Frankly I wish I had written a more critical book. A religion that claims it is able to behave like this, religious leaders who are able to behave like this, and then say this is a religion that must be above any whisper of criticism – that doesn’t add up.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
W. B. Yeats
During this time, the year of our lord 2009, it ought to be hoped (to paraphrase John Stuart Mill) that the time has long gone when a defence of our right to freedom of speech is in the least bit necessary. This year, however, also marks the 20th anniversary of the Rushdie affair, and it seems an appropriate moment to look back, take stock, and assess our current situation. The issues bought violently to the surface by the publication of The Satanic Verses have not gone away. Quite the contrary. The climate of violence, intimidation and self-censorship instituted at the time is the climate we live in everyday. Rushdie may no longer be a prisoner in his own home, the fatwa may have been lifted (though he will always be, to some degree, a marked man), the book itself may no longer be fuel for the fires of Islamic fundamentalists, but it would be a mistake to think of the controversy as a one-off, flash-in-the-pan event that holds no relevance for our contemporary geo-political landscape. The wound opened up by the book’s publication – between those who believe in the right to dissent and those who would silence dissent – remains open and weeping.
I was 12 years old in 1989, and my chief concern in life was my collection of Batman comic books. Yet I distinctly remember watching the news reports of angry bearded men waving placards and burning books with a mixture of fear and bafflement. I remember asking my mother why these men were so angry; I couldn’t, for the life of me, imagine anything worth being that angry about. I don’t remember the exact wording of her reply, but she diligently explained that they were angry because a man had written a book that was deeply disrespectful of their religion; the implication being that it was the writer in the wrong. Without wishing to disparage my mother, I don’t think she really understood the subtleties of the situation and their implications for our right to free-expression any more than I did. And in fairness to her, she was merely reflecting what, looking back, was majority opinion. Although Rushdie had his supporters (who, significantly, came mostly from the writing community), such high-profile figures as the archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope joined a chorus of commentators in deciding that the problem was not with those who would kill a man for the ‘crime’ of writing a book, but with Rushdie in particular and with ‘blasphemy’ more generally. While most of these men stopped-short of endorsing the fatwa outright, the rub of their argument ran along these lines: Rushdie, being an outsider and member of the very community he had offended, knew very well what he was doing.
And let us not forget – ever – that many didn’t stop there. Iqbal Sacranie, who until very recently was secretary general of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, the organisation that represents – to our dear government at least – the acceptable face of mainstream, ‘moderate’ Islam, said at the time that in his personal opinion, “death would be a bit too easy for him for him to get out of it.” This man was knighted in 2005. Yusaf Islam, the former singer-songwriter Cat Stevens, when asked during a televised debate whether he would attend a demonstration where an effigy of Rushdie was burned callously replied, “I would’ve hoped that it would be the real thing.” Neither of these men, nor the many who marched in this country under banners explicitly calling for Rushdie’s death were prosecuted, despite being in clear breach of the well-established laws against incitement to violence contained in the 1986 Public Order Act. They weren’t even arrested. Throughout this whole sorry ten-year affair, despite the fact that this is Britain, and in Britain we don’t burn books (offensive but not an offence), let alone threaten to burn their author (offensive and an offence), nobody was prosecuted for the crime of incitement.
To make matters worse, by the summer of ’89 opinion among those who should have been the first to stand by Rushdie in total solidarity was beginning to turn against him. Writers such as John le Carre and John Berger picked up on and amplified the racist undercurrent of much opinion, declaring that as a provocator he had bought the whole thing – death sentence and all – squarely upon himself. Even such a supposedly benign presence as Roald Dahl was moved to write, in a letter to the times, “Clearly [Rushdie] has profound knowledge of the Muslim religion and its people and he must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words he knew exactly what he was doing and he cannot plead otherwise.” Such unforgiving words were to be joined by much darker language, as those who already hated Rushdie and his rapid elevation the British literati let their invective fly over the issue. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper revealed much about the prevailing mood when he wrote this sinister little passage: “I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.”
This callousness was reflected by the indifference and sheer ineffectiveness of Thatcher’s government. In their attempt to build better relations with the Iranian regime, in order to secure the release of Roger Cooper (falsely imprisoned in Iran) and John McCarthy and Terry Waite (both taken hostage in Lebanon by Iranian-backed Hezbolla), they practically washed their hands of the whole affair. Calls for the book to banned were ignored, and after the fatwa Rushdie was given round-the-clock police protection. This is to their credit. Yet at the same time the government did its level best to distance itself from the mounting crises, the book at its centre, and its hunted author. Sir Geoffrey Howe, the then Foreign Secretary, got as far as calling the fatwa “a grave concern”, but then went on to plead during a BBC World Service interview that, “the British government, the British people, had nothing to do with the writing or the publishing of Satanic Verses. We’re not promoting the book. We don’t agree with the view that it expresses. The book, as I say, is offensive about our government and about our society, and we resent that. We understand why people of the Muslim faith – which we respect – resent what is said about their faith in the book. All those things, surely, make plain that there is a huge distance between ourselves and the book.” This grovelling was the result of the government’s own position which, he has subsequently made plain, was also one of ‘blame the victim, not his oppressors’: “well one didn’t want to give him a vote of thanks…we thought the same as many other people: here is a man who comes from a world which this is part, and he must have known more than anyone else the likely impact of what he wrote. So one was bound to say he must have realised this was going to happen.”
