The Plague Years

Salman Rushdie, with Shimon Peres. New York, 2009.

Even after 30 years, Salman Rushdie will forever be associated with the fatwa against him. The Satanic Verses still divides opinion today, but what more can be said about the controversy?

It was on Valentine’s Day in 1989 that Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa on Radio Tehran calling on all zealous Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie and his publishers. The decrepit mullah was challenging the faith of Muslims all over the world. The message was clear: “Prove yourself, take out this blasphemer!”

The Satanic Verses (1988) had only been out a few months and it had prompted demonstrations against its controversial content. Rushdie, who comes from an Indian Muslim family, knew he was going to offend and anger a lot of people with his book. But no one could have predicted what would follow.

Khomeini’s words touched a nerve for many young British Muslims who were grappling with their own identity. It wasn’t long before bombs were being planted in bookshops across the UK, and soon the book’s translators were being targeted as far apart as Italy and Japan.

The irony is that the Iranian government never actually banned the book it found so crass and despicable. However, the book was banned in India much to Rushdie’s dismay. He insisted that “the book actually isn’t about Islam”.

The Satanic Verses was consistent with Rushdie’s body of work. It wasn’t the first time the writer had encountered controversy. His third book Shame (1983) was banned in Pakistan because of its portrayal of the country’s rightward turn. Notably, the book featured a mad mullah, who was the general’s best friend.

Today we all know the names of similar controversies, from the Danish cartoons to the front covers of Charlie Hebdo. Rushdie has compared himself to the first bird in Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds. It’s only when you see that the sky is full of birds that you remember seeing that first bird and what it meant.

It’s easy to see The Satanic Verses as the first case of people not being able to cope with being offended, and quickly moving to crush the dissenting opinion in their midst. However, this would be ahistorical. It’s no coincidence that this is exactly the narrative the right prefers on free speech issues.

Freedom of expression is a precious value which everyone ostensibly supports, yet we’re meant to believe it’s under constant threat from people who are too sensitive. There is no human right not to be offended, and the anti-PC brigade very much wants to have this fight for its own ends.

Searching for meaning

In the aftermath of the fatwa, Rushdie tried to placate his persecutors. He issued a formal apology, and there were reports that he even reconverted to Islam. None of these gestures would appease the likes of Khomeini. It was too late.

The strangest thing about The Satanic Verses controversy is that the book would have been a non-issue for many Muslims just a few years before. This suggests that something changed in the late twentieth century.

Kenan Malik stressed just how modern fundamentalism is in From Fatwa to Jihadi (2009). “Literalism is a very modern phenomenon,” Malik said. “People think of fundamentalism as a throwback to early Christianity or early Islam. In fact, it’s the very opposite.”

“What [fundamentalists] have is a detachment from the traditional institutions and the traditional social communities of those religions,” he explained. “It’s because they are detached from those institutions and social customs that they have to turn to a literal interpretation of the book.”

Such people are detached from the kinds of community that they long for a new of relating to faith. According to Malik, Islam has become an identity marker in a way that it wasn’t for a lot of British Muslims in the past.

There has been a conservative cultural revolution across majority Muslim countries from North Africa to South Asia. In the case of Iran, the cultural revolution was literally the seizure of power by reactionary Islamic clerics.

The Saudi regime began working to export and externalise the Islamist threat around the world, partly out of fear for its own future. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, General Zia ul-Haq had initiated what he called ‘Islamisation’ of the country following the overthrow of the Bhutto government.

Rushdie predicted that this top-down Islamisation of Pakistani society would not last because the population had a much different approach to religion than other countries. He was wrong, sadly. Even after General Zia fell, the state has been ensnared by the forces of reaction.

So by the time that The Satanic Verses was published, the Muslim world was a different place and a book that might have gone unnoticed years before became the focus of newfound cultural anxieties.

It may be that the failures of revolutionary nationalism in the so-called Third World had left open a vacuum for reactionary forces to gain ground. In countries across North Africa and West Asia, the spectre of Islamism took the place of secular nationalism and communism.

This was just as Western Muslims began seeking out their own identity. They came up against a racist society, even though their parents had tried their best to assimilate to the host culture of former colonial powers like Britain and France.

The deeper problem is that liberal societies by definition don’t stand for any core values apart from the right to have your own values. Cultural anaemia is all pervasive, and a society that believes in nothing has little to offer people looking for a meaningful life.

Between narratives

Skip forward to 1997. Alexander Cockburn and Edward Said are at an event in London focused on the question of Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel. Cockburn took his seat at the restaurant after the conference and began chatting to his old friend Said.

All of a sudden, a man sitting near them stood up. “Allow me to say I think you are a fucking arsehole,” he said and stormed out of the eatery. It was none other than the author of The Satanic Verses.

Not long before, Cockburn had attacked Rushdie for his criticisms of the Alevi and secular leftist intellectuals burnt to death at the Madimak Hotel in Sivas, Turkey. The intellectuals had gathered as part of a cultural festival, only to find themselves the target of a raging mob that promptly torched the hotel.

The festival was targeted because Aziz Nesin was in attendance and he had begun translating the novel into Turkish. Fortunately, Nesin escaped the flames while dozens of other left with serious injuries. Thirty-seven people died on that day in July 1993.

The Sivas massacre is too often forgotten in the Western imagination. Indeed, the Muslim victims of Islamist atrocities are usually the subject of a convenient amnesia. Yet it is precisely Muslims who are the primary target of jihadi violence.

Radical Islamists have long set out to transform the Muslim world through violent acts. The first targets were the near enemy of Arab dictatorships, it was only after the failure to seize power that the militant Islamists sought out a new target: the West.

The Belligerati

After the Cold War, the US and much of Europe was in a triumphant phase. Communism was no more, and globalisation was the future. It seemed as if all the great struggles were over. Even the Iranian government seemed to be changing.

Reformist President Khatami had come to power and wanted to reintegrate Iran into the global order. The British business community wanted the same thing. So the Islamic regime pledged to “neither support nor hinder assassination operations” against Rushdie in 1998.

That’s as far as the regime felt it could go. The fatwa technically couldn’t be revoked because Khomeini had died and only he had the power to lift this edict. Nevertheless, it was just far enough to spare Rushdie.

By the time the planes hit the Twin Towers, Rushdie had undergone a transformation. He was a liberal hawk, who had backed NATO in the Balkans and supported the US invasion of Afghanistan. Fortunately, he held back from backing the US war on Iraq, but it was clear he was no longer on the same side as Tariq Ali.

The ‘War on Terror’ brought with it new defenders. A slew of writers and intellectuals came out to wage war against faith and irrationalism. They claimed that the source of all the world’s woes could be placed on fanaticism.

Unsurprisingly, Salman Rushdie was quite comfortable with this crowd. He was one of the martyrs of reason, often mentioned in the same breath as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other ex-Muslims. Secularism became a rallying cry for a new imperialism.

It’s now a cliché to point out that the New Atheists almost exactly matched the radical Islamists in their fundamentalist account of religion and their ahistorical view of the world. Terrorism couldn’t be explained in historical terms. It was all about the backward beliefs of Muslims.

The tragedy is that Rushdie didn’t have to take this path. He was always more interesting than Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. His writing concerned post-colonial India and Pakistan, dual identity and the experience of racism in multicultural Britain. By contrast, McEwan and Amis can barely write about anyone who isn’t white and middle class.

Thirty years after the fatwa, the world is still caught between secular reason and fanatical belief. The West is now struggling to deal with the consequences of its war against radical Islam.

Photograph courtesy of David Shankbone. Published under a Creative Commons license.