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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 Flickr

Take, 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.

Was Dr Zaki Badawi, a courageous Muslim thinker who sheltered Rushdie in his home, a tool of neo-colonial orientalism? What of countless other moderate and ex-Muslims from Maajid Nawaz and Irshad Manji to Ayaan Hirsi Ali? They are often vilified by liberal intellectuals for their outspokenness, yet they are at the forefront, along with so many others, of the fight against Islamism and extremism around the world.

In the years since 1989, there have been countless more attacks on freedom of speech by religious extremists. Think of the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2015 (the second and deadliest of two attacks on the magazine by Islamists) and the Danish cartoons affair of 2006. This hardly exhausts the list, yet it illustrates the two lessons we should have learned in 1989. First, the faithful of a fundamentalist persuasion can be whipped up to commit violence and murder not seen in Europe since the heyday of Christian tyranny.

Second, these fundamentalists will be defended by those who should be condemning them. Victim blaming reflexes were abundant- the cartoonists brought it on themselves, they should not have been so ‘offensive’. Sir Iqbal Sacranie, an influential Muslim voice, was, for instance, terribly worked up in 2006 over the Danish cartoons affair- not because of the violence meted out to innocents by fanatics, oh no, but because people didn’t understand that the Prophet Muhammad was so dear and sacred in the Islamic faith. Of course, then, how stupid of anyone to write or draw anything remotely critical of him! They brought it on themselves…and so it goes on.

This unholy alliance is revolting, and it combines victim blaming with racism: "how could we expect anything other than violence from Muslims who feel offended?" Therefore we should not be critical of Islam in any way. I need not spell out the racism underlying these supposedly liberal folks’ views. Sadly, such views are not hard to find in our media whenever an awful event of this sort happens and they usually come from the same suspects- typically in the Guardian.

With liberals shirking from addressing these issues, the loudest voices we hear criticising Islam are the odious tones of Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) and his ilk, and this further means that liberals cannot speak openly about ideas without being associated with such people, who hate individuals based on skin colour, ethnic group and culture alone rather than engaging with ideas held by a varied group of individuals.

Liberals don’t judge individuals by group membership: Yaxley-Lennon and his followers do. But liberals should be willing to engage in controversy and criticism of ideas and engage with difficult issues arising from religious culture.

There are many liberal Muslim voices, many who supported Rushdie and other victims of Islamism- incidentally, the first victims of Islamism are always Muslims- yet our inability to talk openly about these issues gives credence to right wing racists, gives more power to extremists to be the loudest voices in Islam, and makes a mockery of everything liberals should stand for- solidarity with the oppressed and the valiant fighters of oppression and support for freedom of speech and thought.

Since this year also marks the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran by the dear, departed Ayatollah, it may also be worth supporting brave Iranian dissidents like Maryam Namazie and many others in their opposition to one of the world’s most hateful regimes and to extremist religion instead of condemning them as ‘Islamophobic’.

In any case it is high time we learn the lessons of 1989: firstly, that those like Rushdie and Hirsi Ali whose lives are still under serious threat ought to be given far more support; and, secondly, that it is time that liberty is once more given pride of place in our political and intellectual culture and supported around the world wherever tyranny rears its ugly head.

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