Saturday 14th February 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the British author Salman Rushdie and the publication of his novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’. Based upon stories about the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the novel caused controversy due to it being interpreted by some Muslims as blasphemous and offensive. Not only against the Prophet himself but also against some of the central tenets of Islam.
Following India’s lead in banning the book in January 1989, the Ayatollah took the matter into his own hands – and to an unprecedented level – by issuing a fatwa that called for the death of Rushdie, claiming that it was the duty of every Muslim worldwide to obey his pronouncement. Reports suggest that despite the fatwa, Khomeini hadn’t read the book.
I’ve referred to the publication of ‘The Jewel of Medina’ previously, suggesting that the response from some Muslims and Muslim organisations seems to have completely overlooked the fallout and legacy of ‘The Satanic Verses’ affair. In fact, on the day that I posted a twenty year reflection on the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’ a week or so ago, the Islington offices of Gibson House publishers were firebombed. This is only the tip of the iceberg. It is likely that over the next few months, numerous others – both here and elsewhere around the world – are going to be undertaking similar campaigns and protests without any consideration whatsoever of the potential or actual ramifications. Not just for them but for all Muslims without differentiation.
For those fortunately unaware, ‘The Jewel of Medina’ is a historical novel by the author, Sherry Jones. The novel tells an entirely fictionalised account of the life of Aisha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad and the person who accompanied him as he received most of his revelations. The novel sets out to tell Aisha’s story from the age of six when she was betrothed to Muhammad, through to his death.
It was originally scheduled for publication in the United States by Random House earlier this year but was duly canceled amid fears of a ‘Rushdie’ style backlash from Muslims. This was not because the publishers received any complaints from Muslims themselves. But instead from Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic History at the University of Texas, who condemned the book as ‘offensive’. Random House immediately dropped it. Since then, it has been subsequently announced that it would be published by Beaufort Books in the US and by Gibson Square here in the United Kingdom later this month.
In the twenty years since the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’, we seem to have internalised what can only be a sense of ‘self-censorship’. Nowadays publishers drop books, theatres are uneasy about staging certain plays, opera houses cut productions and art galleries censor shows. And on the whole, these things are all done before any Muslims complain, let alone whether or not they were even going to do so. An example of this was when Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council ‘banned’ toy pigs just in case they offended Muslims during Ramadan.
What seems to be the victim of all this is ‘free speech’ – to some extent, freedom per se.
Even this doesn’t seem to be enough for some, and so when ‘self-censorship’ doesn’t work, legislation seems to fill the void, not only outlawing hate speech but also such things as the defamation of religion and saying just what you believe. And before others jump to say that it is not only those against Islam and Muslims that are allegedly being silenced by these processes, our British laws against the glorification of terrorism also impact upon Muslims and indeed others.
Having attended a ‘Leaders Summit’ in Westminster earlier this week – supported by the likes of Sadiq Khan MP – on the issue of ‘security and community cohesion’ (clearly a euphemism for ‘terrorism’ and ‘preventing violent extremism’), there were a small number of Muslim ‘representatives’ that were peddling these type of arguments. Look slightly beyond the limits of their at times irrational rhetoric and you will see that restrictions of ‘free speech’ are being imposed on us all. It’s not just Muslims: is it not only a one way process.
More worryingly, I was concerned to hear a handful of those same Muslim ‘representatives’ voicing their anger about the book’s proposed publication and calling for ‘action’. Most worrying was one representative – whose name I did not hear – who stated that he was from the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs (UKACIA), an organisation I thought had long been wound up. As one reputable Muslim website describes UKACIA:
[UKACIA] were instrumental in convening a meeting of over twenty like-minded Muslim organizations…on 11 October 1988 in order to mobilize public opinion and coordinate actions against The Satanic Verses
And what a good job they did then. If they have reformed, or even felt merely reinvigorated by the thought of doing ‘the same again’, then of course this is extremely worrying – and completely unnecessary. Doing the ‘the same again’ – angry Muslim men and women shouting on the streets, carrying offensive banners, burning books, burning effigies and so on – will be a massive own goal for all concerned. It will further impinge upon the bounds of free speech for all of us and will reinvigorate the vilification and stereotypification of Muslims and Islam for at least another twenty years. It will further increase ‘self-censorship’ also.
It will – to the greater anger of those Muslims engaging in public displays of outrage – also send the book to the top of the bestseller charts and make both the author and the publishers a huge amount of money. Imagine though without the protests and without the outrage, how the book would have – like numerous other poorly written novels today – have been published, remained unread and made a loss for the publishers who were no doubt hoping for a ‘controversial’ impetus to boost its returns.
If no-one made a profit, wouldn’t that soon stop this type of thing happening again? I’m certain that it would.
Nonetheless, the madder members of society will continue with the shouting and barracking, lacking any apparent reason, rationale or responsibility in the process. The Muslim Council of Britain are meeting this weekend to orchestrate a response. Let’s hope that they have some influence and can halt the drive towards even greater restrictions on our free speech.
Light the blue touch paper, step back and watch…
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.