This essay, on Salman Rushdie and free speech, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 14 August 2022, under the headline “Where Salman Rushdie defied those who would silence him, today too many fear causing offence”.
“A poet’s work,” one of the characters in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses observes, is “to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.” “And if rivers of blood flow from the cuts his verses inflict,” the narrator adds, “then they will nourish him.”
As Rushdie lies, terribly injured, on a ventilator in a Pennsylvania hospital, there seems something appallingly prescient about the novel, the rage against which has spilled rivers of blood. Including, now, Rushdie’s own.
What is particularly shocking about the attack is not just its savagery but also the fact that Rushdie had seemed to have triumphed over the malevolence of the fatwa. Imposed by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine’s Day 1989, the sentence of death forced Rushdie into hiding for almost a decade. It has never been rescinded, but the threat it posed appeared to have receded. For the past two decades, Rushdie has lived a relatively open life. And then came Friday’s attack.
The reasons for the assault are not yet clear. It is difficult, though, not to see behind it the mordant shadow cast by Khomeini’s death warrant.
The Rushdie affair was a watershed in British political and cultural life, thrusting to the surface issues such as radical Islam, terrorism, the boundaries of free speech and the limits of tolerance. It was also a turning point in the way many thought about these issues. There developed in its wake both a greater hostility to Muslims and a stronger sense of the moral unacceptability of giving offence to other cultures or faiths in a plural society.
The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s fourth novel, was as much an exploration of the migrant experience as it was about Islam, as savage in its indictment of racism as of religion. What mattered, though, was less what Rushdie wrote than what the novel came to symbolise. The 1980s was a decade that saw the beginnings of the breakdown of traditional political and moral boundaries, an unravelling with which we are still coming to terms.
Rushdie was charting this new terrain, capturing the sense of displacement and dislocation, which he found exhilarating. The Satanic Verses was, he wrote while in hiding, “a love-song to our mongrel selves”, a work that “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs”. Many critics of The Satanic Verses believed “that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion.”
Where Rushdie celebrated the unstitching of traditional boundaries, others yearned for new certainties. Fundamentalist Islam had previously had little presence within western Muslim communities. Now it gained a foothold, providing the certitude and purity that many began to crave.
The anti-Rushdie campaign was perhaps the first great outpouring of rage at the tarnishing of symbols of identity at a time when such symbols were acquiring new significance. Britons of a Muslim background growing up in the 1970s and early 80s rarely viewed “Muslim” as their principal identity. The Rushdie affair gave notice of a shift in self-perception and of the beginnings of a distinctive Muslim identity.
The battle over Rushdie’s novel had a profound impact on liberals, too, many of whom were equally disoriented by the unravelling of old certainties. Some saw in the Rushdie affair a “clash of civilisations” and themselves began reaching for the language of identity, questioning the very presence of Muslims as incompatible with the values of the west, a sentiment that has grown only stronger over the past three decades.
For others, the Rushdie affair revealed the need for greater policing of speech. It’s worth recalling how extraordinary, in contemporary terms, was the response to the fatwa. Not only was Rushdie forced into hiding but bookshops were firebombed, translators and publishers murdered.
Yet Penguin, the publisher, never wavered in its commitment to The Satanic Verses. It recognised, Penguin CEO Peter Mayer later recalled, that what was at stake was “much more than simply the fate of this one book”. How Penguin responded “would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it”.
It’s an attitude that seems to belong to a different age. Today, many believe that plural societies can only function properly if people self-censor by limiting, in the words of the sociologist Tariq Modood, “the extent to which they subject each other’s fundamental beliefs to criticism”.
I take the opposite view. It is in a plural society that free speech becomes particularly important. In such societies, it is both inevitable and, at times, important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. They are better openly resolved than suppressed in the name of “respect”.
And important, because any kind of social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. “You can’t say that!” is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.
What is deemed “offence to a community” is more often a debate within communities. That’s why so many flashpoints over offensiveness involve minority artists – not just Rushdie but Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Sooreh Hera, MF Husain and many others.
Rushdie’s critics no more spoke for the Muslim community than Rushdie did. Both represented different strands of opinion within Muslim communities. Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in the 1980s was highly visible. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. It is the progressive voices that such conservatives seek to silence that are most betrayed by constraints on the giving of offence. It is their challenge to traditional norms that are often deemed “offensive”.
Human beings, Rushdie observed in his 1990 essay In Good Faith, “shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable; not by bowing the knee whether to gods or to men”.
We can only hope for Salman Rushdie’s recovery from his terrible attack. What we can insist on, however, is continuing to “say the unsayable”, to question the boundaries imposed by both racists and religious bigots. Anything less would be a betrayal.