The Importance of Being Blasphemous

Stephen R. Welch

This past January, millions marched throughout France in memory of the victims of the terror attack on the Paris offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The attack, perpetrated earlier that month by two French Islamists, had purportedly been committed to avenge the newspaper’s cartoon portrayals of Muhammad. The outrage expressed by the French public was unequivocal. In rallies counted among the largest in French history, “Je suis Charlie” (“We are Charlie”) became a global rallying cry, both as an expression of solidarity for the principle of free speech and in defiance of the terrorists’ attempt to suppress it. “Je suis Charlie” quickly went viral on social media.

Though by no means freighted with the same gravity, a similar affront to free speech occurred in the latter half of last year, when hackers stole data from Sony Pictures and made threats against the studio. The threats specifically targeted Sony for its comedy film The Interview, which depicted the assassination of the “Great Leader” of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Citing “public safety concerns,” Sony cancelled release of The Interview. Weeks later, after its corporate backbone had received stiffening from the public outcry and words of “disappointment” by the U.S. president, Sony reversed its decision.

What is happening? For over two decades, ever since the now-infamous fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, there has been a seemingly inexorable retrenchment in the public’s defense of controversial or offensive speech and art. Are we seeing, at last, a thaw in the long chill of self-censorship?

It is far too early to be sanguine. The battle to annex iconoclasm under the ever-expanding domain of the taboo is still being vigorously waged, particularly among the ideological Left. The voices of suppression, that warn that Charlie Hebdo’s blasphemy was a reckless indulgence or decry it as a form of hate speech, make essentially the same arguments that were levied against Salman Rushdie more than twenty-six years ago. Behind the rhetoric is a very real fear. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s edict ordering all Muslims of the world to kill “without delay” the author, editors, and publishers of The Satanic Verses may not have succeeded in censoring the book. But the lesson delivered to us all on that Valentine’s Day in 1989 is one that no flurry of public rallies or the short-lived bloom of a well-meant hashtag will easily dispel.


There was a time when the only real fear a publisher had to face was the critic’s pen. Tracing the legacy of the Rushdie Affair in his book From Fatwa to Jihad, Kenan Malik highlights the contrast between then and now in an interview with publisher Peter Mayer. In 1989, Mayer was CEO of Penguin Books, publisher of The Satanic Verses. When he first learned of the fatwa, Mayer says that his primary concern was for Rushdie and his Penguin staff. His other reaction was bafflement. “The fate of being a publisher,” he said to Malik, is that one “always find[s] people offended by books you publish.” When Jews and Christians had objected—in writing, usually it went no further than that—to a book he had published, he would respond by simply saying that he could not publish only inoffensive books. The understanding among publishers, authors, and the reading public at the time was that the right to publish books included the publishing of offensive books, and any differences in taste and opinion were sorted out through discussion. “It was generally a civilized dialogue,” Mayer recalls. “One relied on the sanity of secular democracy.”

That a head of state would issue a death sentence upon the author of a novel and all involved in its publication was not something Mayer, or anyone in the industry, could have anticipated. The bewilderment quickly turned to something grimmer when Mayer began receiving letters and phone calls threatening, in graphic terms, him and his family with death. Yet Penguin did not back down from publishing The Satanic Verses. In his interview with Malik, Mayer recalls telling the Penguin board that, despite the threats and intimidation, they must take the long view on the matter: “Any climb-down . . . will only encourage future terrorist attacks by individuals or groups offended for whatever reason by other books that we or any publisher might publish. If we capitulate, there will be no publishing as we know it.”

Mayer and his Penguin colleagues became acutely aware that their decision would not only affect the future of publishing but of free inquiry, and by extension civil society itself. Such awareness and the urgency with which it was felt, Malik soberly observes, “seems to belong to a different age.”

This same defense of principle seemed to reemerge, at least for a time, in Paris earlier this year. Yet even in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the right to offend was treated with equivocation by those who should know better. While some media outlets reproduced the Hebdo Muhammad cartoons, most did not: the New York Times, the BBC, and UK’s Channel 4 would not do so. While condemning the attacks, notable journalists such as CNN’s Jay Carney questioned the judgment of the magazine’s editors for publishing images “we know . . . will be deeply offensive” and have the “potential to be inflammatory,” while journalist Tony Barber admonished that such publications are “being stupid” when they “provoke Muslims.”*

This finger-wagging speaks not so much to a principled stance against offending religious sensibilities as it reveals the foregone conclusion of violence. And it is this fear of violence, disingenuously cloaked in the rhetoric of prudence, that has come to serve as a de facto“blasphemy law.” As Nick Cohen acerbically notes, though the fear is arguably justified, it is reprehensible that writers and journalists—those who, one would presume, have the most to lose—cannot bring themselves to admit their fear and thus acknowledge their self-censorship. An honest admission, Cohen suggests, would “shred the pretence that journalists are fearless speakers of truth to power. But it would be a small gesture of solidarity. It would say to everyone, from Pakistani secularists murdered for opposing theocratic savagery, to British parents worried sick that their boys will join Islamic State, that radical Islam is a real fascistic force.”

