Salman Rushdie, and the Right to Offend

In Joseph Anton Rushdie rebels against the reduction of The Satanic Verses to an insult to Islam. I agree. But in modern liberal democracies, freedom of thought and expression are impossible without the right to offend.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

On February 14 1989 novelist Salman Rushdie’s life would change beyond recognition. On this day Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini pronounced the fatwa, the religious ruling, that the author of The Satanic Verses and anyone involved in the book’s production or dissemination was to be killed as a matter of religious duty. The Iranian Regime put a bounty on Rushdie’s head that was to increase over the years. Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton tells the story of his years in hiding. It derives its title from the pseudonym he was required to invent, a combination of the Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov’s first names.

Its most compelling theme is the enormous chasm between the intimate world of novel writing and that of mass media and politics. The reader first gets a sense of the private Salman; the boy who wanted to reach out into the big world, and left India for boarding school at Rugby; the young man who wants nothing more than to become a writer; the budding novelist who realizes what it means to be a migrant self, and that he will forever live without a firm sense of belonging; and who turns this realization into the well that feeds his writing.

Then Rushdie is thrown into the maelstrom. He quotes Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus “History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” From his days as a history major at Cambridge he had realized that history was the study of the grand forces that shape individual lives. The bulk of the book is a description of the nightmare of history: of the individual being dragged down and at times almost drowned by forces beyond his control; and of acts of kindness that keep his soul alive.

Joseph Anton repeatedly returns to Rushdie’s desperate search to regain the inner space from which writing flows. While artists seek this space more consciously, it is the core of all our souls: it is the place where we seek our inner truth. Keeping this inner space inviolable requires defending it actively; and this, I will argue, includes defending the right to offend without which there is no freedom of thought.

Joseph Anton’s first chapter recounts Rushdie’s life up to The Satanic Verses. He writes that his father’s first gift to him was his name. For his father was born Khwaja Muhammad Din Khalique Dehlavi, and decided to change his name to Anis Ahmed Rushdie because of his admiration of the twelfth-century Spanish-Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd, also known in Europe as Averroes. Much of Ibn Rushd’s work was an attempt to integrate between Aristotelian philosophy and Islamic teaching and he was one of the most influential proponents of the rationalist tradition in Islam.

Little did his father know that the name “Rushdie” would become a symbol for the fight for freedom of expression and liberty of thought. He would see his son’s early successes, particularly that of the Booker Prize winning novel Midnight’s Children, but he died before the publication of The Satanic Verses and the ensuing, notorious Rushdie Affair.

Anis Ahmed, Rushdie writes, was a godless man fascinated by Islam, because it was a religion born in historical times: more is known about its development than about that of its elder sisters Judaism and Christianity. He instilled this curiosity about and fascination by Islam in his son’s mind. As a Cambridge student Salman would insist on studying, among others the subject “Muhammad, the Rise of Islam and the Early Caliphate.” The course had been cancelled, since no one else wanted to attend. Salman was so interested in the subject that he was given a special supervisor for the subject, the brilliant Medievalist Arthur Hibbert who would teach him a lot about the use of the historical imagination.

This was also when Salman came to know the Hadith about the ‘Satanic Verses’. Muhammad had first recited sayings exalting three female angels. But then Muhammad realized that these verses had been given to him not by the Archangel Gabriel, the source of his recitations that would make up the Qur’an, but by Satan, and recanted these verses. This story, along with many other historical and personal associations would form the core of The Satanic Verses, a sizeable novel that would take Rushdie four years to complete.

Soon after The Satanic Verses’ publication in the fall of 1988, Islamic protests against the book began. But only when the ailing Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his fatwa, did the Rushdie Affair turn into an international cause célèbre that would go on for several years.

There was the fight for public opinion. The British tabloid press enjoyed putting the spotlight on how much Rushdie’s protection cost the British taxpayer. There were those who think that Rushdie should have seen the consequences of his book coming, and that his fate was self-incurred. The politicians obviously were in a bind: they wanted the affair to go away. They did not want any more unrest from British Muslims, and no further strain with Muslim countries.

