The terms “East” & “West” as used in this introduction are an unsatisfactory sort of shorthand for the two extremes which the “Rushdie Affair” has tended to produce. “East” means something like “those critics of Rushdie who are Muslims and who live in predominantly Muslim countries, the majority of which are in the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia,” though it is also meant to cover people whose cultural heritage is rooted in these countries and who still identify with it. “West” here stands for the predominantly non-Muslim secular cultures from which much of Rushdie’s support has come, principally Europe and the Americas, where the tradition of freedom of press is often valorized over religious faith.
I am aware that by using these terms I risk “Orientalizing,” reinforcing prejudices about the cultures comprehended under the term “East;” but that is not my intention. I cannot stress strongly enough that there are many liberal Muslim critics who have spoken out in support of Rushdie, and there are others who feel deep conflicts between their religion and their loyalty to free expression. There is a whole spectrum of attitudes in the “West” as well. For instance, some extremely conservative Christians reacted against Rushdie’s work as “blasphemous” even though they reject the religion they say is being blasphemed.
But this debate has polarized discussion in many quarters. There are discernibly different operating assumptions between the two extremes which it is important to understand in order to be able to follow the debate. Attempts to mediate between the fatwa-issuers and the civil libertarians have been, by and large, abject failures because the fundamental assumptions of the two sides are incompatible. It is important to be clear about this incompatibility.
I needed some kind of easily comprehensible terms to use in this discussion. I tried various descriptive phrases, but they were all hopelessly cumbersome. If anyone has an alternative wording which could allow me to still express my thesis, I would welcome suggestions.