Instead, Cohen says, journalists and many in the arts and academia have been living a lie. “We take on the powerful—and ask you to admire our bravery—if, and only if, the powerful are not a paramilitary force that may kill us.”

One silver lining in this depressing cloud is that the Charlie Hebdo incident has fomented public debate over the merits of the right to blaspheme in a free society, and whether that right truly jeopardizes social harmony or is intrinsic to the values of a liberal society. The Rushdie affair did not, unfortunately, precipitate the same level of public discourse. With the exception of a few voices (including Rushdie’s own), the fatwa was generally treated in the media as a problem directed singularly against Rushdie and, therefore, suffered by him alone. The possibility that Khomeini’s edict was delivered against the liberal principles of the West in toto or that the death threat was truly leveled at all authors and publishers—and by extension, readers—was not widely appreciated.

This naïveté seems like folly now. In his memoir of the fatwa years, Joseph Anton, Rushdie likens his ordeal to an unheeded Cassandra-like warning of things to come. Borrowing from Hitchcock’s The Birds, he illustrates how the threat of Islamism gathered while we in the West sat, oblivious. Recounting a famous scene from the film, he describes the actress Tippi Hedren as she sits on a bench outside an elementary school, unaware of the blackbirds gathering ominously on the jungle-gym behind her:

The children in the classroom . . . sing a sad nonsense song. Outside the school a cold wind is blowing. A single blackbird flies down from the sky and settles on the climbing frame in the playground. The children’s song is a roundelay. It begins but it doesn’t end. It just goes round and round. . . .

There are four more blackbirds on the climbing frame, and then a fifth arrives. Inside the school the children are singing. Now there are hundreds of blackbirds . . . and thousands more birds fill the sky, like a plague of Egypt. A song has begun, to which there is no end.

When the first bird comes down to roost, Rushdie explains, it was just about him, “individual, particular, specific. Nobody [felt] inclined to draw any conclusions from it.” It is only a dozen years later, “after the plague begins,” when people see that the first bird had been a harbinger.

In January of 1989, four months after The Satanic Verses was published, the first book-burnings in Britain occurred. This was followed in February by a small protest in Pakistan that turned deadly after police fired into the crowd of demonstrators. Five people were killed. Two days later, on Valentine’s Day, Khomeini issued his edict.

From the outset, many stood fast in their support of Rushdie. On the day of the book’s publication in the United States later that month, the Association of American Publishers, the American Bookseller’s Association, and the American Library Association paid for a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. The ad asserted that free people write books, free people read books, free people publish and sell books, and in the “spirit of . . . commitment to free expression” affirmed that The Satanic Verses “will be available to readers at bookshops and libraries throughout the country.” One hundred Muslim writers jointly published a book of essays in defense of free speech titled For Rushdie. Poets and writers from across the Arab world courageously, and publicly, defended him. “I choose Salman Rushdie,” wrote Syrian novelist Jamil Hatmal, “over the murderous turbans.”

In contrast to his defenders, there grew a loud chorus of detractors. Counted among them, sadly, were some fellow authors, including Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz—himself also once accused of blasphemy—who, though first decrying the Ayatollah’s act as “terrorism,” later backtracked and stated that Rushdie “did not have the right to insult . . . anything considered holy.” One of the most notable critics was John Le Carre, who on the pages of the Guardiansniffed, “[T]here is no law in life or nature that says great nations may be insulted with impunity.” Self-appointed leaders of the Muslim “community” in the United Kingdom voiced support for the fatwa. UK parliamentarians, pandering to their Muslim constituencies, focused their efforts not on defending their citizens’ rights but on preventing the paperback publication of the book. And the archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, scolded Rushdie for his “abuse of free speech,” declaring that the novel was an “outrageous slur” and that “[w]e must be more tolerant of Muslim anger.”

