Is Nothing Sacred?: ‘The Satanic Verses’ Controversy 25 Years Later


By Niall McArdle

This is the saddest irony of all, that after working for five years to give voice and fictional flesh to the immigrant culture of which I am myself a member, I should see my book burned, largely unread, by the people it’s about. The zealot protests serve to confirm, in the Western mind, all the worst stereotypes of the Muslim world.”

Salman Rushdie, 1988

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In September 1988 Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. The Booker Prize winning author of Midnight’s Children and Shame had high hopes for his new novel. Reviews were glowing. Critics praised it as “a work of truly daring creativity which recognises few frontiers beyond which the imagination must not float,” and “a perfectly self-conscious work of art caught in a moment of vision.” It was a daring book about angels and demons, migration and home, England and India, and it was daringly told in language that pushed the boundaries of Indian-English. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Award.

satanic

Not everyone liked the book, or even the idea of it. An Iranian critic accused Rushdie of “moral degradation”. Because The Satanic Verses made satiric reference to a couple of passages from the Koran, and because it used a derogatory name for Mohammed (“Mahound”) it was condemned by Moslems in India and Pakistan, many of whom hadn’t even read it. In an open letter to Rushdie, an Indian MP wrote, “I do not have to wade through a filthy drain to know what filth is.”

Rushdie viewed the book as both serious and comic. He intended the book to be “a serious attempt to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person.” He said “I don’t believe Mohammad had a revelation but then I don’t doubt his sincerity either.” He was perplexed at some of the reaction in India, saying, “it would be absurd to think that a book can cause riots.”

Rushdie, born in Bombay to a Muslim family, raised speaking Urdu and English, educated at Rugby and Cambridge, is typical of many post-colonial writers who have a complicated relationship with Britain. He is at once Indian and English, an immigrant and a leading figure of the literary establishment. He won the Booker Prize for a novel about India’s independence from the British Empire, Midnight’s Children (later named “the Booker of Bookers”.)

With his impeccable English accent, pale features, and love of English literature, as well as his incisive wit and general air of brilliance, he became a darling of the London literary scene, and a welcome addition to a sparkling circle of writers and critics that included Kingsley and Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Clive James and James Fenton. Those same writers – and legions more – would rally to his defense after he was condemned for blasphemy.

A demonstration against The Satanic Verses, in Bradford, England, in 1989.
A demonstration against The Satanic Verses, in Bradford, England, in 1989.

The novel incited riots, book-burnings, and bombings. It was banned in Pakistan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, Canada (briefly), and India. The Indian ban was particularly bizarre: it was not banned for blasphemy or obscenity, but because the government was concerned about certain passages in the novel being “distorted and misused.” The Indians were at pains to point out that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work.” Rushdie’s response was a withering “thanks for the good review.” Iran went further, banning all books printed by Rushdie’s publisher Viking Penguin. Bookshops that stocked it were fire-bombed. There was talk of amending Britain’s blasphemy laws to allay Muslim protests.

Illegal Iranian edition of The Satanic Verses
Illegal Iranian edition of The Satanic Verses

Rushdie stated that he “got letters every day from Muslims who do like the book. They write to me to say we’re not all like those people who burn books. They say they’re ashamed of what the imams are doing, about the way they’re bringing shame on the Muslim community in Britain by behaving in this extremely uncivilised way.”

The Satanic Verses was not the first book to court controversy, of course, and it won’t be the last. Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Catcher in the Rye have all been banned. But Joyce, Lawrence and Salinger never had a price put on their heads.

