The Rushdie affair demonstrates that speech must be as free as possible in a plural society
Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa transformed the Rushdie affair into a global conflict with historical repercussions. It also helped shroud it in myths about what caused it and about the lessons to be drawn from it. Twenty years on it is time we laid to rest the myths of the Rushdie affair.
Myth 1: The controversy over Rushdie's novel was driven by religion. It wasn't. It was a political conflict. The Satanic Verses first became an issue in India because an election was due in November 1988, two months after the publication of the novel. No politician wanted to alienate any section of India's 150-million strong Muslim community just before an election. Hardline Islamist groups used Rushdie's book to try to win political concessions. The novel subsequently became an issue in Britain as it turned into a weapon in the faction fights between various Islamic groups in this country.
Even more important was the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for supremacy in the Islamic world. From the 1970s onwards, Saudi Arabia had used oil money to fund Salafi organisation and mosques worldwide to cement its position as spokesman for the umma. Then came the Iranian revolution of 1979 that overthrew the Shah, established an Islamic republic, made Tehran the capital of Muslim radicalism, Ayatollah Khomeini its spiritual leader, and posed a direct challenge to Riyadh.
The Rushdie affair became a key part of that conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudis set up the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, the principal anti-Rushdie group in Britain. Riyadh provided the funding and its co-chairman was a Saudi diplomat. The fatwa was an attempt by Iran to wrestle the initiative back from the Saudis, especially at a time when the country had lost face by being forced to pull out of its bloody eight-year war with Iraq and when political reformists were gaining the upper hand in Tehran.
Myth 2: All Muslims were offended by The Satanic Verses. They weren't. Until the fatwa the campaign against The Satanic Verses was largely confined to the subcontinent and Britain. Aside from the involvement of Saudi Arabia, there was little enthusiasm for a campaign against novel in the Arab world or in Turkey, or among Muslim communities in France or Germany. When Saudi Arabia tried at the end of 1988 to get the novel banned in Muslim countries worldwide, few responded except those with large subcontinental populations, such as South Africa or Malaysia.
Even Iran did not ban the novel. Today, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui is a founding trustee of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Twenty years ago his views about Islam and secularism were very different, being then a great admirer of the Iranian Revolution. He was in Tehran in the autumn of 1988 and was party to plenty of discussions about The Satanic Verses, in street cafes and government ministries. "There was little hostility to the novel", he remembers. "It was widely discussed. There were even some good reviews in the press."
Myth 3: The campaign against The Satanic Verses was about defending the dignity of the Muslim community. It wasn't. Rushdie's critics no more spoke for the Muslim community than Rushdie himself did. Both represented different strands of opinion within Muslim communities. Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in the 1980s was deeply entrenched. Rushdie's critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands.
Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. As the philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, who became a spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques after the book-burning demonstration, put it in his book Be Careful with Muhammad!, "Islamic doctrine wisely discourages inappropriate kinds of curiosity; and orthodoxy encourages 'safe' thoughts." He himself refused "to countenance any subtlety of mind or will that might undermine Islam." People like Akhtar succeeded in their mission at least in part because secular liberals embraced them as the "authentic" voice of the Muslim community.
Myth 4: The Rushdie affair demonstrates the need for greater regulation on speech in a plural society. In fact it demonstrates the very opposite. It is precisely because we live in a plural society that expression needs to be as free as possible. In a plural society, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important because any kind of social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities.
"If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict", the sociologist Tariq Modood has suggested, "They mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others' fundamental beliefs to criticism." But to limit such criticism is to limit the democratic process and the possibilities of social progress. Human beings, as Rushdie put it in his essay "In Good Faith", written a year after the fatwa, "understand themselves and shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable; not by bowing the knee whether to gods or to men."