Victim-blaming continues to have traction where Rushdie’s critics are concerned. One of the more notable reviews of Joseph Anton was also one of the most negative. In her piece in the December 20, 2012, issue of the New York Review of Books, Zoë Heller did not exude quite the disdain for Rushdie as did his earlier detractors, but many of her criticisms repeated the same canards and exerted the same tired emphasis on the author’s perceived foibles. Heller found particularly objectionable the hardening of Rushdie’s perspective on Islam. “Respect for Islam,” Rushdie had written without qualm, was merely fear of Islamist violence cloaked in a “Tartuffe-like hypocrisy” by the dogma of multiculturalism. Like his critics two decades ago, Heller makes no effort to ascribe responsibility to the Islamists for sullying Islam or making the world feel “smaller and grimmer.” Instead, she lays it at Rushdie’s feet, chastising him for having “narrowed” his viewpoint.

Writing, as surely Heller herself knows, is a deeply personal endeavor. One can imagine, certainly, that a man finding his world turned upside-down for nine years, his life threatened, his character maligned, his worth as an artist questioned, and the fruit of his work—his novel—crucified and immolated by a mob, might succumb to the human response of taking it all quite personally. But such generosity of perspective becomes increasingly impossible for one who has been demonized. The first proposition of the assault against him, Rushdie recalls, was that “anyone who wrote a book with the word ‘satanic’ in the title must be satanic, too. Like many false propositions that flourished in the incipient Age of Information (or disinformation), it became true by repetition. Tell a lie about a man once and many people will not believe you. Tell it a million times and it is the man himself who will no longer be believed.”

The real man Salman Rushdie was replaced by an invented “Satan Rushdy,” an effigy that his adversaries could offer up to the hysterical mobs. Likewise, The Satanic Verses itself had been subjected to a vigorous campaign of demonization. The book he had written about migration, transformation, and identity, Rushdie laments, vanished and was replaced by one that “scarcely existed.” It was this imaginary novel, this figment, against which the “rage of Islam” would be directed.

Even the propositions surrounding that “rage” were the products of disinformation, repeated until presumed to be true. Malik lays out several facts that reduce to rubbish any claims that The Satanic Verses had caused mortal offense to Muslims en masse. There was “barely a squeak of protest,” he points out, among Muslims in France or Germany, nor any mass protests in the United States. Arabs and Turks were likewise “unmoved by Rushdie’s blasphemies.” Most Muslim countries (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia being the notable exceptions) did not ban the novel. It was not banned in Iran. In fact, in the months prior to Khomeini’s edict, the novel was reviewed in the Iranian press and discussed in government ministries and at street cafes. The Iranian literary journal Kayhan Farangi, though criticizing The Satanic Verses on artistic merits and for a “caricaturelike . . . image of Islamic principles,” did not once raise the specter of blasphemy. Kayhan Farangi did acknowledge that the book was a “work of imagination” and went as far as to suggest that the ban in India had been driven by politics rather than theology.

The fatwa was not an answer to The Satanic Verses or its putatively blasphemous contents. The decade following 1979 had brought Iran’s Islamic revolution to a disappointing standstill; Iran had fought a long and bitter war with Iraq to a costly stalemate, and it had failed to unseat the Saudi regime from its perceived role as the face of world Islam. Meanwhile, reformers within the Iranian parliament were growing restive. On his deathbed, brooding over his legacy, Khomeini made what was a calculated act to put fire back into his revolution’s belly. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the publishers of his novel was, in a manner of speaking, the Ayatollah’s parting shot. (It is almost certain that the old man had never read the novel.)

Rushdie’s sin was not that he wrote a book that incurred the wrath of Islam, but that he wrote the right book at the right time to be exploited by Islamist demagogues. Despite what critics may still repeat, nowhere in The Satanic Verses does Rushdie slander the Prophet or his companions as “scums and bums,” though characters persecuting his fictional Prophet use these words; nor does he malign the wives of the Prophet as whores, though, again, characters in a fictional brothel so name themselves. His Prophet is not-quite-Muhammad and his Mecca is not-quite-Mecca; his protagonist, Gabreel, is no more or less the angel Gabriel than he is the Indian film actor Amitabh Bachchan; and the book’s narrator is no more Satan than he is Salman Rushdie. It is neither polemic nor satire; nor is it an allegory or insult, veiled or otherwise. The Satanic Verses is no more or less than what its author intended—a novel.

Rushdie’s “offense” was, by fictionalizing him, to make the Prophet merely human, and in so doing to subvert the fiction of Muhammad’s divinity. No less an undertaking would be expected of an author of Rushdie’s caliber, a man who by his own admission is “godless, but fascinated by gods and prophets.” The novel is not an attack against Islam. On the contrary, it is an engagement with that religion’s legacy, an attempt by a man who is not a believer to reconcile that faith’s long shadow with his own nonbelief. Within the pages of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie recreated Islam in an image of his own making. That is the blasphemy for which some believers, and those who speak in their name, will not forgive him.