He must have known? Are these collective voices really trying to suggest, as they appear to be, that Rushdie – knowing full well that the publication of his book would cause protests, riots, a series of deaths, and a fatwa that would force him into hiding for ten years – went ahead and spent five years writing the damn thing anyway? There is no doubt that The Satanic Verses contains some provocative elements. There is also no doubt that Rushdie was fully conscious how theologically charged those elements were to the faithful. However, these elements were buried deep within a dense, allegorical work of imaginative fiction that ran to over five hundred pages. The image of Rushdie as no more than a mischief maker is absurd. Even if we grant the aggrieved this absurdity, and assume Rushdie had written his opus with the express intention of ridiculing the world’s billion Muslims, so what? That wouldn’t have made the reaction any more reasonable or proportionate. It wouldn’t have made the fatwa any less criminal. Besides which, it is not the duty of writers to pre-empt reaction to what they write; weighing their words against any offence those words might possibly cause. Seeing as this would involve looking into the future, such a task is beyond the competence of any writer, even one of Rushdie’s imaginative capabilities. If a writer has any duty at all, it is to his writing only. The problem, as I see it, with the ‘he knew what he was doing’ argument, is that it sounds a little too close to ‘he got what he deserved’ for comfort. The fact that such views were emanating from the British populace is bad enough; the fact that authors were also lining up to join them is even more deplorable; but the fact that our elected representatives took the same line amounted to a fundamental betrayal of their duty to protect the rights of the very people from whom they draw their legitimacy: us. Freedom of expression remains one of the essential oils in the engine of liberal, secular democracy, and the government must secure us this right at least as vigorously as they defend our borders. Rushdie had committed no crime: he had simply exercised his fundamental, legal right to free expression. The Ayatollah Khomeini, on the other hand, had passed a death sentence, in public – with promise of cash reward and fast-track to paradise – on a foreign national legally living on British soil, a man over which he had no legal jurisdiction whatsoever. This amounted to an open incentive to outsource an act of terrorism to the keenest bidder. And yet we, as a nation, as a government, seek to blame the victim of the fatwa? Does anyone suppose, for a second, that if the senile old cleric in Tehran had made Margaret Thatcher the target of his edict, the same lack of reaction would have been forthcoming? Looking back over the facts of the case, it remains one of the most shameful episodes of our recent history: an abrogation of our duty to stand up for not only Rushdie’s rights but, by extension, our rights.
I have so far restricted my discussion to the domestic scene and the failure of our society to stick up for its ideals, but what was new and unprecedented about the Rushdie affair was, of course, its international nature. This, I suspect, is what took everybody, including the government, by surprise, and what lead to such a numb response. The book was published on 26th September 1988. On the 5thth January 1989. An action committee consisting of aggrieved Muslim groups drawn from across the country’s immigrant communities staged a large protest in Bradford, home of one of Britain’s largest Muslim communities. A small group of men decided to burn copies of the the book. The photo of Rushdie’s tome in flames was printed locally that day and nationally the next. This image – a shock to a nation for whom the image of a book burning has its only associated parallel in Nazi pyres – was the cause of much immediate soul searching in our media. On the 12th Oct it was banned in India after protests. Over the next few weeks it was banned in ten other countries across Asia and North Africa. After a protest in Bolton that went largely unnoticed, the action in Britain began in earnest on 14 of February six people were killed during rioting in Islamabad. A man was killed in a riot in Kashmir the following day. The day after that (Valentine’s Day of all ironies) the Ayatollah issued his fatwa, following up the next day with the bounty – £1,500,000.
