September 26, 2012 § 58 Comments
Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, has hit the bookshelves just as the world has become embroiled in a new controversy over Islamic sensibilities. The extraordinary violence unleashed across the Muslim world by Innocence of Muslims, an obscure US-made video, has left many bewildered and perplexed.
Rushdie was, of course, at the centre of the most famous confrontation over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. The publication in 1988 of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, launched a worldwide campaign against the supposed blasphemies in the book, culminating in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on 14 February 1989 condemning Rushdie to death, and forcing him into hiding for a decade.
Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s account of the fatwa and the years that followed. So, what does the battle over The Satanic Verses tell us about the current controversy over The Innocence of Muslims? « Read the rest of this entry »
September 20, 2012 Comments Off
When he was a child Salman Rushdie’s father read to him ‘the great wonder tales of the East’ – the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, the animal fables of the ancient Indian Panchatantra, ‘the marvels that poured like a waterfall from the Kathasaritsagara’, the famous 11th-century Sanskrit collection of myths, the ‘tales of the mighty heroes collected in the Hamzanama’, that tell of the legendary exploits of Amir Hamza, uncle to the Prophet Mohammed, and the ancient Persian classic, The Adventures of Hatim Tai. Rushdie’s father ‘told them and retold them and remade them and reinvented them in his own way’.
To grow up ‘steeped in these tellings’, Rushdie writes, ‘was to learn two unforgettable lessons’. First, that ‘stories were not true… but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him’. And, second, that all stories ‘belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else’. Most of all, the young Rushdie learnt that ‘Man was a storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away’.
Except that by the time Rushdie was old enough to read these stories to his own son that was exactly what many people wanted to do. And to take away not just his birthright but his life too. When the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on Valentine’s Day 1989, for the ‘blasphemies’ of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, Rushdie was in effect sentenced to death for writing a story. Many were to be killed for translating and publishing that story. Bookshops were bombed for stocking it. It is a measure of the strangeness of the world in which we now live that storytelling can be such a hazardous craft. It is a world far stranger than any imagined in Rushdie’s tales. ’It would be absurd to think that books can cause riots’, Rushdie told an Indian journalist shortly before the publication of The Satanic Verses. In today’s world, we know that not just books but films, plays, cartoons, ideas, images – all can cause riots. Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s memoir, is the story of how that world came to be. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 16, 2012 § 5 Comments
Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton is published tomorrow. (Joseph Anton, for those who don’t know, was the name that Rushdie adopted during his years in hiding, a name borrowed from two of his favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.) Joseph Anton is not simply a memoir; it is a vital piece of social history. It is Rushdie’s first real account of the years under the shadow of the fatwa, the story from the inside of a changing world.
I will review the book next week. In the meantime, here are four interviews from my book From Fatwa to Jihad which explored the Rushdie affair and its legacy, and in that sense treads across some of the same ground as Joseph Anton, though peering in from the outside, as it were, rather than narrating from the inside. (And, yes, I know, this is the second batch this week of extracts from the book; think of these interviews as complementing the previous extracts.) The interviews (some of them slightly shortened from the original) are with four people intimately involved in the life of Joseph Anton: Peter Mayer, CEO of Penguin at the time of the fatwa; Sher Azam, chairman of the Bradford Council of Mosques at the time, in an interview I conducted shortly after he helped torch Rushdie’s novel in an infamous demonstration in Bradford in January 1989; William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, who was shot and left for dead; and Rushdie’s close friend, the novelist Hanif Kureishi. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 14, 2012 § 11 Comments
One thing should be clear. The violence across the Muslim world in response to an American anti-Islamic film has nothing to do with that film. Yes, The Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude diatribe against Islam. But this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till last week is no more the source of the current violence than God is the source of the Qur’an.
The details of the rioting in Benghazi that killed the US ambassador and sparked the current crisis still remain unclear. What is clear, however, is that the violence is being driven less by religious fury than by political calculation. In Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, the crisis is being fostered by hardline Islamists in an attempt to seize the political initiative in a period of transition and turmoil. The film is almost incidental to this process. The real struggle is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between different shades of Islamists, between hardline factions and more mainstream ones. The insurrections that transformed much the Arab world over the past year have created a new terrain for the battle between Muslim factions for political supremacy. But the struggle itself is nothing new. The same tensions fuelled the confrontations over The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons. I have long argued that both were primarily political rather than religious conflicts. I am publishing here two edited extracts from my book From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy which describes the development of both conflicts. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 5, 2012 § 9 Comments
As a coda to my previous post on abuse and how to deal with it, I am republishing this essay on changing notions of incitement that was first published in Index on Censorship in 2008. The essay was written in the context of the debate about the war on terror – it is an edited version of a talk I gave at an Index on Censorship conference on ‘Extremism and the Law: Free Speech in an Age of Terror’. It does not relate directly to the controversy about the abuse and threats received by Tom Daley and other public figures, nor to the question of how to deal with nastiness on the web. Nevertheless, the issues raised here are pertinent to the wider debate about incitement and the policing of speech.
Twenty years ago, at the height of the Rushdie affair, a televised debate took place in Manchester Town Hall. On the platform was Kalim Siddiqui, the founder of the London-based, Iranian-backed Muslim Institute. The fatwa, he claimed, was just, and Rushdie had to die. How many of you, he asked the audience, support the death sentence? The majority raised their hands. How many, he continued, would be willing to carry it out? Almost the same number kept their hands up. It was an electrifying moment, caught on camera and replayed on the evening news. It became the spark for a debate about incitement to murder. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 26, 2012 § 8 Comments
Another video (or rather audio) that I had not realised was online. I had been invited to Nihal’s show on the BBC’s Asian Network for a two-minute spot to promote the Festival of South Asian Literature, at which I was speaking. I ended up staying an hour debating free speech, multiculturalism and the giving of offence.
January 29, 2012 § 19 Comments
I gave a talk called ‘Beyond the sacred’, on the changing character of ideas of the sacred and of blasphemy, at a conference on blasphemy organised this weekend by the Centre for Inquiry at London’s Conway Hall on Saturday. Here is a transcript.
To talk about blasphemy is also to talk about the idea of the sacred. To see something as blasphemous is to see it in some way as violating a sacred space. In recent years, both the notion of blasphemy and that of the sacred have transformed. What I want to explore here is the nature of that transformation, and what it means for free speech.