This past May, PEN America gave its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo. Explaining the decision to the Guardian, PEN president Andrew Solomon reminded readers that the award was for courage, not content, adding, “[t]here is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.”

Several well-known writers protested the PEN decision, igniting a brief furor on social media. The protesters raised the familiar arguments from taste, objecting to the perceived racist or “phobic” content of the magazine’s cartoons. Rushdie was one of the first to defend PEN America’s decision, as were Nick Cohen and Kenan Malik, among others. Those who defended PEN did so in full recognition that the freedom to speak derives precisely from those few who have the courage to say the unsayable, and that it is the freedom to speak upon which all other freedoms depend.

Our conviction that these freedoms have value has grown alarmingly weak over the past two decades, the consequence in large part of our embrace of the morally incoherent dogma of cultural relativism. In the 1980s, bookstores had been firebombed and assassination attempts made upon publishers and translators—in one case, successfully—and yet publication of The Satanic Verses continued. Today no violence, nor even a credible threat of violence, is required; the mere suggestion of “offense,” in the form of an organized protest or social-media campaign, is enough now to shut down a book, a play, or an art installation. Where the courage to publish the unsayable is lacking, the courage of those who write and speak it comes to naught.

Sometimes all it takes is a phone call. In 2008, twenty years after the fatwa, Random House bought The Jewel of Medina, a historical romance written by journalist Sherry Jones. In nearly every respect, Jones’s novel held nothing in common with Rushdie’s but for its fictionalizing of Islamic history. The protagonist in Jewel of Medina is Aisha, one of Muhammad’s wives. Though by all accounts the novel is self-consciously positive in its portrayal of the Prophet (in the words of Douglas Murray, “stomach-
churningly fawning”), this did not save it from the ire of the self-righteous. In researching Aisha’s legacy, Jones had used a book by Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas. Random House, seeking a cover endorsement, sent the galley proofs to Spellberg. After reading them, Spellberg took it upon herself to phone an editor at Random House and, condemning the novel as an “offensive” and “ugly piece of work,” warned that it was “far more controversial than The Satanic Verses” and could pose “a very real possibility of major danger for the . . . staff and widespread violence.” Spellberg recommended that the book be withdrawn as soon as possible. Apparently on the recommendation of that single phone call, reinforced by negative posts on an online forum (also initiated by Spellberg), Random House—Salman Rushdie’s current publisher—pulled Jewel of Medina from publication.

It is not only literature that suffers from this voluntary censorship, and it is not only Islam that cries foul. In 2005 a production of Bezhti, a play by Sikh writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti that depicted sexual abuse and murder in a gurdwara, was cancelled in response to protests by activists from the Sikh community in Birmingham, England. As recently as last year Exhibit B, an art installation that depicted live black actors in a recreation of a colonial-era “human zoo,” was also forced to close by protesters. The critics of Bezhti condemned the play for its “blasphemy” and “offense” against the Sikh religion, while the protesters against Exhibit B charged it with “complicit racism” (the very social ill it had intended to critique). Nor does a production have to be altogether cancelled to compromise freedom of speech. Last year, the New York Metropolitan Opera capitulated to protesters and cancelled the simulcast to cinemas of its production of John Adams’s controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer, effectively censoring it for anyone who could not afford the privilege of paying more than one hundred dollars to see the live performance.

All forms of inquiry and expression today are subject to the veto of the offended. Academic works, which normally do not generate much controversy (or attention) outside the confines of the ivory tower, are no less subject to suppression. Last year, a scholarly work, The Hindus: An Alternative History by American Indologist Wendy Doniger, was withdrawn from publication in India as the result of a lawsuit brought by members of the Hindu Right. The publisher was Penguin, and, in a sad irony, all Indian copies of Doniger’s book—cited for “denigration of Hinduism” by the plaintiffs—were pulped during the week of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Salman Rushdie fatwa.

That Penguin, the original publisher of The Satanic Verses, had pulled Doniger’s work brings the saga full circle. It was India that was first to ban Rushdie’s novel. It is deeply troubling that the lesson learned from Khomeini’s fatwa over the past twenty-six years has not been how to better champion and protect our writers, playwrights, and scholars but rather how to best emulate the “rage of Islam” in order to suppress any speech and art that an aggrieved party can claim has offended them. Free speech has become an indulgence, whereas grievance culture is now an equal-opportunity entitlement.