If Rushdie was unfortunate, it wasn’t because he had published a blasphemous book. In this he was actually following a great tradition of blasphemous literature in both English and Arabic, as a cursory glance at the history of such safely canonised works as diverse as Paradise Lost and the poetry of Rumi will attest. Rushdie was unfortunate because he had published a blasphemous book during the late 20th Century, in the full glare of the modern media. The rapid escalation of events showed, not for the first time, how the global reach of new media and communication technologies could be exploited to fan the flames of hatred, as the “offence” felt spilled across border after border, and into the hands of Khomeini. Suddenly it was all too obvious that not only was it possible to offend a section of your own society, you now had the power to offend a whole religious constituency that numbered in the many hundreds of millions. As a sign of the growing power and importance of these media and communication technologies to what became known during the next decade as globalisation, it couldn’t be clearer. As this trend has increased over the last twenty years, so has its attractiveness to those among us who would sew discord and chaos in the world. As we have come to learn to our cost, if the innovation of the internet was a blessing for the West, it was also a blessing for radical Islam. The Ayatollah’s gambit cannot be understood outside the political context. After the humiliating ceasefire with Iraq, and the election of a woman prime minister in Pakistan, he needed something that would reinvigorate his Islamist credentials among the faithful. He was also under pressure from hard-liners in the regime who were unhappy with the then president’s renewed attempts to foster good relations with Britain. The fatwa, then, had less to do with theological considerations (after all, if the motive was simple piety why did it take him five months to get around to his ruling?) and more to do with needing a sop to throw to his followers. Yet it was so much more than a mere political manoeuvre. It was the opening shot across the bow, in what was soon to become a war raised in opposition to the globalisation of culture, specifically the culture of human rights – democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, women’s rights. As Christopher Hitchens has pointed out the fatwa was “not just a warning of what was to come. It was the warning.”
It is a necessary component of terrorism that it be carried out against legal activities. It therefore follows that the war aim of any government seeking to fight a war against terror is to secure the space in which these activities take place, be it physical space, as in the case of a market or office block, or abstract space, as in the case of the intellectual arena. Any failure to do so is, in effect, a capitulation to terrorism and an attack on one’s own war aim. The British government failed to heed the warnings of the Rushdie affair because of its unprecedented nature. And yet I can’t help feeling we, as a culture, have collectively failed to learn the lessons of that sordid episode. The controversy surrounding the book was not a one-off: it was only the beginning. The tendency among Western commentators then was one of self-reflexiveness: cowed by the ferocity of the response, people concluded Rushdie must have done something to enrage all these people. That tendency has become our default reaction to a continuing series of outrages perpetrated against the West and Western culture. “Contemplating intense violence,” wrote Martin Amis in 2006, “you very rationally ask yourself, ‘What are the reasons for this?’ And compassionately frowning news-casters are still asking the same question. It is time to move on. We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason.”
On the 2nd of November 2004 the Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh was gunned down in broad daylight on an Amsterdam street. The assassin shot his victim eight times, before slicing a gash in his neck so deep he was almost decapitated. He left two knives stuck in Van Gogh’s body. One was used to pin a five page letter to his chest threatening the apostolic Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had written the screenplay for Van Gogh’s Submission, a film about Islam’s oppression of women. The text of this rambling, incoherent tract showed a death-obsessed mind awash with conspiratorial visions of Zionist led attempts by Western governments to crush Islam, and is every bit the mirror of the Ayatollah’s original edict. A year later right-wing Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published an editorial in which twelve cartoons of the prophet Muhammed were printed alongside a defence of their publication in what is, after all, a secular country committed to free-speech. A wave of protests broke out across the Islamic world in countries not usually noted for their right to assembly or protest. These protests left over a hundred dead. In Britain the protests took the form of a group of Islamic extremists waving placards on the streets of London openly calling for the beheading of those who criticise Islam (one of the banners – as if to ram home the yawning gap that exists in the 21st century between the ironic mind and the literal mind – read “behead those who say Islam is a violent religion”). Thankfully this time four men were jailed for incitement. These incidents, occurring in areas of Europe that are steeped in a deep tradition of secularism, openness and tolerance, showed – as if the point even needed making by now – that while Western governments may have learnt nothing from the Rushdie affair, Islamism certainly had. We in the West now live under a constant, ongoing threat: there are people in the world who are willing, at the drop of hat, to use lethal violence over any perceived slight against their religion.
Our own government’s response to the growing threat of religiously inspired terrorism has not been one of seeking to strengthen our resolve to stand by our rights, but rather one of seeking to accommodate and placate those among us who are quick to cry offence. In 2001 they tried to push through an ill-thought out piece of legislation aimed at including the crime of religious hatred on the statute books alongside racial hatred. ‘Religious hatred’ doesn’t mean, as it ought to, hatred inspired by and carried out in name of religion. On the contrary, it means hatred targeted against religion and religious people. Luckily the proposed changes to the race hate bill were twice defeated when it went before the House of Lords, meaning the government could eventually only pass a watered down version that limited the original offence of “insults, abuse, and recklessness” to “threatening words or behaviour” – a perfectly pointless piece of legislation in a country that already has serviceable incitement to violence laws. This kind of accommodating stance has been joined by a far more insidious trend; insidious precisely because it remains a hidden element of our culture – self-censorship. During the Jyllands-Posten affair, the media practically tore itself in two over whether or not it was right to show the offending cartoons while reporting on the controversy. While the attitude of the French and German press was one of ‘publish and be damned’, in Britain and America the media was far more cautious. Instead of allowing us to make up our own minds regarding the alleged offensiveness of the cartoons like adults in a free society, many chose not to show them at all, or chose to show the offensive page whilst simultaneously pixilating the images of Mohammed. Whether this was done from outright fear of violent reprisal or out of a misguided attempt not to cause any more ‘offence’ is a moot point – the violence was, and is, working.
