Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. ‘I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses... along with all the editors and publishers aware of its content are condemned to death’, said Khomeini on 14 February 1989. The fatwa had many tragic consequences, the most dire being the murder in 1991 of the Japanese translator of the novel and the violent attacks on others involved in publishing it. But perhaps its most insidious impact has been its contribution to the idea that censorship is a foreign thing, that extreme sensitivity to slight and arrogant demands for the squishing of ‘offensive’ material are alien emotions, imposed on or imported to our otherwise tolerant society by faraway men in beards and cloaks. This narrative misunderstands both the origins of the fatwa itself and the nature of today’s highly censorious cult of offence-taking.
Ever since Khomeini said in a radio broadcast that Rushdie should be put to death for writing a novel that was ‘against Islam, the Prophet of Islam and the Koran’, many Western thinkers and observers have been promoting the idea that our longstanding culture of tolerance, including of offensive material, is being threatened by foreign groups or peoples who are fundamentally intolerant. The fatwa is seen as opening up a gaping faultline between the core Western belief that no one ‘should be killed, or face a serious threat of being killed, for what they say or write’ and Muslims’ conviction that no one should be free to ‘insult or malign Muslims [by disparaging] the honour of the Prophet’. This idea that the fatwa pointed to a new global divide between those who feel a strong attachment to freedom of speech and those who harbour a religious-inspired hostility towards it was summed up in a piece by Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph five days after Khomeini issued his fatwa. ‘Islamic fundamentalism is rapidly growing into a [great] threat of violence and intolerance’, he said. In the years since 1989, the book-burning Muslim, the bearded yeller for the beheading of those who insult Islam, has been many Westerners’ go-to image of intolerance.
The notion that today’s ostentatious offence-taking and growing intolerance of blasphemous, scurrilous or ‘hurtful’ content is an alien phenomenon is wrong in two important ways. Firstly it is wrong because it skews the timeline of the fatwa. In many people’s minds, it was the fatwa, issued from that hotbed of Islamist thinking, Iran, which unleashed the fury against The Satanic Verses. In fact, the fatwa came six months after the publication of the novel, and in those six months there was wild, furious protesting against the novel – a great deal of it in the West.
The novel was published in September 1988. The first call for it to be banned came from Khushwant Singh, a King’s College-educated secularist Indian writing in the respectable news journal, Illustrated Weekly. Singh was concerned about the reaction the novel would provoke among Muslims. There followed an intense letter-writing campaign in the US, with both Muslim groups and their supporters bombarding Viking Press with angry condemnations for publishing Rushdie’s novel, and occasionally with death threats. Twice in December 1988, two months before Khomeini issued his fatwa, Viking staff had to evacuate their offices after receiving bomb threats. Some Viking executives took to wearing bulletproof vests. In Britain, there were book-burnings of The Satanic Verses in Bolton in December 1988 and in Bradford in January 1989. The latter was attended not only by angry Muslims but also by local politicians and the Bishop of Bradford. That is, a British man of the cloth stood by as The Satanic Verses was stuck on the end of a stick and held above a fire a full month before an Iranian man of the cloth issued his death sentence against Rushdie.
The extreme sensitivity to The Satanic Verses was expressed in Western communities months before Khomeini broadcast his fatwa in a pretty transparent attempt to milk the already existing international controversy for his own political benefit. The angst over Rushdie’s novel was as much a product of the very Western ideology of multiculturalism as it was of an Iranian mullah’s authoritarian urge to protect his faith from any slight. The pre-fatwa letter-writing campaigns, bomb threats and book-burnings in the West did not speak to an invasion of intolerant Muslims into our societies; after all, Muslims had been moving to and living in Western countries for many decades prior to 1988/89. No, it spoke to the growing influence of the multicultural idea that every religious community and identity group should be accorded respect, none should be viewed as better than any other, and all should be protected from the gruff language and ridicule of observers or outsiders. It was those new and divisive ideas, the jettisoning of the old universal values of tolerance and citizenship in favour of cultivating communal identities and obedient respect for all cultures, which were fundamentally the spark for the widespread pre-fatwa anger about The Satanic Verses in the US and the UK.