(continued) Rushdie was in hiding for years after the fatwa was issued and received sustained protection from the British police (whom he had caricatured in his novel as brutes, ironically enough). Technically he is still in danger. Meanwhile so-called identity politics is whipping up the idea of victimhood into a perfect storm of ‘the little tremors of the mind and heart’, to take a phrase of Auden’s. There is suffering and there is suffering: a sense of proportion is being lost. I think of the bearded youth and the bookseller. The gargantuan offence taken by so much of the Muslim world, at what were only words used cleverly in a rather childish way, is altogether inapposite on the surface – but it springs from something that is nothing to do with a few naughtily-used words. At a deeper level it is understandable.
The action proposed – death – is an over-reaction, to put it lightly. But as a lashing-out from a tumbled, jumbled history of tribes and races in a head-on collision with the West – a pattern of centuries – it makes a kind of emotional sense. And this is what is so often forgotten in the weighing-up of rights and wrongs in flashpoints and confrontations large and small, with nations as with individuals. It is an emotional situation.
A gesture is needed, a gesture that is felt. The West is often technically in the right and emotionally in the wrong. It is consumed by a kind of narcissism whereby the headway it is making on its own is good enough, and its interest in other cultures is minimal.
To learn songs, prayers, poems and sayings in other languages would profit the learner and reach the heart of those for whom such things are their daily sustenance. The language of dance or of music also can speak across a divide. There is so much – so much – to be informed by, to learn.
It is the West that has to come out of hiding. Small advances can meet with tremendous results. Wary as I am of a culture that looks for micro-aggressions in its internal behaviour, I think it is worth looking out for a casual macro-aggression long in operation against the Orient at large. It must have been thirty years ago that I saw a complacent bookseller make the smallest of overtures to a wounded spirit and even so, to touch a nerve. It has taken me this long to realise I am that bookseller in my Anglophone complacency, in my European sense of a higher civilisation, in my Western prison. I hope my grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will know what to do, when the outside world comes battering at the walls.