Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:
On 14 February 1989, Valentine’s Day, the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It was a brutally shocking act that forced Salman Rushdie into hiding for almost a decade.
26 years later, on 7 January 2015, came an even more viscerally shocking act, when two gunmen forced their way into the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, sprayed the room with machine gun fire, killing 12, and injuring another 11.
What I want to look at today is what each of these events represented, and how we made the journey from the one to the other.
When The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988, Salman Rushdie was perhaps the most celebrated British novelist of his generation. The novel was not, it’s worth reminding ourselves, a novel solely, or even primarily about Islam. It was, Rushdie observed in an interview, about ‘migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death’, as well as an attempt ‘to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person’.
It’s also worth reminding ourselves that until the fatwa most Muslims had ignored the book. The campaign against The Satanic Verses was largely confined to India, Pakistan and Britain. With the singular exception of Saudi Arabia, whose authorities bankrolled the initial efforts to ban the novel, there was little anti-Rushdie fervour in the Arab world or in Turkey, or among Muslim communities in France or Germany. When at the end of 1988 the Saudi government tried to persuade Muslim countries to ban the novel, few responded except those with large Indian subcontinental populations, such as South Africa and Malaysia. Even Iran was relaxed about Rushdie’s irreverence. It was available in Iranian bookshops and even reviewed in Iranian newspapers.
It was the fatwa that transformed the Rushdie affair into a global conflict with historic repercussions.