Some of them were genuinely enraged by the Iranian regimes state-terrorism: calling for the assassination of a writer who was a British subject, and a number of times trying to orchestrate Rushdie’s assassination actively. But they also needed to pander to their constituents, and obviously nobody wanted to increase the West’s strained relations with Iran even more.

The position of writers and intellectuals was, of course, different. Neither responsible for the public’s safety or for international relations, nor having to vie for votes, they had the prerogative of expressing positions of principle. This is why there were a number of surprises, and, from Rushdie’s point of view, disappointments. Most famously John le Carré took a stance against Rushdie. He argued that freedom of expression did not include offending the members of a great religion, that Rushdie should have known what was coming. This was followed up by a very harsh exchange between Rushdie, le Carré and Christopher Hitchens that rose to rather aggressive tones. And while this interchange is at times enjoyable to read for the juiciness of the personal insults traded, it also raises questions of great importance.

Most liberal democracies put limits to Freedom of Speech; in particular they outlaw hate speech and incitement to violence. Rushdie’s book does not qualify as hate speech under any conceivable interpretation of the term. Moreover Rushdie rebels against the reduction The Satanic Verses to an insult against Islam. Time and again he refuses to accept that his multi-layered, complex, often surreal novel can be boiled down to an offense against Muslims.

I agree: The Satanic Verses is a valuable work of art. But modern liberal democracies, freedom of thought and expression are impossible without the right to offend. Political and religious satires are genres that are meant to offend. If they don’t, they have missed their point. Bill Maher’s hilarious documentary Religulous makes every conceivable effort to ridicule, and thus to offend, religions with most of the focus on Christianity, but distributing nice jabs to orthodox Judaism and Islam as well.

Full-blown criticism of religion cannot but offend, and it always did, from Spinoza and Voltaire to Nietzsche and Freud, even if this was not their primary intent. Salman Rushdie’s friend Christopher Hitchens wrote God is Not Great fully intending to offend, and he did so with wit and verve: not only did he not pull punches: he made sure they hit hard. This is also why he called his scathingly critical book on Mother Theresa The Missionary Position: both to make those identifying with his position laugh, and to offend those for whom Mother Theresa was a saint.

But here is John le Carré’s argument: if you offend a culture and religion that does not accept the right to offend like Islam, you must bear the consequences. This could be taken simply as prudent, wise advice better heeded if you don’t want to suffer the consequences.

Even though I am a great admirer of le Carré’s work, I think his position is dangerously shortsighted. Would he have said the same about writers who offended communist or fascist regimes with their satire or criticism? Where do we draw the line? Are we to refrain from writing only what offends Muslims? Or should we refrain from offending any religious creed?

The history of liberty is inextricably intertwined with the right to offend. When Galileo argued that the earth is not at the center of the universe, he offended the church. When Darwin argued that humans have evolved from apes, he offended many – and the theory of evolution continues to offend many. Should we therefore recommend that scientific theories that offend religious believers should not to be published?

In the end it seems that le Carré’s condemnation of Rushdie boils down to saying that it’s not a good idea to offend those likely to kill you, your translators and publishers or burn bookshops. Right now it happens to be that most of these threats come from Islamists; but we must not forget that the Catholic Church burned Giordano Bruno; that Amsterdam’s Jewish community excommunicated Spinoza; and that the Nazi Regime burned all books that didn’t suit their tastes and ideologies. The human propensity to impose curfews on the mind takes many shapes. Once we start cringing; once we let threats to freedom of thought and expression intimidate us, the road to totalitarianism of all forms is open.

Author Salman Rushdie laughs. 'I’m extremely worried about next year’s election, because I think if he’s re-elected then frankly we’re all screwed'Credit: Rogelio V. Solis,AP
Iranian worshippers during a protest after their Friday prayer, as part of widespread anger across the Muslim world about anti-Islam film, September 14, 2012.Credit: AP



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