A demonstration in Tehran, 1989
A demonstration in Tehran, 1989

On February 14th, 1989, Rushdie received, as Hitchens put it, “the worst Valentine” and the word fatwa entered the larger culture. Ayatollah Khomeini declared a death sentence on Rushdie and his publishers. “I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic sanctions. Whoever is killed on this path will be regarded as a martyr, God willing.” A bounty of $5 million was put on Rushdie’s head.

time

Rushdie soon went into hiding and others stepped up to defend the novel and its author’s right to free speech. The battle lines between liberal, democratic “Western” freedom of expression and dogmatic, “fundamentalist” theocracy were never more clearly drawn. Hundreds of famous literary figures signed petitions and spoke on Rushdie’s behalf. Margaret Atwood, Elie Wiesel, Czeslaw Milosz, Harold Pinter, Thomas Pynchon and many others wrote letters of support. Most were filled with moral indignation – “I defend the writer’s right to be wrong” (Octavio Paz); “the bell tolls for us all” (Umberto Eco); “I hope in spite of everything your next novel will be so scaldingly blaspemous that even liberals will cringe” (Bharati Mukherjee). Some were humorous. Ralph Ellison wrote “a death sentence is a rather harsh review.”

Rushdie with bodyguards, 1993
Rushdie with bodyguards, 1993

Twenty-five years later, after the attacks of 9/11 and 7/7, it seems unbelievable to think there was a time when radical, fundamentalist threats were treated by many as merely an intellectual argument that could be easily dismissed. But quite a few people felt “the whole thing will blow over.” An English solicitor “suggested that if what they [Muslims] really wanted was publicity, they could always try burning the book in public; there was no law against that.” An English MP was quoted as saying “the Ayatollah’s splenetic reaction is a demonstration that he is losing his marbles.”

There were several, though, who saw the fatwa as more than a little worrying. Susan Sontag, speaking of threats against US booksellers, said “the attempt by censorship by terror, and the fear that it has engendered, strikes not only at writers, publishers and booksellers, but finally at libraries, schools and the entire basis of the United States as a literate, free country.”

Susan Sontag and Salman Rushdie
Susan Sontag and Salman Rushdie

Christopher Hitchens, who would go on to famously denounce all religions, noted that “the blasphemer has been ennobled by Socrates, Galileo, Kazantzakis, Joyce and countless others who would not be content with mere human authority even when it came sanctified by divine right … We risk a great deal by ceding even an inch of ground to the book-burners and the murderers. But, to abandon the defensive, why should we let Mr. Rushdie face this unprecedented trial alone? All of us who believe in the life of the written word should announce ourselves publicly as co-conspirators.”

Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie
Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie

Norman Mailer saw a chance for literature to gain the moral high ground: “We are scribblers who try to explore what is left to look at in the interstices. Sometimes we make mistakes and injure innocent victims by our words … usually, we spend our days injuring each other. We are, after all, a fragile resource, an endangered species. It is not untypical of the weak and endangered to chew each other up … but now the Ayatollah Khomeini has offered us an opportunity to regain our frail religion which happens to be faith in the power of words and our willingness to suffer for them.”

Rushdie, still in hiding, was invited onstage by Bono at Wembley Stadium. Of this event, Rushdie wrote "Amazingly Special Branch did not object. Maybe they didn’t think there would be many Islamic assassins at a U2 gig."
Rushdie, still in hiding, was invited onstage by Bono at Wembley Stadium. Of this event, Rushdie wrote “Amazingly Special Branch did not object. Maybe they didn’t think there would be many Islamic assassins at a U2 gig.”

Not everyone thought Rushdie was in the right, though. Roald Dahl thought “he is a dangerous opportunist … he knew exactly what he was doing and he cannot plead otherwise.” Jimmy Carter tied himself in knots trying to defend Rushdie’s freedom of expression while still respecting “the intercultural wound” and ensuring that “there is no endorsement of an insult to the sacred beliefs of our Moslem friends.”

Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl

Rushdie remained in hiding for more than a decade. Eventually, the fatwa was lifted. It is fatuous to state that there is a direct connection between The Satanic Verses and 9/11, but certainly it can be said that the violent reaction to the novel allowed for a marked change in the tone of certain aspects of Islam, and that some religious leaders exploited the anger to radicalize elements within their congregation.

Rushdie now lives in New York and The Satanic Verses, much like Ulysses or Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover, is a book more known about than read.

Rushdie's memoir. Joseph Anton was the alias he lived under while in hiding, named for Conrad and Chekov, two of his favourite writers.
Rushdie’s memoir. Joseph Anton was the alias he lived under while in hiding, named for Conrad and Chekov, two of his favourite writers.
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