Hazem Saghieh

Going Back to a Young Man Named Hadi Matar

Hadi Matar, the young man of Lebanese descent who said that he had read only two pages of The Satanic Verses, stabbed Salman Rushdie ten times. Luckily, Matar didn’t read the entire novel (546 pages); otherwise, he would have stabbed him 2,730 times. That is what we conclude from a simple arithmetic exercise.

Nonetheless, the matter, at the end of the day, has nothing to do with reading. For this reason, those demanding that Rushdie’s haters read the novel or “open a dialogue” with his book instead of calling for his murder are missing the point (how does one have a “dialogue” with a novelist about his novel?).

Whether or not one has read his work, one should, according to a certain doctrinal environment, cut off Salman Rushdie’s head. That is because the Indian British novelist, who is now receiving treatment, proposes that we engage with a creative work of literature founded on imagination- to think, as free individuals, about things that those who preceded us had not contemplated and to assess this work as such. The challenge is made more difficult by another that is more prone to imploding and exploding: the link between the Rushdie affair and living in pluralistic democratic societies that one rarely finds in our Arab and Muslim countries. Hadi Matar, who was given this freedom where he lives in the United States, found it terrifying because it implies responsibility, and freedom can only come with responsibility.

The German psychologist and social scientist Erich Fromm addressed this phenomenon in his famous book Escape from Freedom: when an individual is free, he becomes more anxious and feels less secure because he must now take the decisions and stances that the family, political authority, or religious authority no longer takes for him. This is a burden that many cannot tolerate, and they escape this intolerable freedom and responsibility by adopting the ideas that others had already thought and put forward. They thus symbolically return to a time before they matured and attained their freedom, when others would think for them. Rather, they could return to the time before they were born, that is, to when they were mere fetuses. That is because only fetuses in their mothers’ wombs live in complete comfort and reassurance. They do not think or work and are not obliged to compromise with anyone else; indeed, they exert no effort, even to obtain their nutrition. Here, in the womb, the fetus finds absolute security and has nothing to worry about.

Hadi Matar found his symbolic womb in submitting himself to the ready-made “responses” of Ayatollah Khomeini, which did not bother to engage with anything novel, be it fictional literature or living in pluralistic modern society. Khomeini’s simple, predictable response, which Matar adopted, is as follows: Salman Rushdie insulted our religion, so kill him, and whoever kills him will be rewarded in this life and the next as well.

The solution is simple then, and it is made simpler by the fact that Matar did not think of the American other whom he lives next to, nor did he think of his way of life, sensibilities, and laws. The German-American political scientist Hannah Arendt warned us, in her extremely popular report on the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichman in Israel, of the danger of not thinking, especially not thinking of and with the other. Eichman, in her book with the subtitle the Banality of Evil, was not aware of the nature of what he was doing because of his inability to think from others’ perspectives. This lack, which explains his having committed his crimes, does away with any capacity to distinguish right from wrong. For Arendt, this is precisely what the banality of evil means.

If we were to couple Fromm’s theory together with that of Arendt, we would conclude the following: the most important consequence of going back to before we were born is that we are alone; we have no partners in the world, and nothing obliges us to account for others’ considerations or pay any mind to what they want.

A third chapter that does not seem to be of little significance remains: When Hadi visits Lebanon and sees Hezbollah’s unfettered strength that nothing can contain, he becomes certain of the Khomeinist response: it provides us with the capacity and strength to need neither independent thought nor to think of the other, and it also frees us from the burdens of freedom and the responsibility that comes with it.

In all these ways, getting rid of Salman Rushdie hits other targets, foremost among which is getting rid of the problem or burden of freedom and the responsibility and weight of living with others who differ. Unfortunately for them, Rushdie is likely to live, and the questions posed by this affair will likely stay alive as well.