The Rushdie Affair, as Malik observes, was a watershed. Rushdie’s detractors “lost the battle in the sense that they never managed to stop the publication of The Satanic Verses,” but, he says, “they won the war by pounding into the liberal consciousness the belief that to give offence was a morally despicable act.” We have internalized the fatwa, a fact affirmed by the writers interviewed in From Fatwa to Jihad. “What is really dangerous is when you don’t know you’ve censored yourself,” worries Monica Ali, whose 2003 novel Brick Lane was subject to protest marches amid the familiar accusations of offense and insult. The writing process is unconscious, and as such, she laments, “it is difficult to know to what extent you’ve been infected by the debate about offense.”

Hanif Kureishi, another prominent British novelist and a contemporary of Rushdie’s, goes further. “Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses. Writing is now timid because writers are terrified.”

It is often said that it is the most offensive and unpopular speech that must be protected. However, it is not necessarily the work of the iconoclast or the polemicist that is most at risk. Works of honest inquiry—the history that questions received truths or the novel that dares to humanize the divine or demonic—all are threatened from this collective, internalized taboo against giving offense. Satire may stir the type of public attention that garners marches and pronouncements by presidents, and polemic may goad the ire of those it scorns. But it is the type of work that only casually disturbs or discomforts us, art that succeeds in penetrating the shell of our unexamined assumptions—the best of art, in other words—that is most likely to be censored, not necessarily by the spectacle of violence but by the stroke of an editor’s or publisher’s rejection or, worse, the author’s fear of embarking on the work to begin with. From this perspective, it is clear that the lesson delivered to us by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, and reprised early this year in Paris, has yet to be unlearned.

The true demonstration that we have at last freed ourselves will not be found in a march of solidarity with the next assassinated writer, or cartoonist, or playwright. It will manifest in something more prosaic. Proof that the old man’s fatwa has been truly exorcized, that we have indeed conquered it, will arrive when the next Satanic Verses is published, bought, read, and reviewed despite the protests, the threats, and the misinformation and shaming campaigns organized by the offended.

But first, someone needs to write it.

Further Reading

Cohen, Nick. 2015. “Paris Attacks: Unless We Overcome 
Fear, Self-censorship Will Spread.” Guardian, January 10. Accessed May 12, 2015.

Flood, Alison, and Alan Yuhas. 2015. “Salman Rushdie Slams Critics of PEN’s Charlie Hebdo Tribute.” Guardian, April 27. Accessed May 21, 2015.

Heller, Zoë. 2012. “The Salman Rushdie Case.” The New York Review of Books, December 20. Accessed May 19, 2015.

Khomeini, Ruhollah Mostafavi Moosavi. “Ayatollah Sentences Author to Death.” Accessed May 12, 2015.

Malik, Kenan. 2010. From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing.

———. 2014. “On The Death of Klinghoffer.” Pandaemonium (blog). November 13. Accessed May 21, 2015.

Muir, Hugh. 2014. “Barbican Criticizes Protesters Who Forced Exhibit B cancellation.” Guardian, September 24. Accessed May 21, 2015.

Murray, Douglas. 2013. Islamophilia: A Very Metropolitan Malady. New York: emBooks.

Prashad, Vijay. 2014. “Wendy Doniger’s Book Is a Tribute to Hinduism’s Complexity, Not an Insult.” Guardian, February 12. Accessed May 21, 2015. Thanks to Kenan Malik for pointing out the concurrence with the twenty-
fifth anniversary week of the fatwa, in

Rushdie, Salman. 2012. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. New York: Random House.

———. 2008. The Satanic Verses. New York: Random House.

Singh, Gurharpal. 2004. “Sikhs Are the Real Losers from Bezhti.” Guardian, December 23. Accessed May 21, 2015.

Vale, Paul. 2015. “Financial Times Europe Editor Tony Barber Accuses Charlie Hebdo of ‘Muslim Baiting.” Huffington Post UK, January 7. Accessed May 12, 2015.

Wemple, Erik. 2015. “On CNN, Jay Carney Sticks to Position that Charlie Hebdo Should Have Pulled Back.” Washington Post, January 8. Accessed May 12, 2015.


*Barber later “updated and expanded” his Financial Times opinion piece to excise the words “being stupid.”

Stephen R. Welch

Stephen R. Welch is a freelance writer based in New York. He writes regularly for Free Inquiry. His last article “The Importance of Being Blasphemous: Literature, Self-Censorship, and the Legacy of The Satanic Verses,” appeared in the October/November 2015 issue.