Touching the untouchable | Daily News

Touching the untouchable

Hanif Kureishi remembers the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, thirty years on

It was the early months of 1989, and they were becoming strange days indeed. It’s not often you see two policemen on their knees looking under your bed, glancing into your wardrobe and dragging aside your shower curtain to make sure there’s no terrorist waiting to spring out and strangle a novelist who’s popped round for a drink. But in the North of England bearded Pakistanis were buying books in their local Waterstone’s before setting fire to them; and a foreign government had just pronounced a “fatwa” – whatever that was – on a writer for a wild piece of postmodern prose concerning migration, the breakdown of belief, multiple subjectivities and the chaos and derangement of capitalistic acceleration.

As if that wasn’t enough: with the cops sniffing around, you couldn’t even smoke a joint in your own living room. Luckily, Salman assured me, the policeman wouldn’t leap up and handcuff me since he really had no sense of smell.

Leading constituency

Then, one morning, the Labour MP for Leicester East, Keith Vaz, whom I knew a little – a polite man, he’d introduced me to his mother in the House of Commons – called to say we could rely on his support for Rushdie until the end. That night I glimpsed him on television leading a march in his constituency against the novel. You’d have to say that realism was getting very magical in a black sort of way; and one of the problems with reality, as The Satanic Verses points out, is that it is always being invaded by unreality. That which we believe is solid can melt in a moment. And the novel of all things – probably the form which most lends itself to the exploration of human complexity – had become the site of a world-wide controversy.

A few days later I was sitting with Harold Pinter in a pub near Downing Street and we were trying to work out what to say to Margaret Thatcher if she happened to be in when we passed by with our statement about protecting novelists from intimidation by foreign governments. To our relief, Thatcher wouldn’t meet us, but creditably she did say, “There are no grounds on which the government would consider banning the book”.

Unfortunately my father saw me on television wandering around outside Downing Street and nearly had another heart attack. He had worked in the Pakistan High Commission for most of his life and had warned me that Muslims could become more than agitated if provoked about the Prophet. During Ramadan he had to eat his sandwiches behind a tree in Hyde Park for fear a colleague would spot him breaking the fast. Now he rang me up yelling that I should keep out of “the fatwa business”.

Community trouble

Dad had admired the way Jewish writers and artists had flourished in the West. Philip Roth had run into some community trouble with his great Portnoy, but once he became admired and famous everyone shut up and claimed him as a literary hero and truth-teller. Dad said Jewish children were part of Britain: they were westernized without forgetting their heritage. Why couldn’t we as a migrant community do that? Why were we going the other way?

What, I wondered, was the “other way” my father referred to? What exactly was going on? What was this “return” and where had this new political and moral fervour come from?

If my friends and I as a generation were surprised and even amused by the fatwa and the level of fury The Satanic Verses was provoking, perhaps we boomers had become inured to outrage, insult and provocation. A turd in a tin, a pile of bricks, copulation in an art gallery, dirty nappies, menstrual pads: not a flicker did they raise among the sophisticated. Outrage was style: it was what we expected before we went out to supper. Soaked in drugs and exhausted by years of random copulation, maybe nothing much registered with us now and we were jaded after decades of hectic nihilistic rock and roll and consumerism. The Berlin Wall had fallen; Soviet Marxism was over. Perhaps it was true, as some intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama suggested, it had been the end times, and we’d really been living in the best of all political worlds.

Morally worse

Not only that, hadn’t novels and their authors been pointlessly condemned before? D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Vladimir Nabokov, among many others, had been pursued and prosecuted. And seriously, had anyone become morally worse after reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Tropic of Cancer? There was nothing about banning and prohibition to suggest that it wasn’t a waste of time and money. As the years passed, attempts at censorship looked even worse: the Sex Pistols, for instance – on the yellow press’s front pages for weeks – had been more pantomime and PR than subversion.

Despite this, at the time of the fatwa a lot of the media noise concerned Western liberals, intellectuals and even novelists calling for the book to be withdrawn or not published in paperback to protect the feelings of “insulted” Muslims, though it was doubtful that these people had ever met a Muslim, let alone one who was insulted. Richard Webster, for instance, in A Brief History of Blasphemy (1990) writes about The Satanic Verses, saying, “its reception and defence by liberal intellectuals had seemed to give a kind of moral licence to racism which had always been latent”. John le Carré said, “My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity”.

Roald Dahl wrote to The Times: “In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech”.

If they wanted to give way on Rushdie, what other censorships would they end up favouring? This group were not unlike Soviet fellow-travellers – useful idiots – with little idea that their naivety and wish to side with the underdog was protecting a murderous and authoritarian ideology they wouldn’t want to live under for a moment. According to this elite form of colonial patronizing, free speech was only for the select few; the poor and benighted – as they were seen – couldn’t deal with, or ever require, satire, criticism or scabrous story-telling. The book burners and censor-mongers weren’t adult enough to think about simple but essential questions: why should we do what God says? And, when is obedience a good idea, and when is it not?

More importantly, it didn’t occur to these so-called liberals that the insulted book burners and putative writer-killers whose feelings they were keen to protect might turn out to inflict immeasurable harm on their own communities, eventually promoting a Salafi version of Islam which was not only a betrayal of religion, but of women, minorities and most Muslims who had come to the West to make a better future for their children. If my father had been surprised by how English, as he put it, we, his children had become, that was the price he knew he had to pay for the opportunities he’d got on the boat for. - Times Literary Supplement


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