This essay, a review of the BBC documentary The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the use of predictive algorithms by local authorities.) It was published in the Observer, 3 March 2019, under the headline ‘The Satanic Verses is still creating monsters, even new book-burners’.
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.
The significance of the confrontation, however, as Azhar deftly draws out, lay less in what Rushdie wrote than in what the novel came to symbolise. There’s a scene in The Satanic Verses in which one of the central characters, Saladin Chamcha, is incarcerated in an immigration detention centre. The inmates have all been turned into monsters. ‘How?’ Saladin wonders. ‘They have the power to describe,’ comes the reply, ‘and we succumb to the pictures they construct.’
Rushdie was writing of how racism demonises its Others. He could equally have been describing the way the conflict over his novel created its own monsters.
The 1980s was a decade that saw the beginnings of the breakdown of traditional political and moral boundaries and the creation of new social terrains for which there was as yet no map or compass. It was a dislocation whose consequences we are confronting even now in the unstitching of politics.
Rushdie’s novels began charting this new terrain, capturing that sense of displacement. Ironically, one way to understand the anti-Rushdie campaign is as the first great expression of the fear of a mapless world, an outpouring of rage at the tarnishing of symbols of identity at a time when such symbols were acquiring new significance.
The battle over Rushdie’s novel had a profound impact not just on Muslim communities but on liberals, too, many of whom were as disoriented by the breakdown of boundaries, and equally sought solace in black-and-white certainties. Some saw in the Rushdie affair a ‘clash of civilizations’. For others it revealed the need for greater policing of speech in a plural society.
Thirty years on, both sentiments have become entrenched. We live in a world in which many view Muslims as the Other who don’t belong. And in which others want to ban – even burn – The Satanic Verses to ‘respect Muslims’.
Azhar had never read The Satanic Verses. Reading it now, he found some passages offensive. Yet, he insisted, ‘that does not mean I want to curb other people’s right to write things’. ‘As a community,’ he observed, ‘we need to be able to stomach debates about our culture and our religion, even if we find them offensive. Only when we can do that will the ghost of The Satanic Verses be put to bed.’
It’s not just Muslims who could do with heeding such wisdom.