The House of God: Readings from Joseph Anton

01 November, 2012

ON 14 FEBRUARY 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, passed a death sentence upon the writer Salman Rushdie. For Rushdie, the days that followed were hyper-tense, full of fear. In his new book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, Rushdie gives a gripping account of the threat against his life, his concealment under police protection and the alias Joseph Anton, his rapid succession of relocations, and of the world around him as it brimmed over with anger at his supposed apostasy and his “blasphemous” book, The Satanic Verses (1988).

Although Rushdie had some unstinting support—from his publishers, his friends, and people who steadfastly maintained the absolute primacy of free speech—he was widely and violently denounced. Among his many critics—a circus of Muslim clerics and extremists; a few British and American conservatives; and, to his surprise, even some liberal intellectuals, commentators and writers—was a curious alliance of religious leaders:

[The] Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, had said that he “understood the Muslims’ feelings”. Soon the Pope would understand those feelings too, and the British Chief Rabbi, and the Cardinal of New York. The God squad was lining up its troops.

Rushdie found it ironic that leaders from two major religions had expressed solidarity with leaders and followers of another major religion with which they had long been at loggerheads. Now, however, they all had a common enemy: not just a kafir—a Muslim non-believer in Islam—but also an atheist, who was considered an extreme outsider. Rushdie vented his anger with this irrational confederacy in one of the many imaginary letters to his critics that he began composing in his mind. One such letter, which Rushdie reconstructs in Joseph Anton, was addressed to the British Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits:

Now, to an outsider, a person of no religion, it might seem that the various claims to authority and authenticity made by Judaism, Catholicism and the Church of England contradict one another, and are also at odds with the claims made by and on behalf of Islam … why then this strange unanimity between apparent irreconcilables?

Rushdie continues:

No matter how much you may detest one another and seek to do one another down, you are all members of one family, occupants of the single House of God. When you feel that the House itself is threatened by mere outsiders, by the hell-bound armies of the irreligious, or even by a literary novelist, you close ranks with impressive alacrity and zeal.

It’s not inconceivable to imagine that there exists a tacit quid pro quo between the mass religions, which makes it acceptable, even advisable, for them to support one another’s self-defensive militancy. Hate and fear of the other is the strongest adhesive between religions. An illusion of perennial war is necessary to keep a hold on large swells of disciples and to get those disciples to fund the human-run machinery of God. If an atheist uses the same antagonistic language, however, the “apparent irreconcilables” swiftly rally together, lest the illusion is destabilised and the House of God comes crumbling down.

To the outsider, Rushdie notes in the concluding sentences of his letter to Jakobovits, the farce beneath the illusion is all too conspicuous. Comparing the House of God with the armies of Caesar, he writes:

Roman soldiers marching into the battle in close formation formed a testudo, or tortoise, the soldiers on the outside creating walls with their shields while those in the middle raised their shields over their heads to make a roof. So you and your colleagues, Chief Rabbi Jakobovits, have formed a tortoise of faith. You do not care how stupid you look. You care only that the tortoise is strong enough to stand.