Faith, Freedom and Fatwas: The Rushdie Affair 30 Years On
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‘We are from Allah and to Allah we shall return'. 'I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses, a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur'an, along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death. I call on all valiant Muslims wherever they may be in the world to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth. And whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr, Allah Willing. Meanwhile if someone has access to the author of the book but is incapable of carrying out the execution, he should inform the people so that [Rushdie] is punished for his actions.’ These words of the Ayatollah Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, spoken over the radio thirty years ago today announcing the fatwa he had placed against Salman Rushdie, signalled that the contest between freedom of expression and closed-minded faith, thought to have been long ago resolved in Europe in favour of the former, was not yet over. It still isn’t. People died over the Rushdie Affair. Thirty years on the main lessons are that the forces of reaction are very much alive, and, what’s more, often abetted by liberal leaning intellectuals and other influential figures who ought to know better.
Image credit: ActuaLitté on FlickrTake, for example, John le Carré’s reaction to the affair. In response to a fundamentalist theocratic foreign leader offering millions for the murder of a writer (whose book I very much doubt Khomeini had even read) the doyen of spy fiction opined that ‘great religions’ cannot be ‘insulted with impunity’. Had the Archbishop of Canterbury called for the assassination of Monty Python for their hilarious heresy in The Life of Brian all the intellectuals who quivered over defending Salman Rushdie for his relatively minor ‘offences’ against Islam would have righteously and rightly come to John Cleese et al.’s defence. Ah, but, we all know the Church of England isn’t like that. Well, quite. It’s difficult, and somewhat amusing given the Church of England’s flaccidity these days, to picture a kindly old Anglican Archbishop fulminating at heresy. But that isn’t the point- the point is that if it was, it would deserve to be opposed vigorously, and that since there are religious movements which do act like this they ought to be fought. Incidentally, many non-Muslim religious leaders, from Anglicans to Catholics, were critical of Rushdie, rushing like le Carré to profess the ‘respect’ we all must give to religion. The sweet interfaith spirit at work again! Ah, but we can’t tell Muslims how to think- ‘their’ culture is no business of ‘ours’. Again, not the point, not to mention that such an attitude is supposed to be liberal and righteous but is in fact downright condescending and even racist. Why do ‘Muslims’ need to be ‘protected’ from ‘offence’? Muslims are a diverse group, like all others, ranging from fundamentalists to liberals, yet we must pander to the former and therefore forsake the latter in their fight to effect change? This is the bigotry of low expectations.
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