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.
Previous to Khomeini’s fatwa, a large number of Muslims in the UK had taken to the streets of Bradford and publicly burnt copies of the book. Following the fatwa however, numerous other protests occurred across Britain resulting in the media focusing on those British Muslims that were prepared to openly speak up and support the call for Rushdie’s death. Through this, the presence of Muslims in Britain (and by default Islam too) was sharply brought into the public and political gaze. Up until this time, the presence of Muslims in Britain had been largely without acknowledgment, typically identified as being part of the indiscriminately defined ‘Asian community’. Damagingly for all, the first formal recognition of British Muslims and the presence of Islam in Britain was one that was highly politicised and shrouded in debates about ‘fundamentalism’ – to employ the terminology of the day – and resurgent forms of Islam that many believed had underpinned the revolution in Iran a decade beforehand.
As protests spread around the world to Bombay, Kashmir, Dacca and Islamabad, the latter seeing five protesters killed and hundreds more injured, so Britain’s Muslim communities came under greater scrutiny and interrogation. Similar to the debates that followed the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper – Jyllands-Posten – in early 2006, much of this scrutiny and interrogation focused on the perceived ‘threat’ that Muslims and Islam were seen to be presenting to Britain’s liberal and progressive values: freedom of speech, legitimate disagreement, equality for all, and the respect for difference amongst others.
During the twenty years that have since passed, incidents such as 9/11 and 7/7 have further intensified the situation. While some Muslims have found a greater voice in the public and political spaces, so debates that followed Khomeini’s fatwa have continued to overshadow and frame the parameters within which British Muslims and Islam have typically been understood. As the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia stated, the Satanic Verses affair was “one of the formative, defining events” in shaping how Muslims and Islam are given meaning in today’s British society. For some, this has justified a growing mistrust and misunderstanding of both Muslims and Islam that in turn has lead to greater levels of vilification, racism and Islamophobia.
If there are lessons to be learned from the past two decades, then it is essential that the right of everyone to freedom of expression, including the right to express disagreement between groups and communities, is upheld. The hideous placards that proclaimed the need to ‘behead the enemies of Islam’ which accompanied a handful of protests following the publication of the cartoons and the firebombing of the offices of the publisher of Sherry Jones’ novel ‘Jewel of Medina’ exactly 20 years after the publication of The Satanic Verses highlights that there will always be some sections within society that are unwilling – or unable – to accept these fundamental rights. Likewise those who call for certain Muslim and other groups and organisations to be proscribed. Of course, these should be rightly criticised, condemned and prosecuted where appropriate but not necessarily restricted from their right to air their particular views.
At the same time however, it is worth highlighting, as numerous incidents in the last year have shown, how something of a spurious legitimacy is afforded those who are against the right to uphold freedom of expression. By arguing that it is morally unacceptable that anyone could or should be able to cause offence, so an inadvertent justification is afforded those who want to curtail the inherent right of all in society to free speech. Consequently, arguments and debates about freedom of speech are typically inconsistent and result in double-standards of attitude and application being applied alongside charge and counter-charge of what is and is not acceptable.
If nothing else, the Satanic Verses affair should therefore teach us that freedom of expression – including the right to offend – is not just an important liberty but is one that is at the very foundation of liberty itself. Only through ensuring that the fundamental human rights of all members of society are protected – maintaining the recourse to those laws that afford protection where necessary – will we ever move towards a fairer and more equitable society.
(This article is derivative of a post from last year – click here to read)
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.