Let’s read some Rushdie today

Salman Rushdie has been stabbed while on stage in New York where he was about to give a talk. He is now undergoing surgery. The British novelist has lived under death threats since the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him in 1989 and put a $3 million bounty on his head. Rushdie has never caved to the immense pressure to be silenced.

Rushdie has remained a great defender of free speech. In a talk at a Frankfurt bookfair in 2015 he said ‘limiting freedom of expression is not just censorship, it is also an assault on human nature’, and that ‘without that freedom of expression, all other freedoms fail’.

The left should have mounted a resolute defence of Rushdie in 1989. It didn’t, with notable exceptions. Kenan Malik is one of the exceptional figures on the left who has stood solidly by the principle of free speech and defended Rushdie.

Speaking about those who wouldn’t condemn the fatwa, or the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, and those who make excuses for the censorship Malik points out:

“What is really racist is the idea that only nice white liberals want to challenge religion or can handle satire and ridicule. Those who claim that it is ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’ to mock Islam, appear to imagine, with the racists, that all Muslims are reactionaries. It is here that leftwing ‘anti-racism’ joins hands with rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry.”

Here’s a piece by Malik written a few years ago on the sorry state of speech rights:

Rushdie’s monsters

by Kenan Malik 3 March 2019

Sometimes, you just have to shake your head to clear it and look again. Did he really write that? So it was when I read a review in the Independent by Sean O’Grady of The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On, a BBC documentary on the Rushdie affair and its legacy.

But, yes, in the last paragraph, he really did write this:

Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact.

Even in today’s censorious, don’t-give-offence climate, there is something startling in the casualness with which the associate editor of a national newspaper can proudly proclaim himself a would-be book-burner and book-banner.

The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On, presented by the broadcaster Mobeen Azhar, was an intelligent, subtle exploration of the impact of the Rushdie affair on Britain’s Muslim communities. Azhar was a child at the time of the fatwa. He returned to his Huddersfield primary school, remembering, with a nervous laugh, playground games of ‘How do we kill Salman Rushdie?’ The Satanic Verses was a ‘spectre’ that hung over his life then, he observed, and still haunts Muslims now.

It’s been a ghostly presence in my life, too. I am of the generation that came of age just before The Satanic Verses, a generation that was largely secular and as fierce in our condemnation of religious constraints as of racist bigotry.

I lost many friends over the Rushdie affair. Friends who were as irreligious and leftwing as I was, but who now celebrated book-burnings and chanted ‘death to Rushdie’. And, like Azhar in his documentary, I’ve spent much of my life mulling over that shift and its consequences.

The danger in looking at The Satanic Verses through the lens of the ‘Rushdie affair’ is that the novel comes to be seen simply as a fictionalised assault on Islam. It is, in fact, a dense exploration of the migrant experience, as savage in its indictment of racism as of religion. Read the rest of the article here.