sony the interview poster

When Sony announced that it was withdrawing its film The Interview after threats from hackers, my first thought was ‘Thank God Sony was not the publisher of The Satanic Verses.’. Not because there is any direct analogy between the Salman Rushdie affair and l’affair Sony. Still less because I think The Interview is an important film, or in any sense comparable to Rushdie’s novel – from what I can gather I would rather spend two hours at a dentist than at a cinema watching such an inane ‘comedy’. Nor yet because I think Sony do not have the right to  withdraw the film – it was a commercial decision, and one that the company was perfectly entitled to make. Rather, I was reminded of the Rushdie affair because of what the two events reveal about the transformation in attitudes to free speech over the past 25 years.

Back in 1989, not even a fatwa could stop the continued publication of The Satanic Verses. Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for almost a decade. Translators and publishers were assaulted and even murdered. Bookshops were firebombed for stocking the novel. Some Penguin staff were forced to wear bomb-proof vests. Yet Penguin never wavered in its commitment to Rushdie’s novel.

Today, the vaguest of threats is sufficient for a publisher or a media company to pull a product. Even, Penguin. Earlier this year, ironically in the week of the 25th anniversary of the Rushdie fatwa, Penguin decided to pulp all Indian copies of historian Wendy Doniger’s controversial book The Hindus: An Alternative History after it outraged Hindu fundamentalists.

How one responds to fear depends always on context. And what has changed over the past 25 years is that people have become more willing to give in to their fears, because they have become less attached to principle of free expression.

Free speech has, of course, always been restricted for all manner of reasons, and liberals have always been hypocritical in their attitudes to free speech. John Milton, for instance, often cited as the greater defender of free expression, opposed the extension of free speech to Catholics, because they were deemed unworthy of such liberties. Nevertheless, however hypocritical liberal arguments may have been, and notwithstanding the fact that most free speech advocates accepted that the line had to be drawn somewhere, there was in the past an acceptance that speech was an inherent good, the fullest extension of which was a necessary condition for the elucidation of truth, the expression of moral autonomy, the maintenance of social progress and the development of other liberties. Restrictions on free speech were seen as the exception rather than the norm. It is this idea of speech as intrinsically good that has been transformed. Today, in liberal eyes, free speech is as likely to be seen as a threat to liberty as its shield. And it is in this shift that we need to understand the greater willingness to cave in to the vaguest of threats.

doniger hindus cover

Peter Mayer was the CEO of Penguin at the time of the publication of The Satanic Verses. I interviewed him for my book From Fatwa to Jihad, the first public interview he had given about the events surrounding the publication of the novel. Mayer has been subject to a vicious campaign of hatred and intimidation.  ‘I had letters delivered to me written in blood’, he remembered. ‘I had telephone calls in the middle of the night, saying not just that they would kill me but that they take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall. Vile stuff.’ Yet neither Mayer nor Penguin countenanced backing down. ‘I told the [Penguin] board, “You have to take the long view. Any climbdown now will only encourage future terrorist attacks by individuals or groups offended for whatever reason by other books that we or any publisher might publish.”’ What was at stake, Mayer recognized, was ‘much more than simply the fate of this one book.  How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.’

It is an attitude that seems to belong to a different age. So here, from From Fatwa to Jihad, is my interview with Peter Mayer.


Peter Mayer
‘We were publishers. I thought that meant something.’
From Fatwa to Jihad, pp 10-15

Peter Mayer, Penguin’s CEO, was in New York on Valentine’s Day 1989. Early in the morning he received a call from Patrick Wright, the head of sales in London. ‘Have you seen the headlines?’, Wright asked. ‘What headlines?’, Mayer wanted to know. ‘The Ayatollah Khomeini’, Wright said, ‘has issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie’. ‘What’s a fatwa?’, asked a bemused Mayer.

Mayer went out to get a paper. The news was splashed on the front page of the New York Times. ‘I was astonished’, he says, ‘to see the headlines. The New York Times dealt with world stories. I was just a publisher of a novel. I still did not see it as a world event.’

As Penguin CEO, Mayer was at the heart of the mayhem unleashed by the fatwa… It is an issue that 20 years on still causes him both pain and bafflement.

