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17 August 2022

From the NS archive: Do you dare like this book?

3 March 1989: The challenge the fatwa against Salman Rushdie sets all writers.

By Ian McEwan

On 14 February 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the supposed blasphemy in his novel “The Satanic Verses”. On 7 March 1989, the UK and Iran broke off diplomatic relations over the threat to Rushdie’s life. Just days before, Ian McEwan took darkly satirical aim at the mindset that could offer a bounty for the death of a novelist. He also addressed the painful conundrum faced by many authors at that moment: how far and how publicly could they express support for Rushdie and his right to free speech without themselves being put in fear for their life? It was, suggested McEwan, an intractable problem that set an abstract philosophical position in direct opposition with physical retribution.


In the current public debate on freedom of expression there is something not altogether free. One writer told an editor last week that she feared for her life if she spoke out for The Satanic Verses. Another writer said he felt strongly about the right to publish but if he made his views public he would only make things “worse” for Salman Rushdie.

Michael lgnatieff found it curiously difficult to get British authors to come on television last Wednesday and speak freely about the Rushdie affair. In the hospitality room before the show, some guests were talking about the different kinds of threat they had received. Muslims who have spoken out against book burning or book banning or author murdering, even while deploring the book’s contents, have been threatened by those of more straightforward convictions. Muslims of all shades of opinion have been threatened by white racists.

Violence is in the air. The poison of intimidation is infecting the free exchange of ideas. The stain of one crazed edict is spreading, and therefore I would like to make a Practical suggestion.

What follows from intimidation, the whole point of it, is fear. Going to bed with fear, and waking up (if you’ve managed to sleep) with fear is hardly any life at all. But what follows from fear, especially if it is unacknowledged, has direr and more widespread consequences. I am talking of self-censorship. It is an invisible process, even to the one who is doing the censoring. My sympathies are with the woman who spoke her fear and stayed silent. To an extent her silence is eloquent and accusatory. The writer who refrained from making things worse (could they get worse?) for Salman Rushdie is deluding himself. He is protecting his real or imagined intimidators, and his silence is dishonest. No Muslim, Christian, atheist or whatever should feel obliged to make public statements in an atmosphere of threat. The right to silence is inalienable from the right to free expression. But fear needs to be fingered. Fear is a reasonable response to intimidation. But fear will do us all more damage if we let it run round disguised as busy-ness, or special tactics, or lofty moral distance. If we name it, then we can see it. If we can see it, we might be able to do something about it.

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But let’s not be solemn. Since I am feeling a little fearful myself today, I think I would rather talk about Voltaire. The famous attributed remark, “I might disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” has had many airings recently. It is a fine sentiment, tolerant in the highest degree and physically courageous, too. Even if Voltaire did not actually say it, it is certainly worthy of the great man. But just lately the remark has seemed somewhat abused, quoted with a little too much reliance on the ennobling paradox. There are, after all, more difficult positions to take. Suppose I actually approve of what you say, of what you’ve written? Then not only might I die for your right, I might even have read your book and engaged with its ideas. Doubly exhausting.

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And what is it you are saying? Is Christianity the subject? It might as well be, what with the phone ringing again, and someone talking to me from a public call box. What has always puzzled me is the distance you might travel in, say, 1,500 years. You start with a man, a very special man, a practising healer, who claims a direct relationship with his God. His teachings, for which he is prepared to die, are a unique blend of tolerance and compassion, forgiveness and love, and they hold out the prospect of great joy in the afterlife. After his death, his followers continue his work. A few generations later the life and teachings are written down. The accounts vary in a thoroughly human and authentic way.

But then, 15 centuries or so later, what do we have? A vast, hierarchical bureaucracy, certain members of which are aware of God’s intentions and accordingly issue their edicts, fiats, decrees, canons, encyclicals, bulls and what have you. How the major fourth is the devil’s interval and must never be heard in church, how women are weak and unclean and less in reason, how the sun goes round the earth and that is the end of that. Rules about every damn thing. From the vision of one man, to a total thought system, impatient with dissent and ready to kill to keep the small print intact, ready to slaughter the inhabitants of Albi, or the followers of Luther, or risk the wine-dark seas to kill the infidel Muslims or float to heaven in the attempt. And the dissenters, the Reformers, they don’t seem so shy of slaughter for their cause either. The faithful are ready to kill or die bravely for their particular spin on doctrine. They hear each sound of their own Word of God, they all get their instructions direct. From the beginning, men used to justify the unjustifiable.

But, coming back to Voltaire, perhaps it is Stalinism we are talking about. You are asking me to fight to the end for your right to talk about that? Well, yes, there’s another long hard road to travel, from an initial impulse to lift from the majority of mankind its heavy burden of hard work and ignorance, to the ministrations of Uncle Joe who, hearing the Word of the People, acted unhesitatingly on their behalf. Another full-nelson on thought, a total system, as happy devouring its friends as its enemies. Mock it if you dare. It’s his Word against mine.

Or again, are we talking about the space between Danton and Robespierre? Or is this all too harsh? Am I really offering myself up to your right to talk about any closed system of thought, any monopoly on truth? Scientific method, Freudian analysis, structuralism, voodooism, sociology, tarantism, Thatcherism, journalism? Fine, I’m with you. They all have their high priests, their Chosen, with their special dispensation, their direct line to the Highest Authority.

Speaking of journalism, let’s talk briefly of world politics. Have you heard, the Ayatollah has announced that his Edict, this pronouncement on your Headandballs, is not something dreamed up in the bath. It was God’s Word in his ear. His Word against yours. God told the Ayatollah, and the Ayatollah told us. God made Viking publish your novel to demonstrate the international conspiracy against Iran. You brought us the Devil himself, so that we could witness the workings of the Evil One, and his overthrow by the Right.

But back to Voltaire. I am getting the idea now, it’s the monochrome, the monological, the monotheoretical, the monotonous, the monolithic, the monocephalic, the monocrotic, the… monotheistic you want to shake your stick at. What you’re wanting to hammer to the door of this here church is not a counter-thesis, or an antithesis, it’s hardly a reasoned argument at all. It’s a fairground, a carnival, a riot. It’s a bloody mess. It’s a novel.

You are a trouble maker. To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep. And Ohmigod! You want to include Islam, you want me to fight to the death for your right to treat Islam as if it were only one more thought system, one more authority, one more idea, one more human thing. That’s a helluvalot to ask, brother. That’s a wrathful world religion you’re talking about there, if you don’t mind me saying. Christ, Socrates, Buddha, Lao Tse, but not this one, baby. I’m a busy man right now. I’ll only make things worse for you and (da!) here’s the phone ringing again. It’s that racist Peter Sellers imitation in the call box, so (hello? hello?) I think I’d better (you’ll do what?) stop right here.

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