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 in his memoir Joseph Anton, ‘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.
It is exactly 25 years ago today, on Valentine’s Day 1989, that the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on Rushdie, for the ‘blasphemies’ of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. ‘I inform all zealous Muslims of the world’, proclaimed Iran’s spiritual leader, ‘that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses – which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet and the Qur’an – and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents are sentenced to death.’ Rushdie had in effect been 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.
Cloaked as it is in the shadow of the fatwa, The Satanic Verses has come to be seen purely as a novel about Islam. Rushdie wrote it, in fact, as a novel about the migrant experience that ‘could explore the joining-ups and also disjointednesses of here and there, then and now, reality and dreams’. Rushdie has always seen himself as a man inhabiting a world ‘in-between’ three cultures – those of India, Pakistan and England. What he wanted to know was how to ‘connect the different worlds from which he had come’, by exploring ‘how the world joined up, not only how the East flowed into the West and the West into the East, but how the past shaped the present while the present changed the understanding of the past.’
It was a hugely ambitious task. Yet it was also one that spoke to the moment. The 1980s was a decade that saw the beginnings of the breakdown of traditional boundaries, physical, political, moral, and a sense of world rendered new, a world for which there was no map or compass. ‘How does newness enter the world?’, Rushdie asks in The Satanic Verses. The significance of Rushdie’s great trilogy of the 1980s – Midnight’s Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses – is that not only did he pose that question, but he also found a language through which to answer it.
Of all Rushdie’s novels, The Satanic Verses is probably the one that most deeply inhabits the world ‘in between’, that most truly explores ‘how the world joined up’, that reveals most imaginatively ‘how the East flowed into the West and the West into the East’, that excavates most sharply how ‘the past shaped the present while the present changed the understanding of the past’. It is a novel as much about Vilayet (the Hindi word for ‘foreign place’ that Rushdie uses as a label for Britain) as it is about Jahilia, (the city of sand, that represents Mecca); a novel as much about racism and imperialism as it is about Islam and theocracy. That is one of the ironies of the Muslim response to the novel. As Hanif Kureishi was later to remark of the campaign against The Satanic Verses, ‘I was flabbergasted. How could a community that I identified with turn against a writer who was one of its most articulate voices?’
But ‘when a book leaves its author’s desk’, Rushdie observes in Joseph Anton, ‘it changes’. It becomes ‘a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired, in a sense, free will… The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.’ When The Satanic Verses left its author’s desk it became not a means of making sense of the migrant experience but a weapon to be wielded by Islamists in their wars with each other, with secularists and with the West.
Thanks to the Ayatollah Khoemini’s fatwa, the Rushdie affair became the most important free speech controversy of modern times. It also became a watershed in our attitudes to freedom of expression. Rushdie’s critics lost the battle – The Satanic Verses continues to be published. But they won the war. The argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case – that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures – is now widely accepted.
In 1989 not even a fatwa could stop the publication of The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was forced into hiding for almost a decade. Translators and publishers were assaulted and even murdered. In July 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese professor of literature and translator of The Satanic Verses, was knifed to death on the campus of Tsukuba University. That same month another translator of Rushdie’s novel, the Italian Ettore Capriolo, was beaten up and stabbed in his Milan apartment. In October 1993 William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, was shot three times and left for dead outside his home in Oslo. None of the assailants were ever caught. Bookshops were firebombed for stocking the novel.
Peter Mayer was the CEO of Penguin at the time. He was subject to a vicious campaign of hatred and intimidation. ‘I had letters delivered to me written in blood’, he remembered in an interview he gave for my book From Fatwa to Jihad, the first time that he had talked publicly about those events of 1989. ‘I had telephone calls in the middle of the night, saying not just that they would kill me but that they take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall. Vile stuff.’ Yet neither Mayer nor Penguin countenanced backing down. ‘I told the [Penguin] board, “You have to take the long view. Any climbdown now will only encourage future terrorist attacks by individuals or groups offended for whatever reason by other books that we or any publisher might publish.”’ What was at stake, Mayer recognized, was ‘much more than simply the fate of this one book. How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.’
It is an attitude that seems to belong to a different age. Contrast Mayer’s courage in 1989 with Penguin’s decision this week to withdraw all copies of Wendy Doniger’s controversial book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and one of the foremost authorities on Hinduism. Her book, first published in 2009, has won many accolades; it has also angered many hardline Hindu groups. In 2011 a New Delhi-based group called Shiksha Bachao Andolan brought a court case against the book claiming that it consisted of a ‘shocking and appalling series of anecdotes which denigrate, distort and misrepresent Hinduism and the history of India and Hindus’.
The Satanic Verses itself was banned in India even before it was published. But in 1989, Penguin continued to fight for the right to free expression. Today, in the case of Doniger’s book, there is no state ban, only private litigation. And the publisher has crumbled in the face of groups shouting ‘offence’.
Mayer and the old Penguin belonged to a world in which the defence of free speech was seen as an irrevocable duty. ‘We all came to agree’, he told me, ‘that all we could do, as individuals or as a company, was to uphold the principles that underlay our profession and which, since the invention of movable type, have brought it respect. We were publishers. I thought that meant something. We all did.’ He took his cue from Baal, the irreverent, satirical poet in The Satanic Verses. ‘A poet’s work’, Baal observes, ‘To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.’
Today’s Penguin, like many publishers, like many liberals, takes Baal’s observation to be not self-evident but shockingly offensive. To such an extent has the Rushdie affair transformed the landscape of free speech that what many fear today is precisely the starting of arguments. What they most want is for the world to go to sleep.
