Humour in the face of tyranny

Hadi Matar had only read “a couple of pages” of Salman Rushdie’s work when he dashed on stage at a literary event and stabbed the novelist 10 times in the chest and face.

He didn’t have a clue what Rushdie had written, but he knew he hated him.

Why? Because Iran’s supreme leader at the time, Ayatollah Khomeini, decided a novel was blasphemous, and Matar respected the cleric — a man who used children as mine-sweepers during the country’s war with Iraq.

“I think he’s a great person,” he told the New York Post in a video interview from prison.

Khomeini had issued a call ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie in 1989, forcing him to live in hiding under tight security for decades.

If you’ve never read ‘The Satanic Verses’, the book at the heart of this controversy, you might wonder what the fuss was about.

It’s a complicated, multilayered novel about migration, rootlessness and alienation — themes that would resonate with contemporary readers.

The Iranian theocrat claimed Rushdie’s reference to the so-called Satanic Verses — words of “satanic suggestion” praising three pagan goddesses in Mecca that Muhammad was alleged to have mistaken for divine revelation while receiving the word of god — was blasphemy against Islam.

The reference comes from early religious commentaries and biographies of Muhammad that were accepted by religious authorities for two centuries and later rejected because they placed his infallibility into question.

Mentioning it seems like an awfully strange reason for killing someone. But disagreements over obscure historical theology may not have been the only reason the hardline cleric condemned the novelist to the fate he nearly suffered last week.

As the writer and prominent critic of fundamentalism, Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote in UnHerd, “Salman included a Khomeini-like figure in ‘The Satanic Verses’. A character called only the Imam, he is also an exile seeking to return to his homeland to overthrow a despot and install his own tyranny. Like Khomeini, the Imam wants to turn back time […] And like Khomeini, the Imam succeeds in his quest and devours the very people who saw him as a messiah against the despot.”

Was Khomeini upset at an obscure theological reference? Or was he enraged at a fictional portrayal of a despot that hit too close to home?

Like Hadi Matar, the men who carried out the death sentence against Daphne Caruana Galizia had never read anything she wrote. In fact, they didn’t have a clue who she was.

“If I knew, I would have gone for €10 million, not €150,000,” George Degiorgio told journalist Stephen Grey on the ‘Who Killed Daphne?’ podcast. “I never met her in her life.” For him and his brother, it was just “business as usual”.

They killed her for cash allegedly paid by someone afraid of what she was about to publish.

But those who persecuted the journalist throughout her life — setting her house on fire, killing her dogs, painting insults on walls and harassing her with spurious libel suits — hated her because she dared to mock their political heroes, revealing them as shallow, money-grubbing posers on the make at taxpayer’s expense.

“She made people laugh,” Matthew Caruana Galizia said on episode seven of the podcast series. “She could also poke fun at the people she was writing about.”

“In a country like Malta that’s really male-dominated,” he said, “and where a lot of the politicians that she was reporting on have this over-inflated sense of self, these massive egos, her way of writing that made fun of them was a real mortal wound to them. They just couldn’t take it, that this woman was making fun of them.”

Daphne, like Salman Rushdie, knew humour is a powerful weapon against authoritarians.

Such leaders surround themselves with adoring supporters who gush praise, inflating their already outsized sense of personal grandeur. Humour bursts that swollen ego in a way facts can’t.

It’s difficult to be afraid of someone who’s become a figure of ridicule.

It’s impossible to watch a video of Vladimir Putin without noticing he wears heel lifts in his shoes to look taller.

Donald Trump relished nothing more than a battle of insults, but he went apoplectic with rage over Alec Baldwin mocking him on Saturday Night Live.

And when inspectors from the homicide squad arrived in the night to arrest Caruana Galizia for violating an obscure ‘day of silence’ electoral law in 2013, she knew they’d been sent because she made fun of Joseph Muscat.

“I knew exactly which blog post it was,” she wrote the next day, “the one with three videos that show him waddling away from parliament, laying wreaths like a klutz, and making a hick scene in the European Parliament because they didn’t get him a translator.”

His government was engulfed in scandal after scandal, but nothing dented his hold on power until he became a figure of contempt.

Muscat will never live down the image of himself scuttling out of parliament as protestors pelted his ministers with eggs.

I never met Daphne, we only corresponded by email during the year before she was killed. But I did have a chance to meet Salman Rushdie at a literary event in Berlin. He struck me as a gracious man and a brave one. And as an outspoken member of PEN International, he was an early voice calling for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The way to stand up to Rushdie’s attackers is to buy his books and read them.

And the way to stand up to those who killed Daphne is to support independent investigative journalism so that other brave journalists can carry on this work.


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saviour mamo
saviour mamo
1 month ago

Well done for your writing Ryan especially for this one.

Francis Said
Francis Said
1 month ago

Hear hear. An excellent article by Mr. Murdock.

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