February 14, 2009
On Valentine's Day 1989, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini directed a poison arrow into the heart of western culture. By strategically declaring his fatwa against Salman Rushdie and his publishers, the ageing Ayatollah - whose star was fading after the disaster of the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war which had drained Iranian resources, resulted in 300,000 dead and 500,000 wounded, and diminished his "revolutionary" status - was also making a pre-emptive strike for his brand of Islam, which Rushdie had purportedly offended.
This was hardly the first time in human history that a clerical authority had found a complex literary work offensive. Savonarola, that purist Renaissance monk, burned Ovid's Art of Love on his bonfire of the vanities.
The Papal Index blacklisted the key books to shape the western canon and prohibited the reading of Rabelais, Voltaire, Diderot, Baudelaire, Flaubert and Simone de Beauvoir, amongst many others. Similarly, nineteenth-century preachers railed against escapist literature, anxious about the young women it would lead astray, and presumably away from the rule of fathers, husbands and preachers.
What became The Satanic Verses affair was different in several respects. Writers in the west, for the preceding two hundred years, had grown used to the sense that the greatest literature was that which imaginatively voiced a critique of everyday manners and often hypocritical morals.
To shed new light, to burrow into forgotten corners of society or the psyche, to upset an often unjust polity or a restrictive, narrow-minded society, to unleash the free play of ideas, was the accepted task of the writer. Only totalitarian regimes, intent on maintaining their power over a supine population, thought otherwise. Lenin knew the potency of free thought: "Ideas are much more fatal things than guns," he declared, before proceeding to repress free speech.
The late John Mortimer QC, who defended Lady Chatterley's Lover and The Little Red Schoolbook in the courts, spoke for most of his literary contemporaries (and against the smut-obsessed Mary Whitehouse brigades) when he said that that it was almost the duty of writers to offend. Without the mental and emotional shake-up, we would never think afresh. Nor, without the freedom to criticise, would parliament or any authority (which, after-all, is in the business of keeping it), ever be taken to task for its mistakes or misdemeanors.
It was against this background that the demonstrations against The Satanic Verses and the book burning in Bradford came as something of a culture shock. Here were the very same disaffected young people whose plight in a racist Britain Rushdie had so adamantly criticised, whose condition formed the meat of his satire on Thatcher's Britain - which was in part what the novel was - demanding the banning of his supposedly insulting book. They were undoubtedly provoked by communitarian Muslims in India and clerics financed by Saudi, but it was only with the declaration of the fatwa that the global dimensions and the nature of the new global era we were entering became clear.
Two other things became clear, as well. Throughout the 80s the targetting of speech, at first only on American campuses but gradually elsewhere, had enshrined "political correctness", a moral policing of speech. This had spilled over from direct and abusive racist and sexist insult to all areas of thought and language. More importantly, in retrospect, too few of us had noticed that religion had begun to grow into a new form of identity politics in the footsteps of race and sex. Offence was now not only felt by the embodied person but on behalf of a deity one would have thought was powerful enough not to worry.
Most writers, and many for whom it was dangerous to do so, given the repressive regimes under which they lived, spoke out in defence of Rushdie: Tahar Ben Jalloun, Naguib Mahfouz, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llhosa, Günter Grass, and in Britain, Hanif Kureishi, Harold Pinter and many others. Some dissented, saying a book wasn't worth the lives subsequently lost in the mounting furore. But The Satanic Verses shot no one, nor did it condemn anyone to death. The tragic cost in lives was the result of religious leaders whipping up their followers into a fury over a book the majority of them had never read.
The softly-softly approach to free expression has rarely benefited anyone except those who want to maintain their exclusive power. If women or vulnerable minorities - including religious minorities - want to speak out about injustice, they are quickly silenced in regimes where expression is policed. In our current "no offence" climate, too many groups take it upon themselves to try and muffle their own, as was the case with Behzti or Brick Lane. When a small publisher takes it upon himself to publish a pot-boiler like The Jewel of Medina and has his offices firebombed, all publishers quiver and a chill goes through the sector. Our established and long-fought for liberties to read or not read what we like are eroded.
It is salutary to remember that even the most ardent protestors against The Satanic Verses, those who sought to bring blasphemy prosecutions against it, now feel they were wrong and free expression is a valuable right. Few of those who feel "offended" by a piece of writing in the west would actually freely choose to live under regimes where their protest would neither be permitted nor reported.