‘If you’re a publisher, you will always find people offended by books you publish’, he observes. ‘That’s the fate of being a publisher. I have published books that have offended Jews and Christians. Five or six of them. People wrote to Penguin trying to suppress those books. I wrote back, explaining that as a publisher I cannot just publish books that offend no one. It was generally a civilized dialogue. We originally put The Satanic Verses controversy in the same category. We thought we were dealing with the same kind of thing, the same kind of offence. Our view was that it would soon be sorted out by dialogue, as these things always were. What we wanted to say to Muslims who were upset was that this was a novel, by a serious writer, and the right to publish included the right to publish such books. It’s what we said in all these cases. One relied on the sanity of secular democracy – that people met together, discussed their differences and sorted them out. It never occurred to us that this time it might be different or that it would become such a huge worldwide event.’

As a liberal, Mayer says, he ‘accepted that Muslims may have needed protection from discrimination and hatred. But the idea that non-Muslims should be prevented from reading a novel never entered my head. I never saw “rights” as meaning the right of the minority to impose on the majority. I saw it as meaning that the majority rules, but that minorities must have their rights protected. Those rights had to be based on the law of the land; they could not be rights that the minority simply arrogates to itself.’

When Mayer first read the manuscript of The Satanic Verses, he saw it quite straightforwardly as ‘a serious novel by a serious writer. I still don’t think that Penguin did anything extraordinary in publishing it.  We never set out to incite or to inflame or to offend. We did not see the novel as blasphemous or anti-Islamic. The question never came up. Neither Salman Rushdie nor his agent alerted us to it being a controversial book. And a publisher should not have to be an authority on the Qur’an.

The first intimation of trouble came with Kushwant Singh’s report on the possible reaction in India. ’He opined that it might cause “communal violence”’, says Mayer. ‘But Penguin only had a tiny office in India. We might have sold perhaps 150 copies. So we did not see it as a big issue.’

Even the protests in Britain barely registered. In hindsight the activities of the UKACIA and of the Bolton protestors, the intervention of Jamaat-e-Islami and the backroom manoeuvrings of the Saudi authorities all seem highly significant. In 1988, however, they caused hardly a ripple. ‘I cannot recall the protests here in the UK before the fatwa’, Mayer admits. He insists that he received no letter of complaint from the protestors, nor any request for a meeting. ‘If I had I would have responded as I did to all the other letters I received.’

Satanic Verses burning

The fatwa transformed the affair, an event both terrifying and confusing.  ‘My immediate thought’, Mayer recalls, ‘was to be frightened for Salman. And frightened for Penguin staff. I didn’t know what the reach was of a fatwa, whether it could travel beyond Tehran.’

The day following the fatwa, armed police started patrolling the street outside Penguin offices. Special X-ray machines were installed to check packages for explosives. Some staff wore bullet-proof vests. ‘My fear’, says Mayer, ‘was that a member of Penguin staff would be shot or stabbed to death and note pinned on them, “This is what happens to people who work for Penguin”.  I felt a terrible responsibility for all the staff. If anyone had been killed because of the decision to continue publishing The Satanic Verses it would have been sense of guilt I would have carried to the end of my life.’

Mayer himself was subject to a vicious campaign of hatred and intimidation.  ‘I had letters written in blood pushed under the door of my house. I had telephone calls in the middle of the night, saying not just that they would kill me but that they take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall. Vile stuff.’ To this day he does not from whom the letters and calls came.

The Special Branch offered Mayer armed protection and a bullet-proof vest. ‘I said no. Of course I was scared. In New York I remember thinking, I could come out of my apartment block, there might be a car waiting outside, engine revving, and I could get sprayed by a couple of machine guns. As easy as that.” But my view was that if my number’s up, my number’s up. And I did not want to live like a victim. I did not see myself as a victim.’

Mayer still seethes with rage not simply at the intimidation he faced but also at what he sees as the callousness of others towards his predicament. ‘My daughter was nearly expelled from her school’, he recalls. ‘A group of parents said, “What would happen if the Iranians sent a hit squad and got the wrong girl?” And I was thinking, “What, you think my daughter is the right girl?”.’

In New York he applied for a co-op apartment. ‘There were objections that the Iranians could send a hit squad and target the wrong apartment’, he says. ‘As if I had done something wrong.’


Despite the constant threat of violence, Mayer never wavered in his commitment to The Satanic Verses. And Penguin never wavered in its backing of his judgement. ‘An emergency meeting of the Penguin board unanimously supported the continued publication of the novel’, Mayer recalls. ‘I told the board, “You have to take the long view. Any climbdown now 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.”’

