The Rushdie Affair and Reflections on a Fatwa

Until the inappropriate date of St. Valentine’s Day 1989, not many people in the West had ever heard of a “fatwa.”

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft (DEBATE)

Published: Tue 17 Feb 2009, 9:18 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:51 AM

The news that a British writer had been sentenced to death for blasphemy by religious authorities in Iran was not only horrifying, it was incomprehensible. Such things don’t happen any more, do they?

Mercifully, it didn’t, in that Sir Salman Rushdie, as he is now known, survived the ordeal. After years in hiding, he emerged safe and sound. Even though some zealot in Teheran has just said that the fatwa remains in force, he now leads a comparatively normal life, and “The Satanic Verses,” his novel that caused such real or factitious indignation, is still on sale. But all too much else has happened in these 20 years, and we still live in the shadow of that affair. It was the first taste of a new conflict, which has since become much more bitter. Not only have there been far too many wars in the Middle East, there has been ever-increasing tension between Muslims and the European countries where they live, from the Danish cartoons affair (in which, as in the Rushdie affair, innocent people were killed) to the stunt on Thursday when a Dutch parliamentarian who’s made a controversial film on the Quran called Fitna was turned away at Heathrow airport.

Whether this is a “clash of civilizations” — and the late Samuel Huntington might have felt entitled to cite the Rushdie case on behalf of his thesis of that name — what unquestionably emerged were two quite different worldviews dividing “the West and the rest.” And the irony of Rushdie’s own story is that he wasn’t on the side he once thought he was.

It would be a little sweeping to say that almost no one came out of the affair well. Rushdie himself playfully wrote a provocative book, was bewildered by the response, then chopped and changed, at one moment insisting that he had returned to the Muslim fold, at another that he had renounced religion. But much must be forgiven a man living literally in fear of his life. He must have been startled too by the venomous contempt directed at him in England, both from the nativist Right and the multicultural Left. One of Margaret Thatcher’s closest colleagues, Norman Tebbit, damned Rushdie as a man whose “public life has been a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality.”

A fine historian, Lord Dacre (Hugh Trevor-Roper), joined in, I’m sorry to say, mused whimsically about the possibility that some Muslims who deplored Rushdie’s manners might “waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.” And John Le Carré said — in a comically inapt phrase — that “Nobody has a God-given right to insult a great religion.” There was much more in that vein from self-appointed friends of Islam. What some of these effusions illustrated all too vividly was the intellectual and moral tangle that “multi-culti” had got itself into.

For one thing, in the case of “The Satanic Verses” and others since, sauce for the Muslim goose was plainly not sauce for the Christian gander. The very same people as those who affected such horror at Rushdie’s blasphemy against Islam derided anybody who claimed to be upset by blasphemy against Christianity. In the case in London some years earlier when Gay News published a lurid poem about Jesus, chattering-class opinion unanimously supported the magazine.

As to those who asserted that criticism of Islam was akin to racism, they were if anything the real racists, albeit unconscious. They not only willfully confused race with religion, they patronisingly applied different standards to dark-skinned Muslims, from whom, it seemed, nothing better than mindless violence could be expected.

Most poignant of all was Rushdie himself. Behind the spiteful Tory sneers was the memory that, for years before the fatwa, and not content with his literary success, he had tried to parlay his Third Worldliness into a career. In one remarkably silly television talk he conceded with heavy sarcasm that, as racist states go, modern England might not be quite as bad as the Third Reich.

And in words he would later regret, he had written that the revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power in Iran “was a genuine mass movement.” So it might have been, but that was small consolation to those put to death — or threatened with death — under that sanguinary rule of the saints.

For all his attitudinising as a tribune of distant masses and “the other,” the truth was that Rushdie was in his heart and mind entirely a man of the West — a truth he unwittingly demonstrated. He might have been Indian by birth and Pakistani by first citizenship, but he was a brown Briton in much more than adoptive nationality.

From when I first became conscious of him, he struck me simply as one more British writer who happened not to share one’s own blotchy pinkish hue. Why, the fellow was educated at Rugby and King’s, the same public school and Cambridge college as Rupert Brooke. One could almost envisage Salman’s resting place as a corner “that is forever England.” He forgot all that when he pretended to be something he wasn’t, and thereby showed how little he understood “the other.” At the time, William Pfaff wrote about the case in International Herald Tribune, and couldn’t help thinking that Rushdie’s conduct, though understandable, “has not been entirely edifying,” which was possibly true. But he also put his finger on something far truer.

For centuries, certainly since the Enlightenment, the prevailing sensibility of the West has been scepticism, the critical and often derisive questioning of all established beliefs and institutions. It is thanks not least to that (as well as to a hedonistic culture) that Western Europe today is the most irreligious corner of the globe, with the Christian churches an enfeebled minority. Anyone who derides Christianity now finds nervous tolerance even from those beleaguered and demoralised Christians. But, as Pfaff said, “Rushdie’s potentially fatal error was to apply this modern European standard of discourse to a religion that still believes in itself.”

Twenty years on, this fellow-countryman of Sir Salman still wonders whether he ever knew what his famous case was really all about.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include‘The Controversy of Zion: JewishNationalism, the Jewish State, and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma’

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