Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

All Is Not Lost: Art of Insult Survives 'New Britain'

Published in NY Times on Nov 27, 1997

LONDON, Nov. 26 -- Just when people nostalgic for a pricklier Britain were lamenting that the country was losing its touch for the wounding insult, two of the country's best-known writers have come to the rescue with a cascade of abusive comments about one another.

In a week of correspondence of growing vituperativeness, Salman Rushdie has called John le Carre ''an illiterate pompous ass,'' and Mr. le Carre has replied that Mr. Rushdie is ''self-canonizing'' and ''arrogant,'' blinded by the pursuit of increased royalties for himself from the physical danger that sales of his book posed to others.

The exchanges have taken place in a time-honored arena for mudslinging in Britain, the letters page of a newspaper, The Guardian. While other parts of the paper were covering the continuing push in high places to have Britain portrayed as a sensitive, caring, compassionate nation, Mr. le Carre and Mr. Rushdie were striking blows in the letters columns for the tradition of literary invective.

The feud began when Mr. le Carre complained that he had become the victim of a witch hunt by zealots of ''political correctness'' in the United States aimed at portraying him as anti-Semitic.

When he learned of the comment, Mr. Rushdie said he wished Mr. le Carre had had the same concern for him when he became the target of the fatwa declared by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran. That directive called on Muslims to kill Mr. Rushdie because of his perceived slighting of Islam in his book ''The Satanic Verses.''

Mr. le Carre made his observations in a speech to the Anglo-Israel Association this month, an extract of which was published in The Guardian on Nov. 15. He said the issue first arose in a 1996 New York Times review of his book ''The Tailor of Panama'' that said his portrayal of his principal character, a Judas figure, suggested a preoccupation with the notion of the Jew as traitor.

The current battle was joined a week ago when Mr. Rushdie wrote a letter for publication saying he couldn't sympathize with the complaint because Mr. le Carre had been ''so ready to join in an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer.''

The campaign he alluded to was an effort by Mr. le Carre and others to persuade Mr. Rushdie to halt distribution of paperback versions of his book because of the threat of harm aimed at people selling it.

''In 1989,'' Mr. Rushdie said, ''during the worst days of the Islamic attack on 'The Satanic Verses,' le Carre wrote an article in which he eagerly and rather pompously joined forces with my assailants.''

He suggested it would be ''gracious'' of Mr. le Carre to ''admit that he understands the nature of the Thought Police a little better now that, at least in his own opinion, he's the one in the firing line.''

The next day Mr. le Carre responded with a letter calling Mr. Rushdie ''arrogant,'' ''colonialist'' and ''self-righteous,'' saying: ''Rushdie's way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. I never joined his assailants. Nor did I take the easy path of proclaiming Rushdie to be a shining innocent. My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions may be insulted with impunity.''

He went on to say that in recommending a halt in distribution of the paperback version he was ''more concerned about the girl in Penguin Books who might get her hands blown off in the mail room than I was about Rushdie's royalties.''

The next day it was Mr. Rushdie's epistolary turn. ''I'm grateful to John le Carre for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be,'' the letter began. He said he had examined the ''lofty formulation'' put forward by Mr. le Carre and concluded that ''it suggests that anyone who displeases philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist folk loses his right to live in safety.''

Mr. Rushdie's letter was ''vile,'' shot back Mr. le Carre, an edict from his ''throne'' proclaiming that ''our cause is absolute, it brooks no dissent or qualification; whoever questions it is by definition an ignorant pompous, semi-literate unperson.'' The letter, he said, should be required reading for all British high school students as an example of ''cultural intolerance masquerading as free speech.''

Mr. Rushdie responded: ''John le Carre appears to believe I would prefer him not to go on abusing me. Let me assure him that I am of precisely the contrary opinion. Every time he opens his mouth, he digs himself into a deeper hole. Keep digging, John, keep digging. Me, I'm going back to work.''

Some historical footnotes have emerged that may account for the high levels of vitriol. In October 1989, Mr. Rushdie was asked by The Independent on Sunday to critique Mr. le Carre's ''Russia House.'' From his hideaway, Mr. Rushdie sent in a review that mocked Mr. le Carre's pretension to be considered more than a successful popular writer, concluding, ''Close, but -- this time anyway -- no cigar.''

In his Nov. 15 article Mr. le Carre said he was warned by friends of the futility of responding to the Times review that appeared on Oct. 20, 1996, which he contended ''smeared'' him as an anti-Semite. The review, by Norman Rush, a novelist, praised the book as a ''tour de force'' but faulted it for portraying the principal character, a Jew, as ''yet another literary avatar of Judas.'' Mr. Rush said the association, ''however little Mr. le Carre intended it,'' left him with a feeling of ''unease.''

Mr. le Carre described his reaction in the article, saying, ''I realized that we were dealing not with offbeat accusations of anti-Semitism so much as the whole oppressive weight of political correctness, a kind of McCarthyite movement in reverse.'' He said he wished he had ignored his friends' advice and gone ahead and written to The Times.

But in fact he did. The Times published his letter complaining that he had been ''tarred with the anti-Semitic brush.'' on Nov. 3, 1996, along with a response from Mr. Rush denying the contention. ''I have not said or implied that Mr. le Carre is an anti-Semite, and I do not think it,'' Mr. Rush wrote.

Mr. le Carre and Mr. Rushdie now appear to have vacated the ring, but others have leaped in. William Shawcross, an author and journalist who is a declared friend of both men, said he felt Mr. Rushdie's claims were ''outrageous'' and carried the ''stink of triumphalist self-righteousness.''

Asked if there was any more to come, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, said today that he had asked Mr. Rushdie if he cared to respond to Mr. Shawcross and that the writer's answer was: ''If le Carre wants to get his friends to do a little proxy whinging, that's his business. I've said what I have to say.''

An additional comment, notable for its equitable abusiveness, was contributed by a past master of the art of ''slanging,'' Richard Ingrams, the former editor of the satirical weekly Private Eye. He said: ''As I have a low opinion of both of them and can't bear to read either of their works, I must say I think they are both as bad as each other. Perhaps the solution is they should both sit down and write a book together.''

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