The board supported Mayer, as did Pearson, Penguin’s parent company. But there was considerable unease within the organisation.  ‘People would take me aside in the corridor and say, “I have Muslim friends who are very upset, it’s an anti-Muslim book.” Or, ‘It’s not right to offend Muslims, you should withdraw the book.’ And I would say, “That would be the thin end of the wedge. Next year we publish another book. And another group says you can’t do that, it’s offensive.”  My view was, and still remains, that rights you possess that are not used are not rights at all.’

There was, as Mayer recalls it, almost a frontier mentality within Penguin. ‘We had never had to have this kind of discussion before’, he observes. ‘Today there is a constant stream of discussion about multiculturalism and minority rights and sharia law. Not then. We had never had to think about free speech, or about why we were publishers.’

Out of countless discussions, both in formal board meetings and in ad hoc chats with colleagues, Mayer and his colleagues ‘developed the argument that what we did now affected much more than simply the fate of this one book.  How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it. We all came to agree that all we could do, as individuals or as a company, was to uphold the principles that underlay our profession and which, since the invention of movable type, have brought it respect. We were publishers. I thought that meant something. We all did.’



You can buy From Fatwa to Jihad through the Pandaemonium bookshop in Britain or the USA; or from most bookshops.


The photo of the burning of The Satanic Verses on a 1989 demonstration in Bradford is © Garry Clarkson.



  1. I would be more than willing to sit through this (possibly inane movie) merely to register my belief in the freedom to hold any leader or belief system to account. I suspect there are many others like me. Susan Burningham.

  2. How I wish these “freedom of speech” cries were marshaled over something better than another Rogen movie, but I also think that this is more than about freedom of speech. This is about the shoddy tech security by many, many US firms. We’ve seen a spate of this hacking from retail to financial and yet, with all our resources, seem still unable to grasp that this is clearly an extortionist’s playground, where criminals do things because they are allowed to. I hope that we don’t get distracted by cries of “freedom” while our pockets are being picked.

    • I think it’s more important to defend the principle of free speech over a dumb comedy than a literary work like The Satanic Verses where the argument will inevitably get side-tracked into questions of artistic merit.

      Too often in the Rushdie campaign it came across that supporters were treating it as an ‘exceptional’ case instead of a matter of basic principle.

      • You’re likely right. Some of our greatest freedoms and protections emerged because or in spite of the dubious subjects or sources over which they were fought, much like our Miranda Rights which emerged from the court case of a convicted criminal, by whose name those rights are now known.

        • I’m opposed to the death penalty on principle. I think arguments that the death penalty is wrong because we might execute an innocent person are missing the point; we have to defend the guilty too. Likewise we have to defend inane comedies, unfunny cartoons, etc. not just ‘great art’.

  3. Rushdie came up in a couple of comment threads elsewhere. Partly, it also shows the difference between the culture of publishing and the culture of movie making, however with so many publishers being bought out by large conglomerates the culture of publishing has changed as well in the intervening years.

    An interesting development was that several movie theaters decided to replace The Interview with Team America. Paramount, without being threatened, pulled that movie, which had already played in theaters in 2004. It’s important not to get too distracted by the quality issue. It’s highly unlikely that I would have gone to see The Interview, though I confess it would win out over the dentist, but it wasn’t pulled as a question of taste.

  4. Feanor

    Great post. What I find worrying is that the attitude of the general public seems to have shifted against the ideal of freedom of speech – just take a look at the comments on a BBC News article from today:

    Number 94 says ‘”Freedom of expression” does not mean the freedom to incite hatred or harm to anyone or any group of people. Disguising it as comedy is a flimsy excuse. Try shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre, then seconds later, shout “I was joking”. See how you get on.’

    What a chilling view for someone to have. Now, not only is any criticism of Islam inciting hatred or harm – but so is criticising or laughing at a political regime or a leader! It’s deeply worrying that people have such a poor understanding of the nature of freedom of speech and when it should be curtailed.

    • The ‘shouting fire in the theatre’ analogy doesn’t get any less dumb the more times it is repeated. We actually have fire alarms in theatres. You know why? Because sometimes there’s a fire. We don’t remove alarms because they may be misused because we know the risk of a false alarm is less than that of hundreds of people being burnt to death.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: