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17 August 2022

How the fatwa against Salman Rushdie changed British identity

In 1989 a new global conflict began that still defines our time: a war of power, wealth and dogma.

By Anthony Barnett

When you are living through a historic turning point you know it. What you cannot know is the direction history will point when the turning stops. This was true of 1989. It culminated in one of Europe’s greatest playwrights, Václav Havel, being sworn in as president of Czechoslovakia in an unprecedented, peaceful triumph of free voice over oppression. But it opened with Ayatollah Khomeini issuing his Valentine’s Day fatwa against one of Britain’s greatest novelists.

One of the differences between Britain then and Britain today is that in 1989 the left confronted a reactionary system that was confident and successful, rather than one undergoing a Brexit breakdown. At the end of the 1980s most of us on the left felt it was imperative to challenge Margaret Thatcher’s rampant “regime”. This led to new forms of defiance. Marxism Today – a left-wing magazine – was declaring “New Times”; Scottish civic and political groups combined to make a Claim of Rights; the reform project Charter 88, which I coordinated and Salman assisted, demanded a modern, European constitution; the June 20 group of writers, launched from the home of Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser, discussed how the left could succeed. And a refusal to pay the poll tax was gathering strength.

The deeper earthquake was the end of the labour movement’s historic allegiance to collectivism. Symbolised by Thatcher’s crushing of the miners, its cause was the end of “Fordist” mass production. The challenge was to create new ways to confront the reckless supremacy of finance capitalism. On the left we explored the positive aspects of “globalisation” for answers, as communism had corrupted the ideal of “internationalism”. This was the heady context in which The Satanic Verses was conceived.

Tragically, the far right, in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, attacked globalisation before progressives could get a measure of it. Khomeini’s “mumbo-jumbo”, as the journalist Francis Wheen described it, was born in 1979, the year Thatcher came to power. But the ayatollah’s bigotry and xenophobia were far worse. And so, in 1989, with only a few months to live, he lashed out with the fatwa.

At the time, I was coordinating Charter 88 from the offices of the New Statesman. Two weeks before the fatwa the editor, Stuart Weir, asked me to write an editorial denouncing the burning of The Satanic Verses in Bradford, where around 1,000 protestors had gathered to torch it. I argued that the book’s burning put “the very principles of pluralist democracy… to the stake”. The protest was treated as a local upset. But the fatwa could not be so ignored. A foreign state had singled out a UK citizen to be assassinated for writing a book.

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Had Salman Rushdie been a white Christian, the public uproar would have been substantial. Instead, many saw him as an uppity native who should have been grateful to the UK for its hospitality rather than lancing its hypocrisies. The fatwa initiated a redefinition of what it meant to be “us”; being British included defending people like Rushdie with all the resources of the state. But his novel, and his defiance, represented a challenge to Islam that was greater still. By claiming it was his right, as a person born into the Muslim faith, to mock the absurdities of its orthodoxy, Rushdie asserted the ultimate migration: the right to become like “the other” and lay claim to the highest, secular standards of his new culture. In The Satanic Verses, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha go to England and confront a central issue of modern life: are you true to yourself by leaving your roots behind or by remaining loyal to your origins?

Thus a new global conflict began in 1989 that still defines our time: a war of power, wealth and dogma against the wider potential of humanity. An arbitrary hatred for rivals – distinct in their intensities and registers – was shared by both Thatcher and Khomeini. As they are by today’s strongmen, who are the enemies of human creativity and possibility.

This is why Rushdie is so important. Not as a victim of oppression or a symbol of liberal values, but as the bearer of the disruptive, knowing laugh that reminds us that history is complicated, ambiguous and never settled. Which is why you cannot know where a turning point will take you.

[See also: Salman Rushdie shows us that free speech is life itself]

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This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World