A quarter-century ago today, on February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual and political leader of Iran, issued a fatwa–a form of holy commandment–against British author Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. The rather infamous controversy over this book and the reaction of the Islamic world to it is so incredibly complicated, involving not just religion but geopolitics, philosophy and law, that it’s still almost impossible to fathom today. The fatwa and its repercussions have been referred to as one of the most important events in literary history in the second half of the 20th century.
Many people know the story of The Satanic Verses controversy through its bare outlines and a few disconnected details, but there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. It is true that Salman Rushdie wrote a novel called The Satanic Verses, published in September 1988 in the UK. It is true that millions of Muslims around the world were outraged when they heard about it, or at least what Khomeini and other religious leaders said about it; as the book was never officially translated into Arabic or Farsi and never distributed or sold in Islamic countries, the Muslims who actually read it were predominantly English speakers living in Western countries. It is true that Khomeini’s fatwa called for Rushdie’s death as penance for insulting Islam and the prophet Mohammed. These are the basic facts, but the connective tissue between them is extraordinarily complex.
The Satanic Verses controversy is more, I think, than a very simple black-and-white story of Islamic fundamentalism clashing with Western liberal values of freedom of speech, which is mostly how it played on the daily news back in 1989. Since that time we’ve seen several other controversies involving Western media igniting widespread outrage in the Islamic world, such as the Danish cartoons in 2005 or the horribly offensive Internet film that was involved with the U.S. Embassy incident in Benghazi in 2012. Those provocations were clearly deliberate. The Satanic Verses was more subtle. Rushdie himself was raised as a Muslim, though much of his literary career has been devoted to questioning both his religious and ethnic heritage (he’s British but was born in India). Rushdie is a serious novelist who set out to raise legitimate questions–at least, legitimate in a Western cultural context–in a literary and artistic way. Whether he knew The Satanic Verses would be offensive to many Muslims or not when he wrote it, it’s simply not on the same order as the Danish cartoons or the idea, favored by some American fundamentalist Christians, of insulting Islam by burning a Quran.
Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, died only a few months after he issued Salman Rushdie’s death warrant. A character in The Satanic Verses arguably depicts him while in exile.
Khomeini obviously wouldn’t have seen much of a difference, but does that matter? He died 25 years ago. Since 1989 arguably Western relations with the Islamic world have gotten worse, not better; in that time there have been two American wars in Iraq, another in Afghanistan, the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, the Arab Spring, Hamas coming to power in Palestine, the rise of virulently anti-Muslim xenophobic political parties in Europe and the United States, and a myriad of other incidents. We–the Western world and the Islamic one–seem to be shouting at each other across a gulf of mutual and sometimes deliberate mistrust and misunderstanding. When I can’t write an article on my blog about a historical event like the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 without being inundated by viciously anti-Muslim comments by an Internet troll, it’s clear that the uneasy relationship between Western liberalism and Islamic fundamentalism has a very far reach into many aspects of societies on both side of the divide.
Religion is a deeply sensitive subject. I, a former atheist, am in the process of becoming Jewish. I am deeply offended when racist bigoted pricks deny the Shoah (Holocaust), but, living in a country that values freedom of expression, the ability to express those disgusting views is necessary within our society. (It also means I have the right to denounce anyone who denies the Shoah a racist bigoted prick). That said, freedom of speech is not absolute. Rights and responsibilities go hand in hand in any society, and also across societies.
The easiest way to piss me off is to claim that this did not happen.
Rushdie broke no laws in England, where he wrote the book, or in the United States where it was published; as a British citizen living in London he was beyond the jurisdiction of laws in Iran and other Islamic countries that criminalize any criticism of Islam or Mohammed. Some Islamic scholars argued that Khomeini had no religious authority, even under the rules of Islam, to issue the fatwa; in 1998 the government of Iran said it no longer advocated Rushdie’s murder, although the fatwa technically remains in effect. Some political observers even question whether the fatwa had that much to do with the treatment of Islam in the book. There is a passage in the novel that reportedly depicts Khomeini personally, and he may have been insulted; or, he might have been trying to steal the news cycle away from the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which happened the next day.
Years ago I did something that many people who loudly expressed views on The Satanic Verses have never done: I actually read the book. I was not offended by it, but then again I’m not a Muslim. I found it an interesting book, full of beautiful and haunting visions, but also a sprawling, untamed and unruly narrative that at times didn’t even make much sense. (I’m told it makes a lot more sense if you’re from India, which I also am not). I liked the book, but it’s far from one of my favorites.
I believe in freedom of expression, obviously. Writers like Rushdie should not face the threat of assassination from foreign governments simply for expressing themselves in a work of fiction. I confess I do not fully understand the reaction of the Islamic world to The Satanic Verses, but I’m not alone in that. I don’t think very many non-Muslims do. Legalities and international amity aside, did Rushdie go too far? I’m not comfortable saying absolutely that he did; neither am I comfortable declaring that he didn’t. What I think we ought to do with The Satanic Verses controversy is see it as a cautionary tale, and perhaps a plea for understanding across the sometimes seemingly insurmountable gulf of faith. Whatever religion we follow, it seems a safe bet that God could probably get behind that idea.