Thirty Years of the Fatwa

Claire Chambers and Rehana Ahmed| 8 March 2019

Modern History | British History | Media History | Religious History

In late 1988, Muslim protestors in Bolton and Bradford, two poor and ethnically divided northern hotspots, were encouraged by television reporters to burn Salman Rushdie’s allegedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses. Soon afterwards, on 14 February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie and his publishers had dramatic impact in the UK, as well as on global geopolitics. Thirty years ago today, Iran cut its diplomatic ties with Britain in the course of the controversy. Following Rushdie’s ‘bloody Valentine’, the spotlight fell on Muslims. Previously they had been a virtually invisible minority group in Britain, subsumed within the broader category of ‘Asians’.

In this post we want to discuss the Rushdie affair in the context of a tide of rising Islamophobia and stereotyping. Since 1989, and accelerating after 9/11, Britain has seen a clash of fundamentalisms between extremism in the name of Islam on the one hand, and Western neoliberalism or state extremism on the other.

The Satanic Verses is about South Asian (mostly Muslim) and other migration to the UK, and the loss of religious faith. It contains a notoriously intangible section in which a character, Gibreel, who is psychotic, has a dream about someone called ‘Mahound’ (an insulting Orientalist term for the Prophet Mohammed). Rushdie, or Gibreel, or Gibreel’s disturbed subconscious, imagines Mahound as a paedophilic libertine who is also a ruthless businessman. Drawing on the now much-discredited satanic verses myth, the narrator suggests that sections of the Qur’an were dictated by the devil. Prostitutes give themselves names of Mahound’s wives to excite their clients, and these names just happen to be those of the historical spouses of the Prophet Mohammed. There are countless other jabs at Islam, and religion more broadly.

This section of the book caused great offence to many, though not all Muslims. Particularly offended were Muslims who, like Rushdie, hailed from the Indian subcontinent, where the Prophet and his family are held in especially high veneration. As the controversy spread, the novel was banned in India and burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom and Pakistan. This culminated with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa (a legal opinion rather than a binding law) in February 1989 against Rushdie and his publishers. He followed this up by offering a million-pound bounty for the person who could kill Rushdie.

The fatwa was abhorrent and indefensible, but the dominant liberal reaction to the Satanic Verses protests was also questionable. Rushdie was positioned by commentators such as Fay Weldon and Malise Ruthven as one of their own. A pale-skinned, Cambridge-educated exponent of free speech, Rushdie’s Voltairean upholding of debate and democracy was juxtaposed with the supposedly barbaric and alien values of the protestors.

A reductive binary of liberating freedom of expression versus repressive religious culture emerged repeatedly in responses to the controversy by writers, publishers and journalists, as well as members of the cultural commentariat in Britain and elsewhere. Rushdie’s backers typically based their support for him on an absolutist defence of free speech. In this way, they echoed Rushdie’s own self-construction – expressed in essays such as ‘In Good Faith’ and ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ as well as his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton – as a courageous artist fighting against reactionary forces and speaking truth to power.

The reality was, and remains, much more complex than this. Freedom of speech is not a neutral concept or principle, and religious offence is always shaped by context. The majority of Rushdie’s British Muslim dissenters were far from powerful. Their protest was influenced by their social, racial and religious marginalization, and largely dismissed or vilified by privileged members of a liberal, secular arts establishment.

In the years following the publication of the novel and the subsequent furore, a number of controversies involving a clash between creative freedom and religious offence have grabbed media headlines. In Britain, the staging in 2004 of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti at the Birmingham Rep angered some British Sikhs. Then in 2006 small-scale protests erupted in London’s East End in response to the filming there of the adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane. Nearby, in the Netherlands, Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s controversial depiction of Islam in their 2004 film Submission led to van Gogh’s murder. The following year saw global protests erupt in response to the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Meanwhile the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo has been in the eye of a similar storm on several occasions and with devastating consequences.

Responses to these disputes by liberal commentators have remained hamstrung by a black-and-white worldview. Free speech is seen as a transcendental and absolute good, and religion – most often Islam – as censoring and censorious. Yet, there have been glimpses of a more gradated understanding in recent years. In 2015, for example, acclaimed writers including Peter Carey, Taiye Selasi and Michael Ondaatje objected to PEN’s decision to award their Freedom of Expression Courage prize to Charlie Hebdo because of the magazine’s offensive depictions of Muslims and other disenfranchised groups.

It is crucial to reflect on the events of thirty years ago and their legacy to ask how we might move forwards in a context that is deeply divided and plagued by Islamophobia. As Anshuman Mondal shows, any artwork intended for the public domain has a transactional dimension, and speech is a social and communicative act. Thus, creativity isn’t just about self-expression, and freedom of speech might work to forge understanding across differences. We must all recognize that some people are freer to speak than others. Also important, we suggest, is the imperative to speak – and listen – with social responsibility.

Rehana Ahmed is a senior lecturer in postcolonial and contemporary literature at Queen Mary University of London. Her most recent book is Writing British Muslims: Religion, Class and Multiculturalism.

Claire Chambers teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of four books including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays.