The fatwa issued by the Iranian state against Salman Rushdie on 14 February 1989 was, the late New Statesman writer Christopher Hitchens once observed, “a simultaneous death sentence and life sentence”. For decades, Mr Rushdie has borne this burden with dignity, humour and courage. In an interview last month, the novelist spoke hopefully of how his life was “very normal again”.
This apparent calm was broken on 12 August by the horrific attack on Mr Rushdie while he was on stage at an event in New York state. Though he survived up to 15 stab wounds, he suffered what his family described as “life-changing injuries” (including the potential loss of an eye). It is a mark of the fatwa’s baleful legacy that the 24-year-old Hadi Matar, who was charged with Rushdie’s attempted murder, was not even born at the time of the original pronouncement. Mr Rushdie had been due to address an audience on the US’s role as an “asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression”. If this is grimly ironic, it is also entirely fitting, for Mr Rushdie’s life and work have embodied the struggle for free expression.
The Satanic Verses, the 1988 novel that prompted the fatwa and which was publicly burned by a crowd in Bradford, stood in a proud tradition of religious satire. As Michael Foot, the former Labour leader, remarked at the time: “Montaigne’s books were put on the Papal Index, Swift was accused, on the highest regal or ecclesiastical authority, of defaming all religions; many of Voltaire’s volumes were actually burnt. So Salman Rushdie keeps good company.”
The New Statesman showed solidarity with Mr Rushdie. In an editorial published on 20 January 1989, a week after the book-burning in Bradford, we warned that “such intolerance must be fought and defeated before it stimulates and excites further intimidation and intolerance”.
But others choose a convenient moment to fall silent or even to side with Mr Rushdie’s aspirant assassins. As Anthony Barnett, the founding director of Charter 88, writes on page 31, “many saw him as an uppity native who should have been grateful to the UK for its hospitality rather than lancing its hypocrisies”. (The former Conservative cabinet minister Norman Tebbit claimed Britain had no duty to protect Mr Rushdie from “the consequences of his egotistical and self-opinionated attack on the religion into which he was born”.)
Even before the attack on 12 August, Mr Rushdie’s foes had left a trail of blood. The fatwa was not only imposed on the novelist but “all the editors and publishers” aware of the content of The Satanic Verses. Mr Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered, his Italian translator stabbed and his Norwegian publisher shot three times. What further evidence is required that there can be no compromise, no “understanding” with religious extremists?
But in the decades since the fatwa, the excuses and equivocations that were made at the time have become more rather than less common. Recall the tepid response to the murder of the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist terrorist in 2004, the ransacking of Danish embassies in 2006 (following the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper) and the murderous assault on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in 2015. “The bad thing is that death threats have become more normal. Not only politicians get them, even American teachers who take certain books off the syllabus,” observed Mr Rushdie in his last interview before he was attacked.
In this climate of fear, writers and publishers now resort pre-emptively to self-censorship, frozen by what the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has described as “an anonymous lynch mob”. Would The Satanic Verses be published today? The question answers itself. This trend exemplifies the decline of the literary and intellectual culture that Mr Rushdie has so bravely defended. A healthy liberal democracy must guarantee freedom of expression; it must not – either in theory or practice – guarantee freedom from offence.
“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep,” wrote Mr Rushdie in The Satanic Verses. The best response to his attempted murder is to affirm this truth anew.
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World