Have you ever read Salman Rushdie’s vibrant, florid, atmospheric novel, The Satanic Verses? I’ve often wondered about the fatwā, pronounced five months after its publication in 1988, and the ensuing effect on its author’s life – and on (literary) freedom of speech. The double irony of public book-burning by people who hadn’t read the thing, flame-fanning a controversy which encouraged its sale and actual reading. How to contend against the latter? Take out any uncowed publisher. The dictatorial upholding of ignorance, and its bullying elevation to threats – and actual violence: ‘The tyranny of certainty’ (not my phrase; I can’t recall where I heard/read it).
In case you think this fatwā on Rushdie demised along with its decreer, Ayatollah Khomeini – it, err, didn’t. “Surely if the sentence of the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] had been carried out, the later insults in the form of caricatures, articles and the making of movies would not have occurred,” said a representative of the current Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a few years back. And on this month’s anniversary of the original Khomeini fatwā, state-run Iranian media outlets, deeming this violence-based de facto blasphemy law insufficient, jointly announce a further $600,000 bounty for Rushdie’s execution, now increased to $4 million.
Consider the notion of it being taboo, a ‘sin’, to write and/or read something? The absurdity of “You can’t say that!” The prevention of human beings from doing what evolution has equipped us to do particularly well – communicate. Rushdie’s adopted Blighty blighted by the paradox of many so-called ‘liberals’ equivocating their support for one of their fellow citizen’s right to write. Were I to live in the author’s country of birth, and been able there to read this (I always consider worth re-iterating) work of fiction, I would likely have had to keep quiet about it, and keep my copy hidden from view. Nor would I have been able to enjoy seeing Rushdie at the Jaipur Literature Festival a few years ago: he was forced to cancel late due to (questionable) reports suggesting the likelihood of a contracted underworld attempt on his life. And the continued denial and/or apologetic ignorance of such fascism at work here in Britain, where groups campaigning against the misogynist, homophobic, bigoted imposition of (the contemporary rigid version of ) Shari’a Law, may still be forced to cancel meetings due to openly credible threats of violence. Rushdie has acknowledged that a book such as The Satanic Verses would likely not find a publisher today. (Which thus suggests that the current Ayatollah’s representative should quit whingeing, as he can still beat this particular political drum whenever suits.)
Is this (renewed) fatwā really about any perceived insult to the fragile dubiosity of ‘revealed’ words? Or more to do with ensuring that the less book-ish faithful are minded not to read it, for fear that corrupted minds might dissent and challenge the established theocratic order? Surely the most effective response to offence is not to afford it the publicity of controversy – otherwise you spark not only protest and book-burning by those who haven’t seen/read the thing, but increased interest and consequent sale/distribution of more copies/viewings. You thus (intentionally?) draw attention to the (invented) insult.
Though I kind of got/get why The Satanic Verses might have made some uncomfortable (if they read it), I still say, “So what?!” I find the frothing of fascist book-burners – figurative and literal – far more offensive in their medieval stance on free expression.