In the name of inspiration

By Naif Al-Mutawa

How many of you read JD Salinger”s The Catcher in the Rye when you were in high school? I remember the novel as if it were yesterday. I became enamoured with the writer and went on to read his other novels.

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I remember his use of language. I remember the story of protagonist Holden Caulfield who finds the hypocrisy, phoniness and ugliness of the world around him almost unbearable, and through his cynicism he tries to protect himself from the pain and disappointment of the world.

I remember not wanting the story to end, I even remember that I used the book as a way to procrastinate and not write my college essays. I remember all of this.

Yet, funnily enough, I don”t remember the urge to shoot a cultural icon. In fact I never had the urge to shoot anyone.

Not after reading the book. Not now. Not ever.

Mark David Chapman, the assassin who gunned down Beatle John Lennon on December 9, 1980 carried with him a copy of JD Salinger”s classic and referred to the book during his interrogation by the police. John Hinckley, the would-be assassin of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 was also obsessed with the book. Both of them somehow tied their criminally violent acts to the same book.

Sound familiar?

Obsessed with wanting to crack the code, I re-read the book looking for some clue. Clearly there must be something wrong with me that I could not decipher the code in the book. I started reading every other letter to see if there was a pattern. I even held the book up to a mirror and tried to read the book backwards. I squinted to look for clues. Frustrated, I flirted with the idea of standing on my hands but the ratio of my height to my weight was not supportive of such a task. At the very least I thought maybe the rush of blood to my head would help me find something.

I found nothing.

Clearly I was not as inspired as Chapman or Hinckley. I was not chosen for such a message. I was not worthy of the author of those words to be communicating personally and directly to me through his writing.

I was not meant for greater things.

But clearly Chapman was. He married a Japanese woman, like Lennon. He formed a band of four men, like Lennon. He clothed and lived according to his idol. He wanted to be Lennon.

In any and all situations that require interpretation, it is very important to fully understand the cultural context as well as the psychological context of the person interpreting the situation – whether it relates to the written word or otherwise.

People can only relate based on what they do know and frankly, what they are wired to know.

Giving chosen people a carte blanche to interpret anything is akin to catastrophe, especially when one then attempts to graft that thought to another time and place.

I asked one of my medical students what kind of doctor they wanted to be. He said a surgeon. I was impressed. Later on that day I asked my 5-year-old son Khalid what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said a doctor. When I asked him what kind of doctor he thought for a moment and said, “”A blue doctor.””

Clearly you don”t want my little Smurf dictating the course of the future of medicine.

However, being a kindergartener in the midst of learning basic categories, his answer was actually as impressive as that of the future surgeon. Each answered according to the resources and options available.

To date, 60 million copies of The Catcher in The Rye have been sold and only two violent crimes that I know of have been linked to the book.

Clearly the fault is that of the reader.
Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa is the creator of The 99, the internationally acclaimed group of superheroes based on an Islamic archetype. For more information please visit This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Arab News, 19 July 2007,
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.