Twenty five years ago not even death threats, bombings and murders could not stop the publication of The Satanic Verses. Today, all it takes is for one person to shout ‘offence’ for liberals to haul out the metaphorical burqa to protect our sensitivities. Penguin’s pulping of Doniger’s book (or British broadcasters’refusal to show a Jesus and Mo cartoon) reveals how deeply the fatwa has become internalized.
‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’, wrote the English poet John Milton in Areopagitica, his famous 1644 ‘speech for the liberty of unlicenc’d printing’, adding that ‘He who destroys a good book destroys reason itself’. For the next three centuries all progressive political strands were wedded to the principle of free speech as the necessary condition for social and political advance.
Of course, the liberal defence of free speech was shot through with hypocrisy. Milton himself opposed the extension of free speech to Catholics on the grounds that the Catholic Church was undeserving of freedom and liberty. A whole host of harms – from the incitement to hatred to threats to national security, from the promotion of blasphemy to the spread of slander – have been cited as reasons to curtail speech. Yet, however hypocritical liberal arguments may sometimes have seemed, and notwithstanding the fact that most free speech advocates accepted that the line had to be drawn somewhere, there was nevertheless an acknowledgement that speech was an inherent good, the fullest extension of which was a necessary condition for the elucidation of truth, the expression of moral autonomy, the maintenance of social progress and the development of other liberties. Restrictions on free speech were seen as the exception rather than as the norm. Radicals recognized that the way to challenge the hypocrisy was not by restricting free speech further but by extending it to all.
It is this idea of speech as a fundamental good that has been transformed. Today, free speech is as likely to be seen as a threat to liberty as its shield. By its very nature, many argue, speech damages basic freedoms. Hate speech undermines the freedom to live free from fear. The giving of offence diminishes the freedom to have one’s beliefs and values recognized and respected. In the post-Rushdie world speech has come to be seen not as intrinsically good but as inherently a problem. Speech, therefore, has to be restrained, not in exceptional circumstances, but all the time and everywhere, especially in diverse societies with a variety of deeply held views and beliefs. Censorship (and self-censorship) has to become the norm. ‘Self-censorship’, as the Muslim philosopher and spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques Shabbir Akhtar put it at the height of the Rushdie affair, ‘is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business. It is everyone’s – not least every Muslim’s – business.’
Increasingly politicians and policy makers, publishers and directors, liberals and conservatives, in the East and in the West, have come to agree. Whatever may be right in principle, many now argue, in practice one must appease religious and cultural sensibilities because such sensibilities are so deeply felt. We live in a world, so the argument runs, in which there are deep-seated conflicts between cultures embodying different values, many of which are incommensurate but all of which are valid in their own context. The controversy over The Satanic Verses was one such conflict. For such diverse societies to function and to be fair, we need to show respect for other peoples, cultures, and viewpoints. Social justice requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but also that their cultural beliefs are given equal recognition and respect. The avoidance of cultural pain has therefore come to be regarded as more important than the right to free expression. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’
The consequence has been the creation not of a less conflicted world, but of one that is more sectarian, fragmented and tribal. As the novelist Monica Ali has put it, ‘If you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.’ The more that policy makers give licence for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. It leads to the encouragement of interest groups and the growth of sectarian conflict.
Ironically, there are few novelists who have better addressed the issue of cultural conflict than Rushdie himself. His writings helped transform the very concept. Cultures, he insisted, are always conflictual because they are never authentic or fixed but ever churning and changing, forcing ideas, and memories, and thoughts and histories to clash with each other. Conflict was an inevitable part of facing up to the world.In forcing ideas and memories and thoughts and histories to clash with each other in the imagined worlds of his novels, Rushdie allowed the imagination to illuminate the real world too.
In reframing cultural conflict in this fashion, Rushdie spoke not just to the migrant experience but also to the experience of a world now becoming unstitched. If the 1980s was a decade that saw the beginnings of the breakdown of traditional boundaries, and the creation of new social terrains, then Rushdie’s novels began to chart those terrains. The experience of a world unravelling, he suggested, was akin to the experience of migration and of the disruption and dislocation it created.
The breakdown of the old boundaries that Rushdie addressed in his novels created in many a sense of disorientation and a yearning for fixed points of reference. One expression of this was the growing significance of ‘identity politics’: the understanding of political attachments and collective interests in terms not of belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, but of distinct constituencies and communities defined in terms of much narrower, fixed identities, and, increasingly, the rooting of such identities in faith. As people began to cling ever more fiercely to particular cultural identities, so the symbols of such identities became ever more important and there developed inevitably resentment of, and hostility to, any attacks on such symbols. It is against this background that the ‘Rushdie affair’ emerged. If The Satanic Verses was a product of the breakdown of old boundaries so, too, was the campaign against the novel. The roots of the campaign against The Satanic Verses are complex and as embedded in political strife as in religious belief. One way to understand it, however, is as the first great expression of fear of a mapless world, the first great contemporary confrontation over identity and the resources necessary for sustaining identity.
It is not just Salman Rushdie or The Satanic Verses that lives in the shadow of the fatwa. We all do. And that is why Shabbir Akhtar was right. What Salman Rushdie says is everybody’s business. So is what Wendy Doniger says. And what Jesus and Mo say. It is everybody’s business to ensure that no one is deprived of their right to say what they wish, even if it is deemed by some to be offensive. For in defending their right to do so, what we are truly defending is the necessity for a plural world, a world in which ‘the East can flow into the West and the West into the East’. We are defending, too, the importance of a poet’s work, ‘To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.’
For the full story of the Rushdie affair and its legacy, see my book From Fatwa to Jihad.
The photos of Salman Rushdie are by Richard Avedon and Gustau Nacarino/Reuters. The photo of the Bradford burning of The Satanic Verses is by Garry Clarkson.