems to be able to jump not only from country to country, but also from generation to generation.

Many voices have been raised asking: What has gone wrong? What has happened so that a young man born and raised in the epicenter of tolerance and multiculturalism, in the era of Tik Tok and Instagram, has joined a spiral of revenge and violence? Other voices have replied to this question with another equally uncomfortable one: Is what has failed not been anything other than our expectations? Is it not a fanaticism as blind and disconnected from reality as those of us who denounce our is our liberal democracy capable of resisting everything, of integrating everything?

Francis Fukuyama and Samuel P. Huntington answered these questions in a forceful and opposite way. The first predicted in his the end of history that the world would adopt the free market and liberal democracy as a global system, reaching the last phase of political evolution of humanity and global peace. These theses gained great popularity after the collapse of the USSR, when it seemed that the world had begun to rid itself of totalitarianism and nuclear risk.

Peace as a transitory historical anomaly

Tiananmen, Sarajevo and Rwanda had strewn this path with stones, but on September 11, 2001, the promises of Fukuyama were definitively blown up next to the World Trade Center. The world looked for a model to explain what was happening and found it in Huntington and his clash of civilizations. The famous political scientist considered that the world was immersed in a permanent conflict, not based on ideology, as during the Cold War, but on a clash of religions. Any period of global peace based on world trade and international law was nothing but a temporary mirage, a historical anomaly that the wheel of History would be responsible for correcting as it did on September 11.

Huntington identified several reasons for such a dark omen: he considered that the differences between civilizations were too deep, that the interactions and frictions between civilizations were increasing and that national identities were disappearing, being replaced by civilizational identities. In this sense, Matar’s mother announced that her son changed radically when, after her parents’ divorce, she traveled to the family’s city of origin, Yaroun, a town on the border with Israel and famous for its support for Hezbollah.

Another factor is the loss of global power of the West and the emergence of new non-Western powers. If the disorderly withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan marked for many the end of an era in which the West exported democratic systems like exporting semiconductors, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was the swan song of this era of moral superiority.

Politics can easily change, but religion can’t.

And political decline is accompanied by economic decline: if in 1960 the US represented 40% of world GDP and China only 4%, in 2019 the US share fell to 24% and China’s grew to 16%. Huntington concludes that even if we want to change this dynamic, time is not on our side: while politics and economics can be easily changed, culture and religion have been around for millennia. Thus, while political clashes are like shooting stars that vanish in the history books, the great tectonic clashes are those that occur between civilizations.

Are we doomed to suffer this dark omen? Perhaps, despite everything, there are reasons for hope. First of all, the future is not written: also in the Cold War there were many analyzes that considered that a nuclear conflict between the US and the USSR was inevitable.

Secondly, it is possible to find examples of religious coexistence in the same political entity: India, for example, with all the political and social problems it may have, has managed to become the largest democracy on the planet with 1.4 billion Hindus, Muslims , Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Animists.

Statue of Averroes in Cordoba.
Shutterstock / Renata Sedmakova

Salman Rushdie’s father

Thirdly, voices arise within every civilization that build bridges of communication and understanding with others: Rushdie’s father adopted his surname as a tribute to Averroes, the famous 12th-century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba. Anis Ahmed renounced his family name to change it to Ibn Rushd – in Arabic. Like Rushdie, Averroes also suffered censorship, banishment and attacks from fanaticism, in his case for defending that Aristotelian philosophy and free knowledge were not opposed to Islam. And, despite the violent attempts to silence him, his philosophical thought has survived to this day. In the same way, Matar has not been able to silence Rushdie’s voice and his work will continue to be a radical example of freedom from fanaticism of all kinds.

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