In September 2005 the Tate gallery decided not to display a work by the artist John Latham entitled God is Great # 2 because the work contained fragments of both the Koran and the Bible. In April of the same year a museum in Sweden decided to remove a painting, Scene d’ Amour by Louzla Darabi, from a temporary exhibition on similar grounds – the painting of a couple making love featured a Koranic quotation in one of its corners. In 2006 the Deutsche Oper, Berlin’s leading opera house, cancelled a production of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo because of a scene involving the severed head of Muhammed. Last year Sony PlayStation delayed the release of its game LittleBigPlanet because a song on the soundtrack by Malian singer Toumani Diabate contained two references that can be found in the Koran. Shortly before this New York publishing magnate Random House decided not to publish the novel The Jewel of Medina by the American writer Sherry Jones. The novel, which tells of the love between the prophet Mohammed and his youngest wife, the nine-year-old Aisha (six at the time of her betrothal, according to the Hadith), was dropped after a single letter threatened that it would have another “Rushdie affair” on its hands. When the novel was subsequently picked up by small imprint Gibson Square Books, a fire bomb was thrown into the London home of its director Martin Rynja. These incidences, and others like them, are just the ones we know about – who knows, in this atmosphere, what else has gone unsaid?
As if all this wasn’t scary enough, it now transpires that those who would silence – permanently silence – critics of Islam are currently attempting to get official backing for their intolerance from the supposedly “mainstream” face of the religion. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, made up of representatives from 57 Islamic countries, has recently tabled a non-binding UN resolution aimed at “Combating defamation of religions”. Written in a bizarre parody of the language of Human Rights, the resolution “expresses its deep concern that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism,” and urges member states to adopt blasphemy laws at a time when many Western countries are repealing such laws. Although the resolution gives a nod towards free speech, it goes on to warn, “the exercise of these rights carries with it special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to limitations as are provided for by law and are necessary for respects of the rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order, public health or morals and respect for religions and beliefs.” The message of this garbled prose couldn’t, paradoxically, be clearer: we want to extend the rights normally reserved for human beings to ideas, specifically religious ideas. To put it another way, there are global forces at work seeking to draw the curtain of cultural suppression that exists in the Islamic world around the Western world. There are attempts, too, to make this resolution a binding one. America, of course, couldn’t ratify such a resolution because it would be unconstitutional, and for once we can all be thankful for its veto.
The campaign to silence the critics of religion doesn’t stop at Islam’s door. Perhaps the most depressing legacy of the Rushdie affair has been the keenness of other religious groups to join in the game of being offended. Late in 2004 rioting Sikhs managed to shut down the play Behtzi in Birmingham. The following year the group Christian Voice led a series of protests against the BBC after it declared its intention to screen a performance of Jerry Springer: The Opera. The head of this organisation, a man by the name of Stephen Green, has openly sighted the violent campaign against Rushdie as direct inspiration for his own protest (whose ‘successes’, by the way, include the wonderfully Christian move of persuading a cancer charity to refuse a donation from the opera). One thing is sure: we haven’t seen the last of this sort of campaign. We can only expect more and more incidences of strong-arm tactics used by minority groups to override the will of the majority. This is how religion works. First it makes impossibly extravagant claims about reality, then it demands immunity from criticism or ridicule of those claims. Asking those who don’t believe to “respect” those claims is simply an impossible request. I do not expect, much less demand, anybody to respect my belief that Louis Armstrong is the single most important musician of the 20th Century.
Issues of censorship are important for this reason: however shakily society draws a line between what can and cannot be said, it is drawing a line that defines the boundary of its own culture. Freedom of speech is not a part of Western society that we need apologise for. Indeed, it is part of what defines us as a people. When one contemplates the long history of revolutions and reformations that have secured us this right, and one thinks of the blood that has been spilt in the wars of tyranny against liberty, one is reluctant to cede even one inch to those who would seek to roll back those freedoms. When we capitulate to threats, when we genuflect in front of hurt feelings, when we take down a painting or bump an editorial, we allow the enemies of our civilisation to dictate those boundaries for us. No idea worth anything needs protection. Nothing is sacred. Nothing beyond criticism. Religion must take its place in the war of ideas like everything else, including freedom of speech. The reason it is reluctant to do so, and indeed demands – often violently – that it be protected from doing so, is because it knows it will lose.