The Rushdie Affair—Lest We Forget

Russell Blackford

Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, is a major literary work from one of the great authors of our generation. It was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Award for best novel of the year (by a writer based in the United Kingdom or Ireland). This alone would have made it a literary milestone along with Rushdie’s other novels, such as his celebrated Midnight’s Children (1981), which won the Booker Prize, the 1993 Booker of Bookers, the 2008 Best of the Booker, and many other awards and accolades.

As events turned out, however, The Satanic Verses became most famous for the all-too-credible threats made on its author’s life. In February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme religious leader of Iran, issued his notorious fatwā against Rushdie, calling for the novelist’s death for supposedly blaspheming Islam, the Qur’an, and the prophet Muhammad. The fatwā extended to all involved in the book’s publication who were aware of its contents. Rushdie was forced into hiding, and although he has survived his ordeal, others were not so lucky. His Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was severely wounded in a knife attack in July, 1991. Shortly afterward, in the same month, the book’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was stabbed to death. In October, 1993, the book’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot three times outside his home, apparently in response to the fatwā, although the perpetrators have never been identified. Nygaard survived serious wounds after a lengthy time in the hospital.

Numerous others have been killed, hurt, or kidnapped as a result of violent fervor against Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. At the peak of the crisis, bookshops were threatened and in some cases bombed. Perhaps most notable of all was the massacre carried out by a mob of radical Salafists in Sivas, Turkey, in July, 1993. Enraged by the presence at a cultural festival of Aziz Nesin, translator of parts of the novel into Turkish, the mob set fire to a hotel, killing thirty-five people. Two of the rioting Salafists were also killed in this deplorable incident, bringing the total count to thirty-seven dead. Nesin himself managed to escape, though he is said to have been beaten by rescuers when they realized his identity.

In 1994, Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz was almost killed in yet another knife attack. Mahfouz, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, was the author of Children of Gabalawi, first published in Arabic in 1959 and translated into English in 1981. Children of Gabalawi had itself met opposition on religious grounds, but it seems that Mahfouz’s more immediate “crime” was his vocal (if partly equivocal) support for Rushdie during his plight.

Meanwhile, The Satanic Verses was banned in many countries. Worse, many supposedly moderate Muslims defended the fatwā. Even worse, and to their everlasting shame, many Western religious leaders, public intellectuals, and political commentators turned against Rushdie for his supposed insensitivity to religious and cultural feelings. This was a time when intimidation and fear of giving offense apparently trumped free-speech values. There were further calls for Rushdie’s death in 2007, when he was knighted for his “services to literature.” Most recently, a senior Iranian cleric, Ahmad Khatami, marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fatwā in February 2014 by assuring worshipers that the death sentence pronounced on Rushdie remains fresh and in force.

This anniversary of the fatwā is hardly a time for celebration, but it does provide a symbolic moment for somber reflection about the importance of artistic freedom, more generally freedom of speech and expression, and particularly the freedom to criticize or satirize religion. It should also remind us that threats to free speech do not emanate solely from governments. The difficulty for Rushdie was not that his book was banned in his own adopted country, the United Kingdom. The source of the fatwā happened to be a foreign ruler, but the Ayatollah’s only source of authority where Rushdie lived was a religious one. Together with the fanaticism of radical Islamists throughout Europe and the rest of the developed world, however, this was sufficient to drive Rushdie into hiding, pressure him to make some humiliating apologies and concessions (before we blame him, let’s think how we might react in such a life-or-death situation), and doubtlessly to silence many legitimate critics of Islam.

Ironically, the controversy contributed to Rushdie’s personal wealth and influence, because it gave The Satanic Verses enormous publicity and undoubtedly boosted sales. But it came at the price of immense suffering for him and many others, and the Rushdie affair has led to an environment where it’s now doubtful that a reputable publisher would buy such a book, irrespective of its literary merit or commercial potential.

Although I am a free-speech advocate, I am not a free-speech absolutist. Speech can sometimes be used to suppress the speech of others rather than for artistic expression or debate about ideas. In the extreme, it can be used to incite hatred and violence against individuals, particularly to punish artists and intellectuals. Rushdie’s novel was worthy of defense, but as Amos M. Guioroa has argued, we should be especially concerned about speech that relies on religious authority to incite violent action against real or imagined enemies of the religion concerned.

It is still too common for serious works, whether fiction or nonfiction, to be suppressed on religious grounds in many parts of the world, including in democratic nations such as India. Again, the resulting notoriety can add to sales in particular cases as people try to discover what the fuss is about, but violent opposition and government bans also deny entire populations the opportunities to engage with new ideas, viewpoints, and arguments. A work such as Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), for example, may gain many additional sales from the intellectually curious as a result of legal prohibitions in some countries, but it is kept away from an audience who’d possibly find it useful. All this chills serious speech and inquiry.

As we reflect on the quarter century since the Rushdie Affair, and especially the Ayatollah’s barbaric fatwā, let’s renew our commitment to struggle for freedom of speech—not least for freedom of whatever speech might challenge religion or upset the religious. Many people will betray that cause, as we saw with Rushdie’s educated Western detractors in 1989, but that is all the more reason to stand firm.


Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

“Enraged by the presence at a cultural festival of Aziz Nesin, translator of parts of the novel into Turkish, the mob set fire to a hotel, killing thirty-five people.”

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